In Japan, Artisans Create ‘Cut Glass From Edo’
SOKA, Japan — When the independent watchmaker Daizoh Makihara decided to use the Japanese traditional glass cutting technique called edo-kiriko for the dial of his first watch, he contacted eight companies that specialized in the technique.
But only one agreed to do it.
“Most edo-kiriko companies are family businesses so they don’t usually have the time to deal with someone who does something different,” said Kyosuke Hayashi, the president of Mitsuwa Glass Kogei, the only company that was willing to undertake the unusual commission.
“My concept was to make the first edo-kiriko watch in the world,” Mr. Makihara said, and as far as he knows, he did just that.
The watch, introduced in 2018 as a made-to-order piece, was named kikutsunagimon sakura (in English, chrysanthemum connecting to a cherry blossom pattern), and the dial looked like lace or decoration on an elaborate wedding cake.
He also worked with Mitsuwa for his second watch, kacho fugetsu (in English, beauties of nature), which debuted in 2021 and featured cherry blossoms and birds cut in the glass dial. “Mitsuwa is a forward-thinking company and was willing to take a chance.”
In English, edo-kiriko literally means “cut glass from Edo”: Edo is an old name for Tokyo, and kiriko is the name of the cutting technique.
“Edo-kiriko is a brand name, a label given by the government,” Mr. Hayashi said. “In order to be an edo-kiriko craftsman and use that label, you have to reside in the Kanto area of Japan” and either be a registered member of the Edo Kiriko Cooperative Association or work for a company that is a member, Mr. Hayashi said. Many types of kiriko are done around Japan, but only two are recognized by the Japanese government: edo-kiriko and satsuma-kiriko from Kyushu, an island on the southwest end of Japan’s archipelago.
According to the association, the technique was created in 1834 by Kyubei Kagaya, the owner of a glass wholesale company in Edo, who first tried to cut a glass using an abrasive emery powder. But it was Emmanuel Hauptmann, a British engraver invited to the country in the 1880s, who passed on his skills to local artisans.
In the Meiji Era, the mid-1800s to early 1900s, “after Japan opened up to Western civilization, craftsmen borrowed techniques and machines from the West,” Mr. Hayashi said. So while the basic glass cutting techniques came from England, the patterns incorporated into edo-kiriko are traditional Japanese ones: for example, the dotted nanako (fish eggs) or asa-no-ha (hemp leaves).
An Unusual Specialty
Since Mitsuwa introduced its Saihou brand in 1990, its artisans have been using rotating grinding tools to etch intricate patterns, freehand, into clear or colored glass, for items such as sake cups and other types of glassware. The result is a surface that shines and reflects the light like a kaleidoscope. The glasses are then distributed to department stores around Japan and the rest of Asia, and also sold directly on the company’s online shop.
“My grandfather was the founder; he used to work in a glass company in Tokyo, but came to Saitama to start his own business,” said Mr. Hayashi, 31. Initially the business produced a variety of glass products, but it became specialized in edo-kiriko in 1991, around the time Mr. Hayashi was born. “The edo-kiriko industry is very small, it consists of mainly family businesses, but my grandfather ran his business like a regular company, hiring outside craftsmen,” he said.
According to Mr. Hayashi, there are only 70 to 80 edo-kiriko artisans in Japan today, including those who are not active. Saihou employs 10 artisans, an equal number of men and women (having a staff balanced by gender “is very rare in the industry,” Mr. Hayashi said).
One day in October, I visited the Mitsuwa factory in a residential neighborhood in Saitama Prefecture, about an hour by train from central Tokyo. The large building, the only site the business has ever used, has the factory on the ground floor and the office on the upper level. The factory is divided into workstations and dotted with large crates of glassware; the constant grinding makes the area very noisy.
The edo-kiriko process starts with mouth-blown glassware obtained from three suppliers in Japan. “It arrives to the factory here as glasses, and we cut them,” Mr. Hayashi said, displaying a purple drinking glass. “The colored glasses are double walled. Outside is purple, but inside is clear glass, so when you cut the patterns, they peek through.”
The Saihou brand primarily features drinking glasses of various sizes and occasionally bowls or vases, but those usually are reserved for exhibitions. Most of the colors are jewel tones — red, purple and the like — but the brand also produces clear and black items, too. Prices, excluding tax, range from 20,000 to 30,000 yen ($135 to $205).
Kei Hosokoji, who at 40, is the oldest artisan in the factory and has been working there for 18 years, guided me through the three main steps in the edo-kiriko process: marking, cutting and polishing.
Mr. Hosokoji selected a plain, double-walled glass in cobalt blue for his demonstration. “First, we draw lines on it to create a grid, to be used as guidelines for the cuts to be made,” he said. “The lines will be erased later.”
Pressing the glass to keep it stable against a rotating roller, an artisan used a pen with an oil-based ink to draw, by eye, a grid of perfectly straight horizontal and vertical lines (later the grid would be wiped away with a piece of wool cloth saturated with cerium oxide.)
“While looking inside the glass, you can cut the pattern” into the exterior, colored glass, he said, as he sat at a table with a vertical spinning blade. Edo-kiriko craftsmen engrave the pattern freehand, just using the grid.
“We use a diamond blade because glass is very hard,” he said, while he carefully rotated the glass on the blade, creating a sharp diagonal cut. “You have to make sure the pressure is accurate.
“The first cut can be rough, so you have to smooth it again,” he added, as he changed the blade for a finer cut.
The glass then was polished, to smooth the edges of the cuts. “It has to be wet, otherwise it sparks with the heat, and it splashes glass powder around,” Mr. Hosokoji said.
Then he had to polish again to make the lines in the glass stand out more sharply as, in his estimation, they were a little cloudy. This second polishing was done with silica powder (the material used to make glass), mixed with water to make a paste and applied to the glass with a rubber blade. Once he wiped the paste off the glass, the incisions were revealed, clear and shiny. “It’s a mix of polishing and grinding,” he said.
One final polishing was done against a blade that looked as if a stack of rugs had been cut into a wheel shape. He applied a paste of cerium oxide and water to the blade, then rubbed the glass against the fast-spinning wheel.
Then the edo-kiriko glass was ready to be packaged. I tried my hand at cutting a grape pattern, considered to be an easy one, into a clear glass, with Mr. Hosokoji drawing circles on the glass so I could follow his markings. It was extremely difficult to create perfectly round circles and left me wondering how artisans can achieve such complex patterns by eye. And what happens when they make mistakes? “You can’t fix it,” Mr. Hosokoji said. “You have to discard it and recycle it.”
Mitsuwa artisans can produce about 10 pieces per day of their most popular items; its best seller is a set of two small glasses with a bamboo-leaf design, priced at ¥22,000. “In a month we make about 2,000 pieces in varying shapes and sizes,” Mr. Hayashi, the president, said. “We wish we could make more, we want to hire more craftsmen, but we don’t have enough space in this building.”
Noyuri Yamada, 38, who has been working at Mitsuwa for 15 years, created the dial for Mr. Makihara’s first watch using the same techniques that the team uses for glassware.
But, she said, “the dial plates are much thinner” than the glassware. She first tried to use a 0.5-millimeter thick piece of glass for the dial, but finally settled on a 0.8-millimeter one.
Ms. Yamada drew a grid on the dial plate, as a guideline for cutting. “You have to be very careful about the pressure or the plates might break,” she said. “It’s also difficult to hold them, you have to just softly rest your fingers on each side. Cutting straight lines is also very challenging, as you have to make sure all the lines are symmetrical.”
The dial used the very intricate kiku-kogame pattern, a combination of chrysanthemum and basket weave, and she cut it successfully on her first try, with no mistakes. “But I broke one plate,” she said.
Mr. Makihara said he watched her cut the first dial, which took a full day. “I didn’t get bored,” he said. “We’re both artisans, but that’s the only part of the watch I couldn’t make.” Eventually, Ms. Yamada cut a total of eight dials. (Another artisan cut the dials for Mr. Makihara’s second watch.)
Mr. Hayashi said that Ms. Yamada had extremely advanced skills. “Her concentration is amazing; her technique is super advanced,” he said. “Even though she’s in her 30s, she has the level of experience of someone in their 60s.”
“When she finished,” he said, “her face was red and she looked feverish, but the result was astonishing.”
Ms. Yamada said she was tense the entire time. “My mind, not my body. I was aiming for a goal, so my body was relaxed,” she said. “Also, I used first-grade tools, which helped a lot.”
But for Mr. Hayashi, it was not about the tools: “Her skills made this possible.”