Today’s focus will be on two of the best-known brands for urushi and maki-e! That being Namiki and Nakaya. In today’s article, we will be covering what urushi is, the history of both companies, similarities, differences, a comparison and what one should consider when making their next purchase. First off, let’s discuss what exactly is urushi and why it commands a higher price point.
What is Urushi?
In lamens terms, Urushi is a lacquer, which comes in a liquid form and cures into a hard film that protects the intended object.
In a more detailed response, Toxicodendron vernicifluum is essentially the Latin name for where the urushi hales from. The lacquer is very poisonous to the touch and caution must be used when applying lacquer in its raw form.
Whilst I’d love to give you a more in-depth response on the lacquer tree, this isn’t the main focus for today! So, I’d like to invite you to read Suzzane Ross’s excellent description for further information. https://www.suzanneross.art/otherurushiuses
Urushi has a history that goes back several thousand years, with its origins set in China. Since its inception, urushi has been used to protect and celebrate numerous objects throughout the far east. Japan utilises the sap for very artistic and regional specific treatments and interestingly wars have been fought over these precious trees.
The basic premise of urushi is to build it up in layers, whilst curing between. These are cured typically in a wooden cabinet called a furo which translates to bath! Why bath? Well, you need heat and humidity to cure. Each layer can take anywhere from a day to several months and this is partly what you’re paying for. Time!
Like most crafts, urushi has been passed down from father to son over many generations. These days, you will find many women practising the craft too, some of which have worked for Namiki. Unfortunately, the interest in taking up the craft is dwindling and the number of maki-e artisans is becoming smaller and smaller.
One hopes that social media can be instrumental in building up its popularity again and to some extent it is. Certainly, there is an increase in popularity in the west!
Brief History of Nakaya and Namiki
Nakaya and Namiki both have a very distinguished history in pen making, both companies were formed within years of one another and interestingly platinum pens was born with the name Nakaya. Much later on Nakaya converted to the now known Platinum Pen Company
Nakaya set up shop in 1997 and didn’t start with urushi pens, I believe they were making celluloid pens. It was actual fact a request from a customer that kickstarted the urushi trade! So, with their ex platinum employees, Nakaya has gone from strength to strength making some of the finest writing instruments in the world.
For a more in-depth read on Nakaya, I’d invite you to check out the fantastic resource that is Russ Stuttler https://www.stutler.cc/pens/nakaya_visit/index.html where he’s visited the workshop! On top of that, he offers a superb resource for all things Japanese!
Namiki’s success was very much reliant on partnerships they made in the west, they had approached Alfred Dunhill in the early part of the 20th century, with the intention to sell maki-e based pens. This was in part to, A put Japan onto the cultural map and B, to reinforce Japans booming industry.
A few years after Namiki’s inception, a branding change occurred and became known as the pilot pen company.
Both companies deploy a high level of urushi techniques and this isn’t so much of a “who does urushi better” comparison, but more of a personal observation of what these companies have to offer.
Both of these companies offer some beautiful finishes and an assortment of different techniques. But whereas Nakaya has a more diverse catalogue, Namiki only seems to offer a very traditional variation of Maki-e, with an exception for some sterling silver pens at the base of their range. Nakaya on the other hand has a whole slew of techniques ranging from
Tamenuri (Pool effect)
Ishime (Stone effect)
Fuki (Over wood)
Chinkin (chiselled and sprinkled with powder)
It’s important though to remember that Namiki is part of Pilot pens and therefore has a slightly more diverse range if one were to include the rest of pilots pens.
The two pens we will be looking at today Are the Nakaya Enjoying the Moon Cat and the Namiki Yukari Herb Decoration.
The first pen we will take a closer look at is the Nakaya which features a Tamenuri, Yako and Tame Sukashi finish. The second is the Machine assisted, hand-finished Hira, Raden and Togidashi finish on the Namiki Yukari Herb Decoration.
Both pens are stunning and both are in a similar price bracket, which makes this comparison so much easier to compare!
Right from the offset, you’ll notice how diverse these techniques are. The Yako painting that is featured on the Enjoying the moon cat gives a wonderful silhouette and married with the moon finished in Tame Sukashi gives a wonderful contrast on the rich red background. If we have a look at the section, you’ll notice little cat paws are also finished with the same technique. This adds a wonderful 3d dimension to the pen and as one brushes their fingers across the barrel, you can feel the artists intent.
On the flip side, Namiki deploys a much more traditional approach in its visuals, but on closer inspection, you may notice some pattering in the background. Namiki utilises a machine to help with the sheer volume of pens that are produced. Part of the pen is screen printed but is then hand-finished, which includes hand placing the Raden shards and hand detailing.
It is worth mentioning that Namiki has a broad range of prices and as such dictate how much handwork is done to the pen. For example, if we look at the Nippon art range, you’ll see that the majority of the pen is screen printed, which contrasts to that of the emperor models which are entirely hand-painted.
Whilst there are many different techniques for maki-e and urushi, they all serve a very similar purpose. You may have heard of the old saying, there are many ways to skin a rabbit. This I feel applies wonderfully to Maki-e.
I won’t be going into depth about how the techniques are produced, but to give you a visual understanding I will list a few of my observations.
Yako is very similar to a thick painting and gives a wonderful rich black relief.
Tame Sukashi, gives a wonderful glow to the pen and in time, due to the transparent layers of urushi, will allow the design to come to life.
Hira Maki-e (which is featured on the Namiki) is essentially is a flat painting, but you will still feel a little bit of relief due to the nature of urushi and gold powder that’s sprinkled on top.
There are many more techniques I’d love to explore, and in future videos and articles, I will give you a bit more information.
One thing to remember, just because some designs are quicker and cheaper to produce, this does not mean the execution is poor. All techniques have their time and place!
Whilst both of these pens contrasts with one another, you still get the essence of Japan and their wonderful craft.
This leads me nicely onto what differentiates the companies.
There are several factors to take into consideration in this section and I will try to be as thorough as I can.
Firstly, Nakaya offers a bespoke service, ranging from designs to nib customisation. This in itself defines the company and as such gives Nakaya a slight edge when it comes to user specifications.
Namiki pays homage to tradition and arguably offers a superior maki-e finish. Now of course the designs are subjective, but in terms of execution, I feel that no one can dispute their skill as artists.
Writing experience will always be down to the user, but both companies offer a wonderful experience. Whether you are after the pencil-like feedback from Nakaya or the glassy smooth finish from Namiki.
In terms of pricing, neither company is exactly budget-friendly. Maki-e starts at about 900 pounds for Nakaya and rapidly scales up to dizzying heights and surprisingly goes much higher than Namiki. Of course, if Tamenuri is your cup of ink, you can score yourself a pen from approximately 450 pounds, scaling up to about 8-900, depending on the shape.
Namiki will start around the same price as Nakaya with the Nipon art range and goes up to 800 pounds, the Yukari range starts at around 1200 and saws up to 3000. Yukari Royale which is the larger brother of the Yukari and Nipon art starts at around 3500 and can go up to 6 – 7 k, with the emperor range starting at around 6k and reaching up to 12!
There are of courses lots of choices and from my perspective both companies are superb. So now to summarise!
Whether it’s financial restraints or you simply don’t appreciate the actual finish, I appreciate that urushi won’t be for everyone. But for those that are either venturing into urushi and maki-e for the first time and are wishing to go into a named brand. You won’t go wrong with either company.
What separates these companies more than anything is really a two-fold answer. Whilst they both have urushi and maki-e treatments, the execution is different. Secondly, the writing experience will potentially divide opinions. Especially if smooth nibs or nibs that provide feedback aren’t to your taste. But, as mentioned prior, both companies will provide you with a wonderful writing experience(User dependent). Maki-e and urushi are top-notch on both brands and will provide smiles for decades to come.
When you buy into urushi and maki-e, I feel you’re buying into tradition, skill and dedication. Some of Namiki’s former artists were known as National Living Treasures. Which is the highest award one can achieve in their field of discipline. That in itself gives you an idea of why these pens can cost what they do.
So that’s it for the main part of today’s talk, I do hope you found it educational. I would be curious to learn which brand you enjoy. In the forthcoming weeks, I will be doing more urushi comparisons from Tamenuri Studio and the famed Bokumondoh.