At the Cutting Edge
―Made-in-Japan innovations 3

A new fusion of Japan’s great craft skills with the country’s renowned manufacturing technologies is creating products of stunning innovation.  See how familiar materials are being transformed by technical know-how, meticulous attention to detail, ingenuity, and passion. As the novel products gain fans, they are opening up new business opportunities for some long-established companies and giving fresh meaning to “made in Japan.”
Wrought of art and industry

In the Tsubame-Sanjo area of Niigata prefecture, metalworking began some 400 years ago with the production of wakugi Japanese-style iron nails. The region has since become world-renowned for goods ranging from Western-style tableware to agricultural tools and industrial products. The titanium massage tool shown here requires no fewer than three of the area’s specialists to produce.

As the name “cygne,” the French word for swan, suggests, the tool looks graceful. It fits in the palm of your hand and is designed to apply suitable pressure. On a flat surface it sways, balancing itself, like a sweet art object.

Conceived by a product designer under the supervision of a popular hairstyling and makeup artist, the cygne massager fits snugly into the curves of the body. Start from the wrist and slide it up the arm to the armpit, onto the collarbone, and then along the neck to encourage the flow of lymph. Next, relax muscles on the jawline, stroke upward to smooth out marionette lines, and then work on areas above the eyebrows, over the temples, and on the top of the head, for a facial-defining effect.

Pure titanium, widely used in surgical and medical instruments and dental implants, is prized for its biocompatibility and corrosion resistance. It is, however, difficult to process. The three workshops in Tsubame-Sanjo that have joined forces to craft the cygne each supply a specific expertise.

Top: The sound of heavy forging hammers reverberates in the workshop. A workman places a heated titanium billet in the hollow of the die and drops the hammer onto it repeatedly until it attains the desired shape. He works on one piece at time.

At the workshop specializing in hot-forging stainless steel and titanium, a titanium billet heated to 1,000°C is inserted into a cygne-shaped die. Sparks fly as the 500-kilogram hammer strikes again and again. Burrs left around the cast could cause cracking, hence the work requires an experienced workman with keen sensitivity.

The president of this polishing workshop describes his days as constant trial and error, making improvements to the machines he built himself and ordering abrasive materials from abroad.

Polishing comes next. A small workshop run by a father and his two sons serves clients, with orders as varied as hairdressing shears and industrial tools, who prize their polishing techniques that achieve exacting finishes evocative of the still waters of a lake. Polishing titanium is a dangerous operation that sends out airborne powder and sparks.  Craftsmen hand-polish the cygne’s complex curves one by one, while fine-tuning the balance it needs to sit upright.

Surface treatments applied to cygne dramatically transform metals through chemical reactions.

In addition to the beautiful silver mirror finish achieved by fine polishing, the cygne series comes in gold, champagne gold, and chocolate brown. These color variations are acquired not by plating or painting but with films that oxidize naturally on the titanium surface. An expert workshop of metal surface treatments uses an electrochemical oxidation process for the cygne. Resulting color varies with film thickness in micron range. A hundred hues are possible with titanium. Workmen rely on experience, intuition, and acute sensitivity while controlling for various factors such as temperature and humidity.

The more you use a cygne, meticulously crafted with the combined powers of fire, hands, science, and design, the more deeply you will come to appreciate it.
Cygne massagers (page top photo, from left): champagne gold ¥25,000, gold ¥25,000, silver ¥20,000, and chocolate brown ¥25,000. Prices exclude consumption tax.
Available from Nagae+, a company dedicated to branding services for local industries and made-in-Japan products, with a special focus on metal-processing techniques.
This article is an excerpt from a Kateigaho International Japan Edition 2018 Spring/Summer feature.


2021 Spring / Summer

Inside Japan’s West