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A Cultural Object — the Japanese Silver Teapot

By Guan Tan

Two silver kettles from the Takaoka-based silverware family business, Ginshodo.
Ginshodo/ Atomi
Two silver kettles from the Takaoka-based silverware family business, Ginshodo.

If you have ever used a Japanese teapot, you will find that they are some of the most mesmerising objects out there. Incredibly heavy, they take two hands to tilt the pot over. Yet, the weight lends to the teapots' stately presence. They sit squarely on the table, and irreverently scald rings of black into wooden tables where they were placed. For an hour or two, they house transient aromas of green tea leaves. 

The teapots are conventionally made of iron. In some rare cases, they are made of silver. Outside of Japan, it is hard to find these silver teapots.  Often, they come in a trio –– the kettle, teapot and incense burner. "They are used for tea ceremonies," Mr. Shinobu Ogoshi, the third-generation owner of silverware company, Ginshodo, explains. The teapot is not merely an accessory. It embodies the history, tells of the societal hierarchies, and exacting attitudes of the Japanese.

Ginshodo/ Atomi

"The oldest silverware found in Japan was from the year 668," Ogoshi adds. Those silver pieces were likely from foreign lands. It was only between the 12th and 15th centuries that locals discovered gold and silver mines within the country. Those plots of land naturally became hotly-contested sites for the feudal lords. The discovery arguably made the presence of a silverware industry possible. It provided jobs for the locals, crafts for the culture, and a history to boot. Take, for instance, the city of Takaoka where Ginshodo is based. Although there were no mines in the city, what sprouted was a creative industry. "Takaoka has 400 years of traditional craft-making history. And the [silversmithing] skills have been passed down from generation to generation." Till date, there are approximately four documented gold and silver mines in Japan.

In the 1500s, silver teapots were inaccessible objects. They were made for and used by the "privileged –– Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, as well as the world of tea ceremony." It was largely married to religion. 

Later in the Edo period, between 1603 and 1868, the wares gained traction in the wider Japanese culture and society. Fast forward to date, it has come to be an object of social affluence. Anyone can buy a silver teapot for domestic tea ceremonies –– if they can afford the staggering prices. 

The retail prices hover around ten thousand in Singapore dollars for one teapot, and almost double for a kettle. The price partly stems from the material and labour involved. 

For Ogoshi's company, teapots are strictly made in 99.9 percent and 97.0 percent Japanese silver. "We acquire 20 to 25 kilograms of silver a month, 220 kilograms a year on average," Ogoshi continues. 

Ginshodo/ Atomi

Working with a precious metal like silver means there is absolutely no room for errors. The craftsmen often turn to proven designs and methods. "The method we adopt has a history of 100 years. Other methods, especially the way of making the highest-end teapot has over 200 years of history." 

The making of a teapot begins with a silver sheet, which is passed on from craftsman to another, each with distinct skills. The production line is a result of a traditional "division of labour which has been going on in Takaoka for several hundred years," Ogoshi explains. The silver sheet is first moulded, hammered and shaped, carved, polished, the construction of minor parts like the handles, and a final assembly –– all in three months. 

Ogoshi stresses that these are all handmade by a chisel and hammer –– or the "traditional way" as he calls it. "Unlike using a machine, this method allows the lines to have nuances, such as shallow and deep, thick and thin, which then makes the final product more expressive." 

The silver body happens to be equally eloquent. "Silver changes its colour over time naturally." It oxidises with wear and tear and morphs into a matte grey eventually. Nature's progression is one that the Japanese culture respects. "That 'wabi-sabi' element appeals to the people who enjoy tea ceremony."

Beyond the storied history and cultural attitudes of the silver teapot, Ogoshi drives at the most crucial factor, taste. "The older generation who are tea lovers like to use silver kettles and teapots to make tea," he comically adds. "It is said that tea becomes tastier if it is brewed using silverware." 

Visit Ginshodo at the Nook Asia–IFFS exhibition, 8 to 11 March 2018 at Singapore Expo. Otherwise, Ginshodo is available at Atomi on request.