Squirrel, goat, horse or badger hair, Tesshu Takemori makes the difference in an instant before detailing the properties of each animal hair for making makeup brushes. “Size, shape, suppleness, hardness, everything counts and decides the nature of the brush, its use (powder, foundation …). If the tip of a hair is damaged, it is damn. And this know-how is transmitted from father to son,” says the Japanese artisan.
Mr. Takemori is the heir of the brush workshop created in 1952 by his father Kazuo, president of Chikuho-Do, one of the iconic brush companies of Kumano, a city located about 20 kilometers from Hiroshima. Chikuho-Do is also the creator of brushes for famous Japanese cosmetic brands such as Shiseido, RMK or Kanebo.
Brushes are the recognized emblem of Kumano and the community even dedicates some religious ceremonies to the tool. Approximately 80% of the Japan-made brushes for fine-arts, calligraphy and make-up are produced in this urban area of 24,000 inhabitants. About 1,500 employees of family-owned businesses work in this sector, including 20 “masters” such as Tesshu Takemori.
“Keep the tip”
“The tradition of handcrafted writing brushes already existed in other parts of Japan, such as Nara or Harima, but about 180 years ago people in the Kumano area thought they could produce cheaper items and sucessfully grew the business,” says Mr. Takemori during a tour of his company, which is lodged between beautiful traditional homes at the foot of the mountains. At the time “quality was not exceptional”.
Today, at Chikuho-Do, about a hundred staff, mostly women, are working to make thousands of brushes, using their hands and eyes as the main tools … but neither scissors nor computer!
“The secret is to keep the tip of the hairs, not to cut it, because it is where their essential function is and that’s what differentiates our brushes from many foreign models,” insists the artisan.
“The first step is to distribute the hairs that come from China, Russia, or other countries in the form of balls in layers. This is the only place where a machine is involved,” said Mr. Takemori.
“This hand work is impossible to automate,” he says. Furthermore, all required tools have to be produced specially, such as the “koma”, a kind of wooden mould used to shape each brush, adds Tesshu’s grandson, Yutaro Takemori.
Throughout the process, “rebellious and mischievous hairs are removed one by one with a sort of metallic blade which, coupled to the index finger, acts as a clamp. This sorting technique differs from those used anywhere else in the world,” says Tesshu Takenori. These small trade secrets, called “waza”, make the difference.
“Of course, we know there are protest movements against the use of natural hair, but we do not kill animals specifically to make brushes,” insists the young Yutaro. According to him, the use of synthetic hairs is not necessarily a solution more environmental-friendly solution, given the required use of chemicals. “The creation of the nylon tips is now possible but it remains impossible to reproduce the cuticles of natural hairs,” adds his grandfather Tesshu.
“International make-up artists working with most famous actresses and models, especially those of Paris fashion shows, do really appreciate Kumano’s brushes,” explains Yoko Miyake, who supports local artisans in their development abroad.
The city exports its brushes to the United States, Europe and Asia, says the Kumano Manufacturers Association.