The best Shell Button in Japan created in Nara prefecture with no sea Shell buttons produced by TOMOI Co., Ltd.
Hi, this is Yoko from the SUNCHI editorial desk.
When one walks around Kawanishi-cho, a town surrounded by paddy fields, twinkling fragments of shells can often be seen all over, such as at garden entrances or alleyways. Even though the town is located at the heart of the basin of Nara, they are a strange sight, as Nara is further inland from the sea.
Kawanishi-cho can be translated as ‘town west of the river’ and that was literally how it used to be, as a small port for boats from Osaka with six rivers. I have visited the company TOMOI located there to listen to the story of shells in Nara.
The town of Kawanishi-cho, which used to be full of shell button factories
“This area has been a center of production for shell buttons. In our case we have been involved in it for nearly 100 years now”, says Mr. Hiroshi Tomoi, the third generation president of the TOMOI company. In the beginning of the Meiji period (1868–1912) a manufacturing technology for shell buttons was introduced to the international port of Kobe from Germany. It then made its way to Nara via Osaka, and Kawanishi-cho rapidly became a center for the industry due to its great network of rivers.
He continues, “Between its 40th and 50th years the business was at its zenith. Among the total of 400 of the households in the area, almost 300 households were involved with producing shell buttons.” It was common to divide the processes of cutting, hole-making and polishing among neighbors living next door to each other. As a result, households used to be interconnected and the town itself was like a massive factory. The fragments of shells all over the town are remains of the prosperity from half a century ago.
Unfortunately, there are now only 10 companies still involved with producing shell buttons as polyester has become a more common manufacturing material. The company TOMOI, established in 1913, now has a 50% share of the market and is the only remaining company specializing in shell buttons.
How shells become twinkling buttons
The raw materials of the buttons are shells such as Tectus maximus, Pinctada margaritifera and Pinctada maxima from the beautiful South Pacific. When shellfish die, the shells become weaker and their colors become whitish, and less bright, so only live shellfish are used as raw materials.
Firstly, those raw materials are processed at a company that specializes in cutting. They import the shells, cut them along their spiralling structures and create button shapes, like following a spiral staircase.
All the cut pieces are brought to TOMOI. Workers first sort through them based on their thickness. You can see the layers of a piece from its cross section. They grind the cross sections in order to reveal more beautiful layers.
Machines are sometimes used during the process of making the pieces into buttons. But these machines cannot identify the front and back of each piece, so they are manually set up by the factory workers. It is surely time consuming.
Solid needles are used for making holes in the pieces and artisans are responsible for the maintenance of machines and tools.
They use a special machine, Gasha, for the process of sharpening the corners of the buttons. They condition the buttons with water and polishing powder, then rotate them in the machine for 3 to 4 hours. If this process is carried out for longer than necessary, the buttons’ shapes will be deformed, so the timing must be precise.
For some cases that require engravings, they use a laser engraving machine and a special engraving tool that was developed under the company’s second generation president.
The next process is polishing. The buttons are placed with hot water in a wooden bucket called a Teppo. A worker then drips in chemicals like an infusion, while rotating buttons slowly for an hour. Subtle adjustments are required depending on the size of the buttons, and the temperatures of the climate and the water.
After that, there is another polishing process. Now the buttons are put in an octagon wooden box with waxed rice hulls. Then they are rotated for another hour. The wax works like a rinse and makes the buttons exquisitely smooth. This is most essential for the quality of the shell buttons.
And of course, the last procedure is inspection. Each button is checked strictly with the eyes of three workers.
I was amazed by their speed and precision at sorting through the mountain of buttons.
Unique solid looking buttons with a delicate and beautiful texture.
Shellfish also feel stress: Difficulty in handling natural materials
Of course, shells are natural materials. Since a technology of cultured pearls has been developed and wide-spread around the world, many shells are forced to bear several pearls in their life time. If you look at such shells, you can see significant layers as a sign of having gone through great stress. Nowadays it’s getting hard to find shells good enough for their buttons. Many manufacturers use brittle shells, but TOMOI is still very particular about their materials so that they can take pride in their quality.
Protect the pride of the shell button industry with the certain quality generated by its regional climate
The father of Mr. Tomoi, the former president of the company, entrusted the workshop in Nara to his parents and went to Tokyo with Mr. Tomoi when he was a little boy in order to expand its sales channels. After some hard work in Tokyo, they increased orders significantly along with the rapid economic growth in the post WW2 period. By the time they returned to Nara, the company had developed, now employing 70 people.
Mr. Tomoi went to Italy for one year, after graduating from school, to study manufacturing technologies of shell buttons under the world renowned manufacturer Bonetti, and brought back the new techniques to Nara. However, it was not easy for experienced artisans to adapt to such new techniques and some of them left the company. “It was hard as I had known them since I was a kid. I was fully aware of how hard they suffered.”。
It has been 23 years since he became the president of the company. They still work in a traditional way with local companies, artisans and employees in order to keep the best quality of their products. “It is easy to slack off on our job since natural materials are already beautiful themselves, but we won’t. Our mission is to carry on the tradition and our pride in it with people in whom I have faith.”
It is a story about just a button. But now you know that it has been manufactured with a passionate practice over the decades. You will realize how charming buttons are that come from natural shells, grown in the beautiful ocean. Maybe the ones on your shirt are made of them too.
TOMOI Co., Ltd.
201 Toin, Kawanishi-cho, Shikigun, Nara, JAPAN
Photographer: Akihito Shimomura