I found my passion for Satsuma buttons in a most unlikely place: Manitowish Waters, Wis., in the U.S. While casually attending an antiques show there with a group of friends, I spotted a very small Satsuma button. Having had a longtime interest in Japan, I was immediately captivated by it. The purchase of this little button drew me back to the history of the country where I lived when I was 10 years old.
In the late 16th century, specifically 1592-1597, Japan invaded Korea. On his return from the invasion, the Lord of the Satsuma domain brought 73 Korean potters to Satsuma, located on Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan. Kilns in the Korean style were erected in Satsuma and the potters began their production. From 1648 until the mid-19th century, much of the earthenware produced in Satsuma was simple and undecorated, made primarily for the wealthy Shimazu family. Under the patronage of this influential family, the work of the potters of Satsuma province became widely known and respected, and the pottery was given the name Satsuma.
By the end of the 18th century, pottery making in Satsuma had declined as ceramic production gained importance in the Arita area and in Kyoto. In an attempt to regain their position, several Satsuma potters traveled to Kyoto to learn about the enamel colors used there. Upon their return to Satsuma, the potters applied what they had learned in Kyoto, and Satsuma ware began to change in style and technique. By the mid-1800s, designs typically incorporated a central figure painted in perspective, which led to more complex natural painting.
Japan establishes trading partners
While the Satsuma potters were developing their painting skills in the mid-1800s, the United States had been making attempts to establish trade with Japan. In 1854, a treaty opened two Japanese ports for trade with the U.S. The Netherlands, Great Britain, France, and Russia quickly established similar agreements with Japan.
A series of political and commercial changes had begun which ultimately brought industrialization and modernization to Japan. Some of these changes affected the potters of Japan, who began to respond to market demands of the Western world, and their wares changed accordingly.
Gold was added to the paintings on Satsuma ware, a response to Western demand for gold-enameled wares produced in China. As demand grew, the production of Satsuma-style ware began to occur in Osaka, Kyoto, and other parts of the country. Satsuma ware became the darling of the export trade after the display of a giant enameled and gilded flower vase at the Paris Exposition in 1867 and the Vienna Exposition in 1873.
What exactly is Satsuma ware?
Satsuma ware was made from natural clay fired at a temperature at the top of the range for earthenware and the bottom of the range for stoneware. The first firing of Satsuma ware was done at a low temperature to remove impurities from the clay. After cooling, the ware was dipped in a feldspathic and wood-ash glaze and then fired again at a higher temperature.
During the second firing, the glaze would not entirely fuse with the clay, resulting in an off-white soft surface unlike the hard finish of porcelain. During the second firing, the beautiful crackle pattern so typical of Satsuma ware would develop. After cooling again, the ware was painted and gilded and returned to the kiln for the third and final firing, during which the enamel paint and gilding fused with the glaze. This lengthy process is recorded in Japanese historical records.
In spite of all the research I have done into the origins and processes of Satsuma ware, I have yet to learn precisely where in Japan and under what circumstances the first Satsuma buttons were produced.
Buttons feature tiny paintings
The miniature work of art on the face of a Satsuma button is the most captivating aspect of the object. The most common shape of a Satsuma button is circular. Other shapes, including lotus, heart, butterfly, and spherical, do exist, but they are harder to find and are highly prized by collectors.
The crackle pattern and the thickness of a Satsuma button give clues to its age. The earliest Satsuma buttons were probably fired in wood-burning kilns and have much finer crackling than modern buttons have. Along with finer crackling, an older button typically has a somewhat rounded top surface and a thicker and more rounded edge.
As villages became more populated, smoke from the kilns became a problem, as did the loss of trees for firewood. Old kilns were replaced with gas and electric kilns. The newer kilns caused a change in the crackling, which became much wider and less attractive. A more modern button typically has a thinner edge and a flatter top surface.
The shank of a Satsuma button is another clue to its age. An older Satsuma button typically has an unglazed, rounded, raised knob shank pierced by a straight hole. A more modern Satsuma button typically has a slightly cylindrical shank with a sharply cut edge. These are the two most prevalent shank types among Satsuma buttons, although others do exist.
Borders, backs, and markings
The edge of a Satsuma button often has a border. This is especially true among most of the older buttons. Some buttons have simple gold edges or borders of gold dots or diamonds. Other buttons have elaborate borders. A number of buttons I have examined have identical borders and painting styles, so perhaps the border sometimes served as a signature of a family or group of painters.
The back of a Satsuma button sometimes bears a mon, the crest of a Japanese family. Some Satsuma buttons have a small red circle surrounding a red cross. This is the mon of the Shimazu family of the Satsuma domain on Kyushu Island. On occasion, one will see another signature on the back of a button written in kanji, the characters of the Japanese language, which may designate a location or the name of a painter.
The Japanese people have been making pottery since before the beginning of recorded Japanese history in BC 660. Satsuma buttons are a relatively recent development in that long history, but their charm and artistry make them very popular among button collectors.