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Thread: Origins and originality

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    Default Origins and originality

    Slightly controversial post - hardly a surprise for me I suppose.

    Anyway, I was looking at urushi covered pens made by various pensmiths, and was struck with a thought that may be construed as unworthy, but perhaps worth asking about nonetheless.

    Urushi pens are, I'm guessing, an original art form produced by Japanese craftsmen (correct me if this is in error), to the extent that the mere mention of urushi itself makes most people (who have heard of it) think of the Japanese connection.

    Does that connection lend a greater cachet to the finished article? I've thought about this, and believe that if I was to spend several hundred dollars on an urushi pen, it would almost certainly be from a Japanese maker. That's not to say that other pensmiths are not as skilled at making pens or applying urushi, but they do not have that historic or cultural connection.

    I guess this sounds like an unfair approach to a purchase? And although I hold to the idea that cultural appropriation that doesn't involve disrespect is okay, this bias remains for me, and perhaps others.

    It seems to me that this bias can exist wherever there is a perceived association of quality with a particular group. French wines for example, even though many great wines are produced elsewhere.




    Note: This is not about copying.

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    Default Re: Origins and originality

    Well of course this is true and you see it in practically all product categories that do not have an objective value.

    Consider Swiss made watches, Belgian chocolate, French or Italian fashion, and more. When the article in question cannot be valued objectively but its value is instead supposed on the basis of subjective appreciation marketing has a field day, and whereas usually we consider marketing as firm-specific it also works (and is effected) at a country-of-origin level.

    Naturally, we don't see many people comparing the value of e.g. Swiss gold to that of German gold because we just place the damn thing on the scales and decide.

    Frankly, in this thought experiment my favorite twist is not so much the positive line of "good X can be made in other countries as well" but rather the negative. Really crappy wine (Urushi) can be made in France (Japan) as well, and the untrained eye would be willing to pay horribly wrong prices just because of the country of origin!
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    Default Re: Origins and originality

    And then you ask yourself: should I deny myself the pleasure of enjoying this finely-crafted Japanese single malt Scotch whisky?
    Last edited by Jon Szanto; February 9th, 2021 at 12:50 PM.
    "When Men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick;
    and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter."

    ~ Benjamin Franklin

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    Default Re: Origins and originality

    As always you have tidied up my words! And I totally agree. I just wondered if this state will ever really change, given that people all over the world are producing stuff that originated in other countries/cultures, and to a high level of quality.

    I don't know about Japanese whisky. Isn't there something about terroir that defines some of the qualities of these things? Which would suggest that Japanese whisky could be good in its own right, but not the same as an Islay malt (for example). And perhaps that's the thing - perhaps non-Japanese urushi pen makers should (after learning the craft a bit) strive to create new methods of application. Therefore bringing forth a product that is not just seen as a copy of a technique but an independent expression?

    Just some random thoughts - probably all a bit pointless.

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    Default Re: Origins and originality

    Quote Originally Posted by Jon Szanto View Post
    And then you ask yourself: should I deny myself the pleasure of enjoying this finely-crafted Japanese single malt Scotch?
    Jon, I think you'll find that they can only call it single malt whisky, not Scotch. Much in the same way that no other country can call its sparkling wine Champagne.

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    Default Re: Origins and originality

    Quote Originally Posted by Blue Note View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Jon Szanto View Post
    And then you ask yourself: should I deny myself the pleasure of enjoying this finely-crafted Japanese single malt Scotch?
    Jon, I think you'll find that they can only call it single malt whisky, not Scotch. Much in the same way that no other country can call its sparkling wine Champagne.
    Ah, yes, poor form on my part (now fixed). Hasn't stopped them from winning some global awards!
    "When Men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick;
    and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter."

    ~ Benjamin Franklin

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    Default Re: Origins and originality

    Quote Originally Posted by Empty_of_Clouds View Post
    Just some random thoughts - probably all a bit pointless.
    Discussions that look at issues of interest are rarely pointless, and this one isn't. If nothing else, it keeps our brains engaged!

    To your main point, though, and the reason I brought up the malt analogy: materials, technique, and traditional practice. I don't doubt that there are people who have studied something like urushi coating, which has a history going back hundreds (more?) of years, and have brought it into their own world, which may not live on the Japanese mainland. Anyone practicing this art could do it well or not, and one thing I hear is that with the current fascination (more people) for urushi pens, some are being pumped out that skimp on the process, cut corners, etc. And just as certainly there are urushi practitioners elsewhere that are diving deeply into the time-honored craft, putting every micro-moment into the process to honor the object they are working on. And beyond that it is a craft and art that is still expanding - in the pen world, the young artisan Bokumundoh is creating really new looks in urushi styles. They may not be traditional, but maybe one day they will be viewed as such as the tradition evolves.
    "When Men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick;
    and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter."

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    Default Re: Origins and originality

    I certainly find hallowed origins to have an impact on my experience. But it is not part of the fundamental pleasure of the object, just a circular sort of internal justification of its qualities.
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    Default Re: Origins and originality

    5 cents from urushi pens maker
    1) urushi art/craft originates from China (like many other thing we associate with Japan, from some types of woodworking to tea).
    2) many techniques (including carving) also were adopted from China
    3) urushi/lacquer is used for hundreds of years in China, Vientam, Korea, Indinesia etc. each country with some local twists
    4) urushi on fountain pens is pretty young compared to urushi craft. Just 100yo. That brings us to fountain pens themselves - Japan adopted it from West. They did not use metal nibs before, they “copied” them from Western companies and perfected. Are they not worthy?
    5) i use some traditional techniques, but also i developed some techniques never seen in Japan.

    And last but not least - French wines are not best in the world anymore Same with restaurants. Same with Japanese steel etc. influence of Japan art in Western are reach xvi century. Same with influence of western art/techniques in Japan. And I find it very exciting.
    I do not offer “Japanese urushi pens”. I am proud to tag my posts with “Warsaw, Poland”. I use Japanese and chinese urushi, Japanese and german ebonite, Italian silk threads, Japanese and Polish brushes, Polish rapeseed. And I write in English. And I have tons on fun and satisfaction doing it.
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    Default Re: Origins and originality

    Quote Originally Posted by michalk View Post
    5 cents from urushi pens maker
    1) urushi art/craft originates from China (like many other thing we associate with Japan, from some types of woodworking to tea).
    2) many techniques (including carving) also were adopted from China
    3) urushi/lacquer is used for hundreds of years in China, Vientam, Korea, Indinesia etc. each country with some local twists
    4) urushi on fountain pens is pretty young compared to urushi craft. Just 100yo. That brings us to fountain pens themselves - Japan adopted it from West. They did not use metal nibs before, they “copied” them from Western companies and perfected. Are they not worthy?
    5) i use some traditional techniques, but also i developed some techniques never seen in Japan.

    And last but not least - French wines are not best in the world anymore Same with restaurants. Same with Japanese steel etc. influence of Japan art in Western are reach xvi century. Same with influence of western art/techniques in Japan. And I find it very exciting.
    I do not offer “Japanese urushi pens”. I am proud to tag my posts with “Warsaw, Poland”. I use Japanese and chinese urushi, Japanese and german ebonite, Italian silk threads, Japanese and Polish brushes, Polish rapeseed. And I write in English. And I have tons on fun and satisfaction doing it.
    Michał
    And to reinforce Michal reply, this is from a textbook written by a Japanese master.

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    Default Re: Origins and originality

    All of my early encounters with lacquerware were with Chinese furniture, cabinetry and so on, and I only became aware of Japanese lacquerware comparatively recently.

    Anyway that wasn't really the idea of this thread.

    I guess though that point is perhaps that techniques acquired from other cultures require new expression in their adopted culture. Tough though it is to say, and perhaps unfair to say it too so please don't take offense anyone, but if the same cigar shaped ebonite pen finished in the same urushi style is offered by a Western and a Japanese maker, I would certainly want to tie my acquisition to the cultural and historical aspect. In fact, I am a little surprised that Chinese pen makers haven't jumped in on this market.
    Last edited by Empty_of_Clouds; February 10th, 2021 at 02:30 AM.

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    Default Re: Origins and originality

    Quote Originally Posted by Empty_of_Clouds View Post
    All of my early encounters with lacquerware were with Chinese furniture, cabinetry and so on, and I only became aware of Japanese lacquerware comparatively recently.

    Anyway that wasn't really the idea of this thread.

    I guess though that point is perhaps that techniques acquired from other cultures require new expression in their adopted culture. Tough though it is to say, and perhaps unfair to say it too so please don't take offense anyone, but if the same cigar shaped ebonite pen finished in the same urushi style is offered by a Western and a Japanese maker, I would certainly want to tie my acquisition to the cultural and historical aspect. In fact, I am a little surprised that Chinese pen makers haven't jumped in on this market.
    The usage of lacquer on pens is fairly recent, 1900 and has been started by Namiki (Pilot).

    All the pens were made from ebonite, as we all know is prone to oxidation overt time. So Namiki company called the Urushi masters at the time to adapt the Urushi techniques to pen making. The first laquered pens made and sold to the west have been made by Namiki for Dunhil.

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    Default Re: Origins and originality

    EoC, it seems to be that if your interest is in Urushi pens, the natural progression might look something like this:
    1. Examine the state of Japanese Urushi pens available now.
    2. Learn about the history of Urushi on pens
    3. Decide if you'd like to learn more about traditional Asian lacquer techniques and history beyond pens
    4. Start to explore the urushi pen diaspora and the divergent techniques.

    I've seen and admired michalk's work at Tamenuri Studio. Martin Pauli posts his very beautiful urushi pens here often.
    I'd imagine a deep knowledge of traditional Japanese urushi would help me better understand and contextualize their work and I imagine they'd agree with me.

    The constraints of tradition provide a framework that facilitates deep understanding of core principles.
    Once you understand the principles you can maintain or abandon the constraints.

    in short, the best place to start studying urushi pens is Japan, there's nothing wrong with that and it in no way discounts the subsequent work of other urushi artists.

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    Default Re: Origins and originality

    Good points, and useful if I was interested in pursuing urushi pens. However, I am not, and only used them as an example of the point I was trying to make in this thread. I handled a few Nakaya pens in Singapore, and while I can appreciate the technique and artistry, as pens they fall short of what I would like. Of course that is just one brand, and I was lucky to see that, the chances of seeing other examples is pretty much nil under current travel restrictions.

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    Default Re: Origins and originality

    I think there is absolutely an air of prestige associated with the history and connection to Japan (and China).

    Consider this small thought experiment: Do you think people would shell out thousands of dollars for a pen decorated with 15 layers of hand sanded, automotive, candy lacquers? The end result could very well be beautiful with a tremendous depth of color to it. While the argument can be made that Urushi is marginally stronger, I doubt the difference would become very relevant in most use cases for a pen. You would therefore clearly be paying a premium for the tradition and sense of craftsmanship.

    I am in no way saying that I do not appreciate the artistry and drool over many of finer urushi pens I have seen, just that there is a premium for the tradition.

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    Default Re: Origins and originality

    Quote Originally Posted by michalk View Post
    5 cents from urushi pens maker
    1) urushi art/craft originates from China (like many other thing we associate with Japan, from some types of woodworking to tea).
    2) many techniques (including carving) also were adopted from China
    3) urushi/lacquer is used for hundreds of years in China, Vientam, Korea, Indinesia etc. each country with some local twists
    4) urushi on fountain pens is pretty young compared to urushi craft. Just 100yo. That brings us to fountain pens themselves - Japan adopted it from West. They did not use metal nibs before, they “copied” them from Western companies and perfected. Are they not worthy?
    5) i use some traditional techniques, but also i developed some techniques never seen in Japan.

    And last but not least - French wines are not best in the world anymore Same with restaurants. Same with Japanese steel etc. influence of Japan art in Western are reach xvi century. Same with influence of western art/techniques in Japan. And I find it very exciting.
    I do not offer “Japanese urushi pens”. I am proud to tag my posts with “Warsaw, Poland”. I use Japanese and chinese urushi, Japanese and german ebonite, Italian silk threads, Japanese and Polish brushes, Polish rapeseed. And I write in English. And I have tons on fun and satisfaction doing it.
    Michał
    Some of the items listed in the last paragraph are actually good examples of common misperceptions. French wines have a limited period of excellence, following the Phylloxera "plague". France's wine industry was quantity oriented up until the mid to late 1800's, and was decimated during the outbreak. Missouri root stock saved it, and they started growing more for quality. When California vineyards experienced the parasite, they turned down Missouri root stock and instead chose the "superior" French root stock which still originated in Missouri...

    Japanese steel is some of the worst on the planet, and it was the craftsmanship in determining what from the tamahagane method would be used in what part of the sword which maximized the poor ore. "Damascus" steel was considered the best in the world, but it originated in India where there is high content of vanadium present with the iron.

    As already pointed out, Urushi lacquer did not originate in Japan; but there is a romantic aesthetic associated with an idea of being the "genuine article" that enhances the perception of value.
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    Default Re: Origins and originality

    Jon, I think you bring up a really good point regarding materials and skill.


    Lets take the case of Japanese Whisky which is, in my opinion, good, but kinda...boring. Japanese whiskey, to me, tastes like someone gave a very detailed account of how to make Scotch and the end product is a dedicated recreation of that traditional product. That is not to say it isn't good. As pointed out, Japanese whisky, wins international awards for their products. Why I think this is an interesting parallel is that, in some cases, peated malt is actually imported into Japan from Scotland. The material is being brought in and used by the craftsmen with the skill to make whisky.

    Why is this important? Well, urushi comes from the sap of the lacquer tree, which is indigenous to South Asia. The material is native to that part of the world, but, arguably, the crafters could be anywhere.

    In the case of Japan (for Urushi) and Scotland (for scotch) is you also get a lineage of crafters that can distill (pun intended) gathered experience into new artisans while maintaining their own level of craft.

    I guess that's the roundabout way of saying the best urushi may not be from Japan, but the odds of you finding the best urushi is more likely when looking to get it from Japan.

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    Default Re: Origins and originality

    Quote Originally Posted by michalk View Post
    ...4) urushi on fountain pens is pretty young compared to urushi craft. Just 100yo. That brings us to fountain pens themselves - Japan adopted it from West. They did not use metal nibs before, they “copied” them from Western companies and perfected. Are they not worthy?...
    Michał
    One of the most obvious points to make, and also one of the best. Cultural hybrids shouldn't be scorned for not being "authentic". Whether judging a fountain pen as a functional tool or as a work of craftsmanship, why should the country of origin matter? Of course, one could argue that Japan (or China, or some other country) produces the best urushi work, but in that case, the quality should be evident even without proof of where it came from.
    "If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly."
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    Default Re: Origins and originality

    Reputation is a factor that is taken into consideration in many purchasing situations. Is it fair? Yes and no.

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    Default Re: Origins and originality

    All cultures are created through some level of hybridization, so when does the hybridization enmesh itself to the extent that authenticity can exist? I really don't know. I suppose it's an internally-determined thing, and probably something that happens on the level of generations. (If your grandparents didn't do it, from where can your sense of authenticity arise?)
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