Namiki (1880-1954) developed a vehicle for the lacquerer’s art, which wedded beauty and function in a highly personal, easily transportable form – the fountain pen.

At the turn of the last century, Namiki was a merchant ship’s chief engineer, then a college professor. His fertile mind led him to develop and patent a non-clogging drafting pen in 1909, and shortly after he began making improvements to fountain pens. His first step was to develop a gold and iridium alloy nib, which was subtly adapted to the writing of Japanese characters and script.

By 1915, he had left teaching and entered partnership with several friends. He produced the first Namiki gold nib in 1916 and two years later launched the Namiki Manufacturing Co., Ltd.

At this time, most pen bodies were made of a vulcanized sulfur and rubber compound known as ebonite. Invented in Britain in the mid-1800s and originally called Vulcanite, it was promoted as an inexpensive and durable substitute for ebony. Easily moldable, it was used to make elaborate picture frames, mourning jewelry, handles, and parts for medical and drafting equipment. It quickly became the standard for fountain-pen bodies. However, its rich black glossy surface would fade to brown and turn dull after exposure to sunlight and the elements.

In 1925, Namiki patented the laccanite process, which involved the addition of raw lacquer to the basic ebonite compounds. This produced a permanent glossy black surface which could be used indefinitely without fading or scratching. Many other companies tried unsuccessfully to purchase patent rights to this remarkable innovation.

Using a credo of high quality in both product and customer service, Namiki was highly successful in Japan, but due to much competition against products of high similarity, the company made little headway in increasing foreign sales, particularly in Europe and the USA.

Namiki knew it needed a product that was vastly different from those of its potential competitors. The answer to this dilemma came out of the company’s initial research into the combining of lacquer and ebonite. The company realized that beyond a durable shiny surface, they could add lacquer decoration in the age-old makie technique.

As with the lacquered objects of the past, the Namiki pens share the same qualities of permanence, impermeability to moisture, salt and alcohol and, the immensely variable possibilities of decoration. The great challenge, of course, was creating a unified, balanced, and striking design on the minuscule surface of a pen barrel and cap. There are basically three levels craftsmanship in the lacquer art, starting with those who prepare the base material, then the preparers of the lacquer surface, and finally the highest, the makie-shi, or decorative artists. Only the latter worked on pens.

The solid and smooth nature of the laccanite pen barrel eliminated most of the preparation stages normally used in the making of the wood-based artifacts such as inro. After initial preparation, layers of lacquer were built up on the pen base to prepare the ground for decoration. This surface could be finished in any number of ways, from plain black through all the many subtle permutations afforded by the makie techniques of sprinkling various colors and grades of metal flakes or powders onto wet lacquer. In each stage of this process, the thin layer of lacquer was cured by a damp atmosphere until thoroughly hard, then polished smoothly with specially cut charcoal pieces. The process was repeated enough times to create a feeling of depth and create a subtle or strong design. During the above process, cut metal foil or shell should be added to the background.

Then came the greatest test of skill for the makie-shi, the crucial finishing of the design. The difficulty here is not in holding the tiny object, but in creating a perfect balance on a design surface of which the artist can never see more than on third clearly at any time.

The actual transfer of the pre-drawn pattern was accomplished by revising the paper and painting in the main lines and forms with lacquer. This was then transferred to the object by gentle, even pressure on the surface of the paper.

Sometimes pens were finished in the togidashi technique, which consists of applying many layers of pigment, metallic powder, and sometimes shell, worked into a smooth design and then covered with black lacquer. The surface is ground down just enough to reveal the hidden design.

Makie, whether low, medium, or high relief, follows the basic technique mentioned above. For takamakie, the highest relief, four, five, or even more layers could be applied. The highest areas were often built up with clay powder and raw lacquer thoroughly mixed and applied with a brush. The final layers of these areas could be made from bengara (iron oxide powder), or other pigments mixed with lacquer. Subtle tricks of perspective were created by varying the thickness of certain areas of the design.

Using cat- and rat-hair brushes, any area down to a hair-thin line could be painted. Sometimes pigmented lacquer was applied in areas as contrast or highlight to the overall design. This pains-taking and repetitive procedure of application, curing, and polishing extended over weeks or even months.

The designs applied to Namiki pens relied heavily on the natural world, with the same combinations and symbolic associations seen in the art of past centuries. As with inro, illustrations of legends, historical scenes, and daily activities of pre-modern Japan are frequent. Dragons especially, as well as other mythical beasts, are relatively common. The Japanese had, even in the late 1920s, been producing art geared to Western taste for over sixty years, and certainly had a very good idea of what among their traditional themes appealed to foreign buyers.

To accomplish his goals, Namiki worked with a team of master makie artists including Koho Iida and Shogo Iijima, with advice from Professor Shisui Rokkaku of the Tokyo Fine Arts School. They produced a splendid array of pen samples that were taken in 1925 by Ryosuke Namiki and his partner, Masao Wada, on a long promotional trip that brought them to Europe, America, and China.

His initial success led to the opening of Namiki offices in London, New York, and the Far East in 1926. This, plus an extensive advertising campaign, resulted in a flood of orders for the pens. Among his new clients were Tiffany’s of New York, as well as Cartier in Paris and Asprey in London. A beautiful color advertisement on an Asprey catalog of that time highlights a superbly decorated takamakie pen featuring the renowned Shinto shrine at Miyajima and its surrounding landscape in minute detail.

Professor Rokkaku recommended that Namiki hire his leading graduate, Gonroku Matsuda (later to become a Living National Treasure), to oversee the production. Only 30 years old at the time, Matsuda was already a master at his art. He taught and encouraged the other Namiki artists, producing both designs and samples to be copied by them, and continued to advise the company for many years. Only one pen from the hand of Matsuda is believed to exist: a brilliant combination of finely cut aogai shell, togidashi and makie work, depicting a demon mask and intricate robe patterns from the Noh play Momijigari.

In England during the 1920s, the Alfred Dunhill firm had gained international renown as purveyors of tobacco pipes, smoker’s supplies, pens, and the finest luxury goods. With stores in prominent locations in London and Paris, the name of Dunhill was synonymous with quality.

Clement Court, the Managing Director of the Paris operation, had a long-standing love for Asian art, especially the art of Japan. In 1927, Setsuji Wada, Namiki’s representative abroad, convinced Dunhill to sell makie pens on a trial basis. Wada and Court were introduced that year, and Court was so taken with the Namiki line that he immediately began importing not only pens but other lacquered objects into his Paris branch. They were sold under the new brand-name of “Dunhill-Namiki”. A strong bond had been forged, and Court’s excellent business relationship with Namiki led to an exclusive 1929 contract giving Dunhill major distribution rights for Namiki pens and pencils outside of Japan. By this time, Dunhill had a retail network in all the best locations in over thirty countries.

One of the first designs to appear in Dunhill’s 1929 pen catalogue was glowingly and accurately described as “a triumph of the lacquerer’s art”. It depicts an ancient Chinese vessel, pennants flying, plowing through rolling waves. The pen displays a wide variety of lacquer techniques with just a hint of Art Deco style. Although some designs were catalogued, many of the finest examples were custom-made orders.

Court became a close and privileged friend of Wada, even staying at his home while in Japan in 1930 on a trip that was to further strengthen the ties between Namiki and Dunhill. While there, he visited lacquer artists’ studios in Tokyo and Kyoto, and was impressed with the artistic excellence and superior qualities of the lacquer pens. He saw these as being the key to eventual success for Namiki, pointing out in a letter that while there were many manufacturers of fine pens in the world, their company held a unique advantage. Court earnestly encouraged them to pursue this combining of modern technological superiority with one of the great art forms of the past.

Court’s experiences in Japan lead to a 1930 contract giving Dunhill virtually worldwide distribution rights for Namiki pens and products.

Returning from his trip, Court brought with him a large and boldly rendered tsuitate (double-sided standing screen) made by Seishou (Seizo Katsuta), who became Namiki’s chief lacquer artist. Executed in heavy, almost sculptured takamakie on a thick copper panel, the work expresses the awesome power of a dragon’s ascent from sea to sky.

At Christmas of that year, Dunhill’s gift catalogues included a colored leaflet featuring fine lacquer products under the Dunhill-Namiki brand name and thus it came about that modern mass-marketing and an ancient art tradition made a most successful marriage.

The pens were sold by Dunhill in four grades according to quality and decoration, with “A” being at the top of the list. Many grade A pens were specially ordered by Dunhill’s elite clients who included royalty, high society, and the leading lights of the arts, theater, and film.

Although the tribulations of World War II brought an end to this successful partnership, the old Namiki company under the Pilot brand name has continued to produce a limited number of makie pens since the 1940s. The best of these equal the old Namiki pens of the 20sand 30s. In the 1930s, other rival companies produced makie pens in Japan, although the Namiki brand headed the list for quality and artistic skill. Since many Namiki and Dunhill records were destroyed in World War II, it is impossible to give accurate figures, but it is essential that only about 1500 grade A pens were produced by Namiki before 1938. Many pens have suffered wear and damage in the ensuing years, further reducing their numbers. By comparison, there are tens of thousands of top quality inro in existence. Of course there are still many pens of the lower grades to be found, but most of the known “treasure-pens” are in private hands.

For many years, there has been a small and devoted body of collectors of lacquered pens, but it has been only in the last ten years that pen collecting in general has made a great upsurge. Now there are large pen shows held at least once a month in major US and European cities.

In 1990, a top-quality Dunhill-Namiki lacquered pen could sell for 3000 pounds sterling, as there was little information or genuine understanding of these remarkable artifacts. Prices have risen slowly but consistently since then. On December 8, 2000, a Number 50 Dunhill-Namiki signed by the master Shogo, decorated in high relief makie with a superb dragon motif, fetched an astonishing hammer price of 165,000 pounds, at the London auctin house, Bonhams. Another Number 50 pen, with a goldfish motif signed by Kasui, sold at a hammer price of 155,000 pounds. It appears that increasing interest in and demand for these miniature masterworks shows no sign of leveling off.

A major encouragement of this interest was the long-awaited publication of the first book ever on the subject, Namiki: The Art of Japanese Pens (published by Pens Unlimited, Toronto, 2000). The book is co-authored by Julia Hutt, Assistant Curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Far Eastern Department, and Stephen Overbury. Ms. Hutt is a well-known authority on lacquer and has published extensively on Far East art. Mr. Overbury is a former investigative journalist and author with a great knowledge of pens and pen collecting.

During preparation of the book, Mr. Overbury obtained rare permission from both the Pilot Pen Company and Dunhill to search through company archives. Collectors world-wide loaned him their precious treasures to be brought to London so that the pens and their inscriptions could be recorded by award-winning photographer Steve Crawley.

The book is full of valuable information on the history of the company, lacquer techniques, and advice for collectors. It contains a gallery of color illustrations of some of the finest makie pens in existence.

Perhaps the most useful part of the book is the section on signatures and kao (written seals) used by many of the Namiki artists. The preparation of this section involved not only painstaking research and cross-referencing with archival material, but also working out which of many possible ways of reading the kanji characters were correct for each artist. In addition, these art names had to be keyed to the everyday personal names of the artists. Many of the signatures were written in script form, providing further difficulty. The result, however, is a rewarding glossary of actual signatures and seals.

With the book’s advent, great interest was aroused. Dunhill’s pre-ordered a substantial number of copies – these were to be part of a limited edition of 2000, hand-numbered. Auction houses, even before publication, began to refer to and quote the book. Anticipation of the book alone caused collectors to push auction prices upwards.

The proposed book was promoted and launched by Alfred Dunhill Limited at the Chicago Pen Show in May 1998, and the pen collecting community immediately began to pre-order copies. Complicated work on the signatures delayed the printing until May 1999, but its arrival generated great interest and acclaim.

For the first time ever, both collectors and dealers were able to do their own research and identification of lacquered pens.

In collecting pens, most of the rules used by collectors of inro and other lacquer art apply. Look for quality of craftsmanship, imaginative and skilled artistic design, and excellence of condition.

Not all makie pens are great masterpieces. Conversely, not all of the best pens were signed by their makers. As with inro and netsuke, examples that have unique features or motifs can be collected in any level of the quality range. The great unwritten rule is, of course, to collect artifacts that “speak” to you – that strike a chord with your own ideas and interests. And there is always the thrill of the hunt – some of those rare lost masterpiece pens could be lurking in places where you would never find a netsuke!

In his 1930 catalogue Alfred Dunhill predicted that the lacquered pens he offered for sale would become highly collectible works of art. They seem to have done so in a way far beyond anything he might have imagined.


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