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Passions of Artisans We ask Rin crossing participant manufacturers about their wishes regarding manufacturing.

Home > Passions of Artisans #045 C-Brain Co., Ltd.

#045 C-Brain Co., Ltd.2016/03/17

Handmade watches that effortlessly communicate the gentle touch of handcrafted traditions

The Kanazawa atelier, purveyor of uniquely handcrafted timepieces

Open up the company brochure for the C-Brain Atelier, and you’ll find these poetic lines printed unassumingly on the page, accompanied by photos of a timepiece workshop that gives off the nostalgic air of a bygone era.
Our timepieces are individually handcrafted in a country renowned for its world-class manufacturing.

Here, the memory of long-practiced skills flows through human hands, expressing a beauty that can only be brought to life through the human touch.
The C-Brain Atelier in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, designs and manufactures handmade watches. Its artisans incorporate traditional techniques used in Japanese painting, such as the use of natural mineral pigments, lacquer, and gold leaf. Their Hanamokko Series of watches is enjoying great renown for its sensitive expression of Japanese notions of beauty.

Hanamokko Series with ayagiri pattern engraving and gold leaf

President Hitoya Inami took over his father’s company in 1980. It originally manufactured and sold educational materials for junior high home economics and industrial arts workshops.

“In some ways, I took over the business because I felt I had no choice,” Inami admitted. “But I found tremendous joy in designing educational materials that would make the kids happy. Just about the time I was thinking that I wanted to get into a business that inspired joy through craftsmanship, I met someone who was making handmade watches. In 1994, we started up the watchmaking side of our operations.”

“Particularly after the Great Tohoku Earthquake hit, it really seemed like there were a lot of people who wanted to preserve and protect our Japanese traditions. It was almost like the event unlocked something precious that we had been keeping tucked away inside us,” President Inami said.

In the more than twenty years since they started making watches, the company’s Kelutuan Series timepieces have remained a classic. The face, case (the part that houses the face), and hands of each watch have always been assembled individually by hand, and the product allows the user to change out the bands to suit their look or mood that day. Many women continue to be charmed by the Kelutuan.

 

The original Kelutuan Series from C-Brain. Even the face cases are each crafted individually by hand.

“People have always been particularly fond of handmade objects,” Inami said. “But we wanted to communicate the gentleness and warmth of handmade things even to people who weren’t necessarily interested in the idea. The first retailer to carry our products was a home goods shop called SEMPRE, located in the Aoyama area of Tokyo. It was a perfect fit for us, since we wanted customers to see our product as a kind of sophisticated everyday item.”

Eventually, our sales channels expanded to include 160 outlets across the country, most of them small variety goods retailers. The shops were pre-purchasing the products, but our monthly output of 400 was snapped up almost instantly, and production just couldn’t keep up.

A fresh start based on a commitment to “making Japanese aesthetics a part of everyday life”

“Our turning point came in 2005, when the Sazaby League asked us to make a 25th anniversary product for their Afternoon Tea brand. We had to make a water-resistant watch in order to meet their quality standards. At the time, C-Brain watches hadn’t yet achieved that level of functionality.”

“In order to get water resistance, we had to ask a professional watchmaker to make all of our watch parts aside from the face and the band. I struggled with the idea at first, but I knew there was a limit to the number of watches we could turn out if we continued to insist that every last part be handmade. We eventually decided to take advantage of the opportunity and shift to a water-resistant handmade watch.”

Every watchband is finished by hand with a shaving process to make certain that the leather will fit comfortably against the skin

The new C-Brain watches made a splash, and for a time sales increased even further. But at some point the sales stopped dead—dropping by as much as half in a single year.

“What in the world is going on!?” President Inami thought. He went around and met with retailers to try to get the story. Apparently, the young women who frequented the small variety goods shops preferred the unadorned look of the original handmade design. Another factor was the price increase. Customers were turned off by the fact that the water resistant watch was now priced at ¥17,500 instead of ¥12,500.

Inami could have panicked and gone back to the old way of doing things, but he actually made a different decision.

“If people want to treasure these timepieces for years to come, they should be water resistant,” he concluded. “If the small variety goods shops can’t sell them, we’ll go to the department stores!” The next question was how to get the department stores to do this. How could they set their products apart when only the faces and bands were handmade? How could they get more customers to fall in love with them and wear them as part of their everyday go-to look?

This is when the idea of “making Japanese aesthetics a part of everyday life” was born.

“When you get to be my age, you start thinking that traditional Japanese culture is cool again,” Inami explained. “But even if you find beauty in something like Japanese lacquerware, you end up putting it away in a cabinet because you can’t find a way to make it part of your everyday life. I’m the same way. Brand-name watches like a Rolex are great, but I thought that if we could make timepieces that effortlessly showcased our Japanese traditions, people might naturally start up conversations about the wajima-nuri lacquering technique, for example.”

Using artisan craftsmanship to bring traditional Japanese techniques to watch faces

The Hanamokko Series that came out of this process uses faces use Kanazawa gold leaf, wajimi-nuri lacquer, natural mineral pigments, and other traditional materials to express a uniquely Japanese sense of beauty

 

A piece from the Konairo Series in popular aquamarine. The hours are marked by genuine gold foil, while the pigment is produced by crushing a bright blue stone called azurite. This is one of the signature colors used in traditional Japanese pigmentation—one that is featured heavily in the Tale of Genji Scroll, a well-known national treasure.

 

A piece from the Hakuoshi Series in coral with metallic overlay. Pieces of gold and silver foil are laid on top of the mineral pigment.

“The most difficult challenge we have is the thickness of the face,” Inami explained. Any ornamentation has to be done at a uniform thickness, which can only be a mere 0.15 millimeters.”

His first idea was to create a lacquered face with the Urushi Series. Inami actually went to visit the wajima-nuri lacquer artisans’ association himself to seek out the right craftsperson for the job.

“I was pretty convinced it couldn’t be done, and I went ahead and talked to them anyway,” he told us. “But these were master artisans capable of lacquering at a thickness of 0.1 millimeters or less, even with the application of gold. I was so impressed with how beautifully that lustrous, polished finish came out.”

The Konairo Series and Kasane Series, which make use of natural mineral pigments, are the work of C-Brain employee Ko Ushima, who is also active as a Japanese painter. His work involves repeatedly layering natural mineral pigments dissolved into glue onto Japanese paper. Because the thickness has to be kept to 0.15 millimeters or less, he looked everywhere to find paper that would work. Eventually, he discovered one called tosatengu-joshi in Kochi Prefecture, said to be the thinnest paper in the world. He is careful to select only Japanese paper products that can withstand the repeated coatings of pigment.

Glue and natural mineral pigment

 

Natural mineral pigments are mixed together with glue and layered onto Japanese paper before being allowed to dry. This process is then repeated four times or so to create a uniform thickness. Any unevenness will snag the hands of the watch and cause it to malfunction, so staffs graduated from art university focus intently as they apply each coat. (Photo: L.A. Tomari)

 

Azurmalachite, a mineral used to make natural pigments (Photo: L.A. Tomari)

Today, the C-Brain Atelier offers sixteen different watch face colors as part of its painted solid-color Konairo line. Just within the blue family are five distinct hues—kon (navy), ruri (lapis lazuli), gunjyo (ultramarine), gunryoku (teal), kamenozoki (sky blue), and azagi (blue-green)—each with such exquisite coloration that it’s easy to get lost in them and forget the time entirely.

“These days, apparently it’s really only the traditional Japanese painters that use natural minerals as their primary pigments,” Inami said. “That’s something that really stuck with me when Ushima-san first told me about it. Japan has some truly wonderful cultural traditions, yet there’s so much out there that people don’t know about. I want as many people as possible to experience this beauty. If I can be so deeply moved by it, I feel like others will be as well.”

Simple, effortless traditional beauty gains a following overseas

Looking for some way to get his Hanamokko Series products into department stores, Inami set up a booth at the For Stockists Exhibition held every year in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. There, an intermediary put him in contact with a buyer for the Mitsukoshi department store in Nihonbashi. The buyer was extremely impressed, and just happened to be doing some work with traditional Hokuriku crafts at the time—so the C-Brain Atelier soon became known at the Design Center Ishikawa and in the local government.

“We had never thought of getting involved with city hall,” Inami admitted, “so we were shocked when they called us up. They told us that Ishikawa Prefecture had subsidies available for traditional crafts, asked us if we wanted to put our pieces in the Design Center gift show—we even found out about Rin crossing through this process. Thanks to the support of many people, we were gradually able to expand our sales channels with a focus on department store events.”

The Hanamokko Series took the Grand Prize for best new Kanazawa brand in 2009, a Bronze Medal for recognized Ishikawa-brand products, and the Ishikawa Product Design Association President’s Award and Ongoing Success Award at the Thirty-sixth Ishikawa Design Expo. The company responded by releasing even more vibrant color variations in its watch face designs, and currently has so many orders that even turning out 700 pieces a month, it is struggling to keep up.

The Oshita Kosen Kobo atelier, masters of Kaga Maki-e lacquering techniques, handles the gold lacquering for C-Brain watch faces. The designs come primarily from famous gold lacquer pieces from the Heian and Kamakura periods.

Though it still took two long years for these incredible watches to catch on in Japan, they were received outside of Japan with instant acclaim. Inami set up his first overseas exhibition at the Maison & Objet trade fair in Paris last September, where German, Moroccan, Belgian, and French companies all expressed an interest in doing business with him. The Eslite Bookstore, a Taiwanese corporation, is now putting in regular orders thanks to the C-Brain display at the roomsLINK TAIPEI event sponsored by Rin crossing.

At the September 2015 Maison & Objet exhibition in Paris, the C-Brain Atelier not only displayed its timepieces, but also the minerals that it uses to make the natural pigments and other materials for its watch faces. This ingenious display immediately communicated the value of the products, and drew heavy buyer interest.

Young female travelers from overseas are also seen happily purchasing multiple watches at a time when they visit C-Brain events at Japanese department stores.

“I think it's the effortless presentation of Japan’s traditional handicraft traditions that’s so appealing,” Inami said. “I’m constantly telling my employees not to get too practiced at what they do. They are very skilled, and could decorate the watches however they liked. But I never want them to make anything that looks so expert that it becomes showy. I want the artisan to take center stage—not the watch itself. That's where this effortless simplicity comes in. It’s a style that retains the character of the person who made it. That's really important.”

Cutting-edge appeal through collaboration

“I want to make something completely unique.”

President Inami smiled as he said this, and as he did the glint of a silver-banded watch with a lustrous black lacquer face on his wrist added an even chicer air to his already-fashionable black turtleneck and jacket look.

The watch is from his new hit product line, Go-awase. It’s a collaborative effort with Nousaku Corporation, a metal casting manufacturer in Toyama Prefecture.

 

The joint project with Nousaku is an effort to develop something new with the help of a revitalization subsidy from ISICO. The Go-awase Series has already won the Grand Prize in the lifestyle category at the 2015 Kanazawa Outstanding Brands competition, as well as the 2015 President’s Award from the Ishikawa Product Design Association.

Go-awase timepieces combine C-Brain watch faces with a tin-silver alloy band casted by Nousaku. The flat band is soft enough to contour around the wrist, its bracelet-like shape decorating the arm like a bangle.

The opportunity to develop the product came when Inami bought some of Nousaku’s cast-metal chopstick rests at an expo event. At the time, he was amazed enough that the pieces could be shaped by hand, but as he continued to use them, the idea came to him. “Could this same material be used to make a watch band?”

“We had long been wanting to make a metal band that would be resistant to water and sweat, as well as add a men’s product to our predominantly women-focused lineup,” Inami told us. “I thought we could come up with something really extraordinary if we challenged ourselves, and this was just the thing to make it happen.”

Inami immediately went to hear Katsuji Nousaku, the president of the company, give a keynote address. He found that he felt a kinship with him terms of his approach to business as well. He asked Nousaku about the possibility of collaborating that same day, and a new partnership was born.

“Nousaku-san also runs a forward-thinking company that loves trying new things for the fun of it,” Inami said. “But in the end, it took us three years to complete the product. The 100% tin band was too soft, so it would come off if you shook your wrist. We then started adding in silver in 0.1% increments to adjust the hardness. Through repeated trial and error, we eventually came up with the perfect mix.”

President Inami is eager to introduce additional techniques to his products—not only from Ishikawa, but from around the country as well. He is looking forward to setting up productive new encounters through Rin crossing.

C-Brain Co., Ltd.

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