Japanese Inlay: A delicate design

Inlay is an ancient Japanese craft that has been around for many years. Traditionally, Japanese inlay is the craft of embedding both gold and silver into a base material to create an intricate and unique design. There are many types of inlay, depending on which base material is selected for the construction. Japan has a rich history of inlay and handcrafted metals that dates back centuries, with many of them still commonly practised today in cities such as Kyoto. Let’s take a look at some of the traditional techniques behind the intricate craft of inlay.

Inlay covers a range of techniques in sculpture and the decorative arts for inserting pieces of contrasting, often coloured materials, into depressions in a base object to form ornaments with unique design and characteristics. A great range of materials are used for both the base and the inlays that are inserted. The most common are metal and wood and tend to be inlaid with pieces of colour wood, precious metals and even diamonds using various matrices including clear coats and varnishes.

Wood

In a wood matrix, inlays commonly use wood veneers, but it isn’t uncommon for other materials such as shells, mother-of-pearl, horn and ivory to also be used. ‘Zogan’ is a Japanese traditional inlay decorative technique where a delicate motif is carved on a wooden surface before pieces that have been cut out from shells or different coloured wood are placed into the carved surface. Products made with natural materials are designed to bring a sense of nature and relaxation when using them or having them in your home, one of the great charms of traditional wooden inlay products. 

Once referred to as Mokuga during the Nara period, Moku-zogan is a decorative technique where wood is hand-cut into pieces of varied shapes and delicately filled with auspicious silver and gold metals. 

As we know, wooden materials come in various colours according to the type of wood and the environment in which they grow. Traditional Japanese inlay craftsmen need to have sensibility and technique to be able to cut the wood into particular pieces and assemble them based on their beautiful and natural colour shades. Due to different woods having different grain patterns and colour shades, each inlay product gives different impressions and textures, even though it has the same design. Such different impressions bring to life the motifs, such as flowers, trees and animals which are often affiliated with Japanese craft.

Metal

To create metal inlay techniques, lines are carved into the surface of the metal and different metals are then inlaid in the delicately carved-out lines, with the differences in the colour and texture of metals creating the design of inlay that is so instantly recognisable. 

The process of creating metal inlay products is very refined and intricate. Tiny grooves are carved into the surface of the metal and then widened out using specialist tools. Gold or silver metal is then inserted into the grooves before being hammered delicately into the edges of the grooves. To complete and execute the inlay to a high standard, craftsmen will burnish the surface with a file or whetstone to smooth the final piece.

There are a variety of metal inlay techniques such as hirazogan or flat inlay, in which flat sheets are inlaid to be the same height with the base surface; takaniku zogan or high mounted inlay, where material is set on a high-relief metal ground; and nunome zogan or texture inlay, in which thin metal leaf is hammered into a carved pattern.

Although inlaying is an ancient and old method of decorating a range of ornaments and jewellery, today, inlay is still ongoing with intricate inlaid products still being produced hundreds of years later in the city of Kyoto, demonstrating the beauty of this traditional art form that is still around today, all handcrafted to perfection, piece by piece. 

At Atelier Japan, we have curated a fine collection of handcrafted metal inlay jewellery and craft. From brooches and bracelets to rings and tie pins, you’ll find a beautiful array of Zinlay products on our website. Browse the Atelier Japan store to discover the entire Zinlay collection and how their family business is bringing this inspiring ancient technique into the modern world. https://www.atelierjapan.co.uk/