Fit For An Emperor: Behind The Scenes Of Kagami Crystal

How One Rural Factory Makes Japan's Most Sought-After Glassware

By Nano Betts
August 10, 2017
Art & Culture, Sponsored Post

What does it take to produce royal glass? I was lucky enough to get a backstage tour of the Kagami Crystal factory in Ibaraki — rediscovering centuries of incredible craftsmanship and a part of my own heritage at the same time.

As I was sitting on the train on my way to Ibaraki to visit Kagami Crystal factory, I couldn’t help but go back to my roots. 

I was born and raised in Georgia — a small country in the Caucasus that, above all, values its cultural heritage. We cherish heirlooms that reflect family history and values. And because feasting holds such an important part in Georgian culture (not a single significant decision in my country was ever made on an empty stomach), collecting valuable tableware is a subject of great pride.

I remember when growing up, my grandfather would proudly point to the hand-cut crystal wine glasses he bought on his trip to Germany (a rare treat during Soviet times), while my mom would eagerly show every house guest the crystal vase that she got with her first salary in Moscow.

That’s why visiting Kagami Crystal was so special. It was my opportunity to get a valuable family heirloom that I’d proudly pass along to my kids and grandkids. Not only would I be able to pick a unique item for my home, but I’d discover the intricate glass-making process and the true meaning of Japanese craftsmanship.

The Royal Seal of Approval

Kagami Crystal is the longest established name in the Japanese crystal industry and is today the most authentic choice for both traditional and contemporary cut crystal. Founded in 1934 by Kozo Kagami, the company has won many international and national accolades throughout the years. But, perhaps the biggest accomplishment was being nominated as an official supplier of the Imperial Family in 1943. Their exquisite crystalware is also currently used at the Prime Minister’s official residence, as well as at Japanese embassies overseas to grace formal dinners and state occasions.

Handcrafted from Fire to Finish

All this wouldn’t be possible without the highly-skilled glassware craftsmen that put their heart and soul into every single item they make.

I must confess that I initially expected a huge factory with machines doing the majority of the work, but it wasn’t like that at all. This is truly hand-made crystal, beautifully forged right there in the factory before being cut and sculpted by master artists.

Making a crystal piece at Kagami Crystal takes patience, precision, expertise, and a whole team of people. A total of 80 artists make this phenomenal work happen. From the time the alchemy happens in the furnace, mixing the sand and potasse, to when the final touches are made, multiple extremely skilled hands have participated in the making of the most unique pieces.

Mr. Hidetoshi Mochizuki, the Executive Director and President of Kagami Crystal, kindly took me through every stage of the crystal making. I had a chance to observe the formidable glass blowing, molding and cooling process, as well as the equally demanding ornamenting process that involves polishing, hand drawing the pattern, cutting and etching.

The Signature Art of Edo Kiriko

Kagami Crystal features two ornamenting methods – gravure and Edo Kiriko, literally meaning “cut glass.” The latter is a traditional design dating back to the Edo period in which clear colors and delicate patterns are cut into the glass.

Edo Kiriko features sophisticated designs like none other. Kagami Crystal uses a total of six patterns such as chrysanthemums, star, fish scale and hemp leaves. These designs are used on sake bottles, sake cups, wine glasses, fragrance bottles and other products such as dishes and vases.

Edo Kiriko features sophisticated designs like none other.

The company has five signature colors: blue (color of the Emperor), red (color of the Empress), purple, green and yellow. By cutting patterns into the outside surface, a vivid contrast of color and transparent glass is created, yielding irresistibly beautiful creations.

Kagami Crystal Wine Glasses

On to the engraving room I witnessed another level of supreme craftsmanship. Seeing the glass master forge intricate ornaments on a paper-thin glass is nothing short of incredible. I could only imagine the number of hours, broken attempts, and destroyed glasses it sometimes takes to arrive at the final piece, balanced and scintillating to perfection. This is when you realize the quality of work that goes into a product you are buying — and what gives it such a high value.

The Core Philosophy of Kagami Crystal

Although, it was when we got to the Quality Control room that I truly apprehended the philosophy behind Kagami Crystal. According to industry standard, it’s customary to check one glass per every 1,000 before shipment —what most crystal manufacturing companies do. At Kagami Crystal, however, they check every single item for the tiniest scratch or bubble before they send it off to the client, no matter how big the order is. “In our company quality comes first, profit second,” Mr. Mochizuki noted as we were exiting the room.

We ended with a tour of the memorial hall and showroom where I had a chance to see many forms that Kagami’s fine glasswork takes, from unique pieces of Imperial Household, to bespoke collections and commemorative gifts designed for numerous significant occasions. It was a true journey that brought to light a unique mix of craftsmanship and legacy, providing an intriguing glimpse into the unlimited possibilities of Kagami Crystal glass.

Finding Treasure at the Ginza Store

You probably wonder what treasure did I return home with that day? It was a beautiful red crystal whisky glass gifted to me by Mr. Mochizuki. “Your drink will taste so much better when you drink it from a fine crystal glass.” he promised, and he was absolutely right.

I vowed to return to Kagami Crystal’s elegant flagship store, located in Ginza, to buy a matching blue pair for my whisky glass, as well as pick up a stunning crystal Daruma – a symbol of good fortune, that to me makes a perfect souvenir to tell the story of my unforgettable visit to the Kagami Crystal factory.

Although, among the 200 uniquely beautiful glassware on display, there is so much more in the store that would tempt you to empty your bank account – like the red and royal blue Edo Kiriko glass sets that would make a perfect wedding gift or the multi-colored sake cups, each with a different carving at the bottom.

Plus, while there, you might even come across a celebrity or two – I was told Keanu Reeves recently stopped by to pick out some whiskey glasses.

Even if you can’t make a trip to Japan anytime soon, fret not. You can also order Kagami Crystal’s beautiful creations online from their official website.

The Deets

Kagami Crystal Ginza Store

Address: Daiwa Building, 6-2-1 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Business Hours: Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays: 11 a.m. – 7:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays open until 6:30 p.m.. Closed Thursdays.

Nano Betts is a seasoned traveler and eater currently living a dream in Tokyo. One year ago she decided to make most of her expat life as a military wife by creating travelwithnanob.com — a blog that chronicles her various worldly adventures and culinary discoveries in an attempt to inspire her readers to explore the world and help them do so by sharing her savvy travel tips. Her honed travel planning and research skills help Nano scout out even the most off-kilter spots and unique experiences in the Land of the Rising Sun. Even the 10 pounds she gained after moving here won’t keep her away from Tokyo’s fine dining, quirky cafes and exquisite desserts.

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