Insight | The Komai Company Japan

Insight | The Komai Company Japan

May 1st 2023

In our latest post we are going to dive into the fascinating founding company of the Nunome Zogan inlay technique and that is the Komai company. At Jacksons Antique I would say its fairly common knowledge we are keen Japanese collectors ourselves and are extremely interested in not only the buying and selling of beautiful Japanese objects but we also love collecting them and learning all there is about their history.

The Komai company is one of the most renowned Japanese metalworking companies across the late Edo-Meiji period and their work is synonymous with all types of Japanese damascene metalwork. Much like a vacuum cleaner is referred to as a ‘hoover’ most Japanese damascene boxes are referred to as ‘Komai‘ boxes. Before we get stuck in a quick explanation of Damascene Nunome Zogan. Zogan is a traditional Japanese inlay technique which has a number of different forms depending on the material used. With its use in metal, a thin plate is used as a base and small coloured pieces are inlayed to create delicate patterns with subtle colour differences and an uneven surface. For example inlaying gold or silver onto an iron base. Nunome zogan literally translates to cloth inlay and consists by first preparing a flat surface with crosshatched lines using a fine chisel to create a series of lines on the entire surface in several directions to give it a texture that resembles woven cloth. On this prepared surface thin wire or gold leaf is then overlaid and secured. After many different wires are inlaid the master sculpture can begin to create a desired image.

Let’s be clear Sebei Komai didn’t invent the Damascus technique however he was the pioneer of the Japanese Damascene Nunome Zogan version. The earliest versions of Damascus have been documented to have originated in Syria where it later travelled down the Silk Road and reached Japan during the Asuka period (592-710).

The Komai Family Tale

The Komai family is one of the most recognizable metalworkers of the Meiji era, known for their exceptional ability to work mixed metal media into spectacular objects with a very recognisable style. The Komai name has gained a world-renowned reputation as one of the legends of Japanese metalwork. Their pieces are highly collectable and desired around the globe by collectors and enthusiast.

The Komai family workshop was opened in 1841 in Kyoto by Komai Seibei who was a known sword fittings maker. He had three sons named Komai Yoshitaka, Komai Yoshihiro, and Komai Otojiro. It is believed that in the early 1850’s Seibei developed a technique of damascene named Nunome Zogan. Komai originally used this technique to decorate his crafted weaponry and fittings which were made and sold at the forefront of the Komai business. In 1855 at the age of thirteen, the third son Komai Otojiro had begun to study inlay techniques with Misaki Shushuke a sword-fitting artisan from Higo (present day Kumamoto). During the same period, he established his own company on the adjacent street to his father. Otojiro’s father passed away in 1961 and his two other sons, Yoshitaka and Yoshihiro became sole proprietors of the S. Komai workshop.

Komai Dish with Signature on display on the front
Seibei Komai Iron Charger, Signed to the rear with S. Komai Calligraphy Mark

A view of the shop front of Seibei Komai in JapanSeibei Komai Shop Front in Japan

Otojiro went on to produce sword fittings like his father’s company up until 1867 when major changes were brought by the Meiji restoration and the Haito Edic. The Haito Edic was also known as the Sword Abolishment Edict, and it was issued by the Meiji government of Japan on March 28, 1876. It directly prohibited people, except for Daimyos (former lords), the military, and law enforcement officials, from carrying weapons in public. The Komai family and many others had to find alternative methods to earn a livelihood, they applied their exceptional talents to creative objects and began to craft damascene pieces such as cigarette cases, boxes, plates, miniature cabinets, vases, and a host of other objects with a general theme of smaller decorative pieces.

As Otojiro perfected his crafts he started selling his own works in Kobe around 1873 and due to the high demand, he found himself in a fortunate position to be able to purchase a new house in Kyoto from the profits in 1881 he went onto produce some larger pieces such as okimono, incense burners, vases and miniature Shodana cabinets. Sadly in 1885 he lost the property to a fire. Lost without his property he began working for a fellow metal worker named Seisuke Ikeda but due to the relationship Otojiro couldn’t mark his works with his personal mark and instead had to use the Seisuke mark. Interestingly on the image below the piece is marked with the wording gomeigaisha which directly translates to ‘unlimited partnership’ which could suggest the partnership between Otojiro and Seisuke.

View of a box from the Ikeda company by Komai
A Five sectioned box and cover signed Kyoto Ikeda Gomeigaisha sei but probably made by Otojiro Komai under the instruction of Seisuke Ikeda. Sold by Bonhams Lot 555 Fine Japanese Art 16 May 2013.

During the years of 1885-1894 Seisuke Ikeda owned the sole rights to Otojiro’s work and therefore constrained him from his individual crafting, they started to make lower-priced objects such as cigarette cases and smaller jewellery boxes. Fortunately, Otojiro managed to become independent again in 1894 however, Otojiro continued producing lower value objects and enhanced his business plan by employing lower cost workers thus increasing his revenue.

In 1894 Komai Otojiro became independent again. He continued with the strategy of Seisuke Ikeda and produced mostly low-price objects while enhancing the revenue by employing low-cost workers.
Otojiro was self-promoted as “the pioneer in the manufacture of damascene ware” and was constantly improving the inlaying technique originated by his father. He devoted his life’s work to crafting high quality pieces for national and foreign exhibitions to establish the O. Komai brand. A period from 1900 to 1915 was the company’s most productive time. Komai Otojiro submitted his works to more than a dozen of national and international exhibitions, winning prestigious prizes at almost all of them.

Komai Otojiro retired in 1906 and referred himself as Komai Shusuke and although he retired, he continued to work until 1912 and produced gold wires for inlaying. Komai Otojiro died in 1917 at the age of 75 and the business was taken over by his son Seibei Komai (1883-1970), who took the name Otojiro II. Otojiro II continued to submit the company’s work to national and foreign exhibitions and in 1919 opened a company branch in Osaka, at Shinsaibashi Kitazume.

The Second Industrial Revolution began during the 1920’s which resulted in the first electrification and the production lines in factories. Objects that were hand-made now were becoming mass produced in factories. The Komai company couldn’t compete with the much faster and cheaper products and consequently, starting from the second half of 1920s the quality of the company’s pieces greatly decreased. The amount of inlayed gold significantly reduced which left most of the surface covered by black lacquer as it was far cheaper. The inlaying itself was much less elaborated. The famous O. Komai trademark the dragonfly changed its appearance and was composed of only 5 straight thin gold wires not the more flowing dragonfly seen before, and items began to be marked below with the word “JAPAN” which was added to decorative arts specifically made for export in 1930s.

Komai company signature mark evolution

From late 1920s the Komai company expanded their business opening stores at 262 Shinmonzen street and within the property of the Miyako Hotel. They also expanded their products line to include bronze and silver objects to offer a diverse selection of metal wears. In 1930s they opened a third branch at Imperial Hotel Arcade, Tokyo. During 1930s the Komai company became an agent shop of the Mikimoto Perl Store. They added to their inventory now selling Pearl jewellery in their shops in Kyoto. In 1941 the Komai company ceased production of metalwork products and after WWII they went onto focus solely on pearl jewellery of which they continue to sell today. Sadly, after multiple generation and decades perfecting the damascene inlay technique the Komai family traditional methods have since been lost to time.

In today’s market Komai wears are highly collectable and can fetch high figures in auction houses and are seen as an extremely desirable in the market. Finding genuine works by the Komai company can be tricky and often inlay items are not signed and are attributed to the Komai workshops. At Jacksons antique we offer a diverse range of Japanese metalwork products, for further information and our current listings of damascene please see our Asian art collection and specifically Japanese. We offer a free monthly newsletter which showcases our latest stock so please do sign up at the bottom of any page.