Amita Co. artists: Minai, Torahiko Kanamori, Takeshi

Komai, Otojiro [駒井音次郎 / 駒井音治郎] (1842 ~ 1917)

Otojiro Komai

Komai family is perhaps one of the most recognizable metalworkers of the Meiji era. The family workshop was established in 1841 at 70 Shinmonzen street, Kyoto, by Komai Seibei (駒井清兵衛), a sword fittings maker. In 1853 Seibei originated a form of damascene, Nunome Zogan, which he used to ornament and decorate swords, guns, daggers and various types of sword fittings. In 1861 Komai Seibei passed away and two of his sons, Komai Yoshitaka (駒井美雄) and Komai Yoshihiro became the proprietors of the S. Komai workshop.
In 1855, at the age of thirteen, the third son of Komai Seibei, Komai Otojiro (駒井音次郎), began to study inlay techniques with Misaki Shusuke (三崎周助), a sword-fitting artisan from Higo (肥後, present Kumamoto). This year he later used in some of his advertisements as the year of establishment of his own business, opened at the adjacent street, at 33 Furumonzen street, Kyoto. However, the company's establishement year in most of O. Komai's advertisements is the establishement year of the family business, 1841.
Otojiro produced sword fittings up until the 1876. With the major changes brought about by the Meiji restoration and a Haito Edict (March 1876), prohibiting against wearing swords, the Komai family, like many others, had to find another form of livelihood. They applied their damascene craft (inlaid work of gold and silver on iron ware) to creating objects in Western and traditional Japanese styles producing vases, purses, cigar, cigarette and card cases, jewelry boxes, coat buttons, combs, buckles, incense burners, hanging plates, lockets, brooches, charms, spoons, bracelets, cabinets and other items of everyday use.

Otojiro Komai's workshop, Furumonzen street, Kyoto.

Around 1873 Komai Otojiro started selling his works in Kobe and within a few years his plates, plaques, miniature cabinets, model pagodas and vases were in such demand that he could afford to buy a large house.
In 1881 Otojiro had a new house in Kyoto, but in 1885 he lost his home and property in a fire. Since then, he worked for roughly 10 years as in-house artisan for Seisuke Ikeda (池田清助) and couldn't mark his works with his personal mark. Before the fire Otojiro was producing large art objects: Okimono (置物), big vases and incense burners. Due to the marketing strategy by Ikeda Seisuke, who owned the rights on Otojiro's works during 1885-1894, the latter started to make more practical low-price objects like cigarette cases and jewelry boxes.

Artisans in the Otojiro Komai's workshop.

In 1894 Komai Otojiro became independent again. He continued with the strategy of Seisuke Ikeda and produced mostly low-price objects while enhancing the revenue by employing low cost workers. Seaman A. Knapp, who in 1898 was sent by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to Japan to study rice cultivation, describes in his diary his visit to the O. Komai workshop as follows:
Damascene work, visited Kyoto Nov. 10, 1898.
Next visited Damascene works of O. Komai. Inlaid of gold and silver on iron. No. 33 Furu-monzen Miyoshicho, Kyoto. The proprietor made this statement. He paid no salary for 25 years. Simply food and clothes. After 13 to 15 years gave each man (is given) 10 sen (5 cents) on Sundays. After 18 to 20 years he is given 50 sen on Sundays. Four days in a month they do not work evenings but otherwise they work all the time and everyday. Commence at 7 work till 12, 1 to 5 and 6 to 10. 13 hours. After 25 years they are paid a salary 50 - 80 and 100 sen per day according to quality. The best men get 30 yen per month regardless of time they work, generally work from 20 to 26 days.

Otojiro promoted himself as "the pioneer in the manufacture of damascene ware" and was constantly improving the inlaying technique originated by his father. He devoted himself to make high quality pieces for national and foreign exhibitions to establish the O. Komai brand. A period from 1900 to 1915 was the company's most productive time. Komai Otojiro submitted his works to more than a dozen of national and international exhibitions, winning prestigeous prizes at almost all of them.

Artisans in the Otojiro Komai's workshop.

In 1912 a London based auction house Glendining & Co. organized a sale that entirely consisted of items made by O. Komai. The items are listed in the "Catalogue of a valuable collection of Japanese works of art. The property of O. Komai.", Glendining & Co., Ltd., 2.2.1912, London. The catalogue provides descriptions of 289 items: vases, boxes, cigarette cases, plates, kodansu, pagodas and more.
Komai Otojiro retired in 1906, but continued to work until 1912, producing gold wires for inlaying. Komai Otojiro died in 1917, at the age of 75. The business was transferred to his son, Seibei (清兵衛, 1883~1970), who took the name Otojiro II. The latter continued to submit company's works to national and foreign exhibitions. In 1919 he opened a company branch in Osaka, at Shinsaibashi Kitazume.

O. Komai's exhibition booth at the Panama-Pacific Exposition (1915).

In 1920s the Second Industrial Revolution resulted in early factory electrification and the production lines. Arts that were mostly hand-made now were massively produced in factories. O. Komai company couldn't compete with the huge ammount of factory made items, manufactured much faster and cheaper than hand-made items produced by the firm. Consequently, starting from the second half of 1920s the quality of the company's pieces greatly decreased. The amount of inlayed gold significantly reduced, leaving most of the surface of the items covered by the black lacquer. The inlaying itself was much less elaborated. Even the famous part of the O. Komai trade mark, the dragonfly, changed its appearence and was composed of only 5 straight thin gold wires. Furthermore, items were additionally marked with a "JAPAN" inscription, which was added to decorative arts made for export in 1930s.

Evolution of the O. Komai trade mark, based on the advertisements (see the "Advertisements" section below) and dated works (clickable blue-colored links). During the 1885~1894 period (grey-colored) Otojiro Komai worked for S. Ikeda and couldn't sign his works with his mark.

In late 1920s O. Komai opened branch stores at 262 Shinmonzen street and in Miyako Hotel, and expanded their products line to bronze and silverware. In 1930s a new company branch was opened, at Imperial Hotel Arcade, Tokyo.
During 1930s Komai company became an agent shop of the Mikimoto Perl Store (御木本真珠店), selling Mikimoto's perl jewelry in their shops in Kyoto. Komai company continued to produce and sell metalwork objects until 1941. After WWII they focused purely on pearl jewelry trade and are selling pearls till today.

Addresses and locations
Examples provided by contributors
Examples (from the web)