When walking around the trade tables at Samurai Art Expo, you might hear comments such as “that is a beautiful sword” or “It’s just right” or “it is an art sword” and you might justifiably ask “What?” Describing weapons as a thing of beauty may at first appear strange. While it is true that some weapons, particularly firearms, are often exquisitely decorated. These terms are being applied not to any decorative effect, but to an edged piece of steel whose purpose is to cut in the case of Japanese swords, so starting out in this field and describing a cutting weapon as art or as beautiful appears counter intuitive.
When looking at swords, there are a number of features that help identify their origins and their age. These are, in order of examination: Sugata (shape), jigane/hada (the forging pattern of the skin steel) and hamon (the pattern of the hardened edge.) Each of these features plays a part in making the Japanese sword the most effective cutting weapon ever manufactured. However, it is well documented that smiths throughout history have regarded their craft as a spiritual calling. They have gone far beyond the making of a functional weapon. They have worked at their craft, manipulated the raw material to create something that, at its best, is not only a supremely effective weapon, but a truly beautiful work of art.
There is great diversity within the range of Japanese blades and all collectors have their preferred style of sugata, hada and hamon. One can argue for many hours about the relative merits of each pattern. However, it is the way these different aspects of a sword interact that take it from being a weapon to the realms of art. In the very best blades, these elements come together in perfect harmony, creating a visual landscape in steel – something unique and stunningly beautiful.