Tame-nuri Urushi, to be exact. A wonderful line of pens from Danitrio are being offered with this subtle finish.
Tame-nuri is a perfect example of something that appears simple being, in fact, very complicated. What might look at first glance like a simple reddish brown pen turns out to be the result of hours of painstaking hand-work. What's more, it's not even "finished" yet, as over years, the color will deepen and shift, resulting eventually in mixture of shading and color.
To begin with the basics, urushi is a natural lacquer created form the sap of the Urushi tree. These trees, around 600 species of them, are found throughout Southeast Asia, Southern China, Korea, and Japan. The quality of the lacquer collected from the trees varies greatly depending upon the region in which the trees grow, with those harvested in Japan producing what is considered to be the highest quality urushi.
The urushi sap is collected by hand from the trees, through incisions made through the bark and into the tree. The tree produces the urushi as a defense mechanism, and it is collected as it wells up into the cuts. Sap collected at different times of the season will be of differing quality, with the best quality being collected only during late July through August. The average tree will produce only 200 grams of urushi sap, making this a fairly exclusive product!
After the sap is collected, it is filtered to remove any impurities. This results in raw urushi which can be further refined, or used in it's present form as the base coats in lacquer ware. Raw urushi is then heated at low temperatures and stirred to break down particles. It gradually turns dark brown in color, and reaches a smooth consistency. There are many different grades of refined urushi lacqer, which are used in various applications.
The best refined urushi lacquer is used for final coats and finishing. Other grades may be used for initial layers. In addition, inorganic elements such as cinnabar or iron oxide are added to give the urushi lacquer color. The Tame-nuri pens shown here are called Urumi-dame. The color comes from red urushi, (called Shu), mixed with black urushi to form the underlaying color. Since the colors must be mixed in small amounts at the time of use, each pen is truly unique, with slight color variations occuring each time the colors are mixed.
Once the urushi is applied to the surface, it has to be cured, a process that requires careful attention to both temperature and humidity in order for a unique chemical process to take place. Urushi contains a substance called urushiol. When exposed to warmth and humidity, an enzyme is activated that extracts oxygen from the air supplying it to the urushiol. The urushiol then solidifies into a hard layer. Depending upon the humidity and temperature, the curing process can take anywhere from hours to weeks.
So much for urushi lacquer. The process is used not only on pens, but also on a number of other small items, bowls, boxes, plates, and so forth.
The simple addition of a second layer of urushi lacquer to the underlying base coats results in a finish known as tame-nuri. As the urushi lacquer ages on these Urumi-dame pens, more of the underlying reddish color shows through the top layer of darker urushi.
This finish can take literally years to show the color changes to their fullest. The lacquer is applied in differing thicknesses, you can see a subtle shift in color towards the edges of the cap and barrel ends even when new.
As it ages, the Urumi-dame will show even more of this color shift. The top layer of urushi forms a glossy protective cover over the reddish undercoating, and as it ages, it grows more translucent, with the color showing through more from underneath. Since the urushi lacquer naturally possesses a highly reflective gloss surface, the result is reminiscent of a deep pool of colored water. It's deceptively simple, but in person has an unmatched look of intense depth.
Danitrio offers Tame-nuri with two different finishes, Roiro-migaki which is a smooth, high gloss finish, and Hana-nuri which is a more natural, almost matte finish. the Roiro-migaki has a lot more work than Hana-nuri, with extra polishing steps required to achieve the high gloss finish, but the Hana-nuri finish won't allow any mistakes as the urushi is applied, due to the lack of additional polishing that can cover small errors. Thus the Hana-nuri, although it looks simpler, can be every bit as difficult as the more involved Roiro-migaki finish. These pens pictured all feature the high gloss Roiro-migaki finish.
This depth of color and shading are the primary attractions to tame-nuri, but as used on a pen, another aspect of the urushi lacquer finish becomes apparent. The lacquer has a very warm, organic feel in the hand. Holding one of these pens is a true pleasure, as the lacquer warms to your hand in use.
Normally, urushi lacquer is applied by a master urushi craftsman, it can take up to seven years to achieve this level of experience. It is a very specialized field, as you can imagine! Danitrio has taken a different approach to their urushi lacquer pens.
Rather than employing a master urushi craftsman, who are more experienced with lacquering somewhat larger items such as bowls, trays, and so forth, Danitrio have turned to one of their maki-e masters to lacquer their pens. Much more used to working on smaller surfaces and sharper angles and curves, the maki-e artists have proven to be able to create a better finish in the solid color urushi pens as well as the maki-e.
The three tame-nuri pens shown here are all finished in the deep reddish-brown color called Urumi-dame that has made tame-nuri famous. Two of these pens are smaller versions, and one the larger Mikado sized model.
Keep in mind that what I am calling "smaller" versions are quite large themselves, about the size of a Montblanc 149. It's only when in comparison with the Mikado sized pen that they begin to look small!
The Mikado sized pen is truly huge, more along the lines of the Namiki Emperor than anything else. But that large expanse of cap and barrel provides the perfect surface for tame-nuri urushi lacquer work to show it's magic. The smaller pens are probably going to be more likely to end up purchased as "real world" writing instruments, and despite being smaller than the Mikado, they are still very much large pens, with plenty of room for the tame-nuri to show well.
They are cartridge converter pens, with the ink getting to the paper courtesy of an 18K two tone nib which is nicely embellished with engraving. The nibs are available in widths of fine, medium, broad, or stub, and a new "flex" nib is also available in this pen. This gives a pretty wide range of nib choices, something for just about every hand!
Ink flow is just about perfect for the medium nibs on the samples we had. Enough to give a wet line, without skipping. We weren't able to try out a stub nib, but with a pen this striking, a nice wide stub might provide a line as exciting as the pen itself. The new flex nib is generating quite a lot of comment. While not as flexible as traditional vintage flex nibs, it is at least a 'real" flex, as opposed to simply a "soft" nib as found on many modern pens. Flex nibs are not for everyone, but it's refreshing to see a company recognizing the need to appeal to a wider range of customers with nib choices like this.
It seems that Danitrio are making an effort to provide a wide range of high end traditional style Japanese pens, both maki-e as well as the simpler urushi lacquer tame-nuri, tsugaru-nuri and wakasa-nuri designs.With the energy and effort that Danitrio is putting into their lineup it will be exciting to see what comes next!