The flowering of Wayne, a man with metal in the soul

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THIS IS the vase that does not need a flower. It is made of gold, silver and copper, has been annealed up to 400 times and is likely to become one of the 21st century's icons of contemporary craftsmanship.

Wayne Meeten, who was born in Brighton, made it in collaboration with one of Japan's national treasures, Masonobu Kitoh, becoming the first Westerner to be taught the secrets of Japanese metalwork.

Meeten, who is 37, has just returned from Japan, having spent two months living and working with Kitoh. Their relationship echoes that of the potter Bernard Leach, who went to Japan 90 years ago, returned with the Japanese master potter Shoji Hamada and became the father of British studio ceramics.

Master metalworkers at Japan's top university, the Tokyo Gaidai, spotted Meeten's self-taught prowess. They invited him to study for a year, after which they took him on a surprise visit to Kitoh's home. The pair hit it off, Meeten's knowledge of t'ai chi helping him establish common ground.

Meeten had spent six years repairing antique jewellery, then eight years at London's Guildhall University. He began practising Japanese metalwork techniques in his final year, using textbooks and trial and error. He won prize after prize, but it was winning the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths' first-prize bursary two years running - against 3,000 entrants - that drew the attention of the Japanese. And he says: "I learned more in my year in Tokyo than in my eight years at the Guildhall".

One of the Japanese techniques is mokume gane ("wood grain"), the repeated folding, cutting and hammering together of sheet steel, from which samurai sword blades are made. After hundreds of folds, a careless blow can fracture the wafer-thin layers. The only British practitioner Meeten found was trying to solder the layers together.

The bowl of his 28in flowerless vase - "the flower is in your mind," he says - is made from gold, copper and shakudo (a Japanese alloy), sliced to reveal the layers and then painstakingly raised by gentle hammering and annealing (cooling) hundreds of times. The vase took a month to make - 10 hours a day, six days a week.

Kitoh taught Meeten shibori, the raising process, pushing the metal from the back, instead of the front as Western metalworkers do. He told him: "Slow down and listen to the work, stop trying to run. If you do make a mistake, ask the metal whether it wants to be repaired or whether it wants to become something different. It is alive. It will tell you."

Meeten wants to establish metalwork "not as a hard, cold medium, but as something soft, tactile and pleasing". He says: "The younger generation is after a fast buck, but you have to spend time learning the fundamentals. You have to root yourself and grow like a tree.

"That way, you can become a stepping stone for the next generation. There will be metalworkers who are better than me, who will take the craft into a new era."

He has exhibited at Bonhams and Sotheby's, but until British collectors learn to appreciate Japanese metalworking skills, his appeal in the West will be narrow.

Prices: by commission, from pounds 2,500. The vase is exhibited in `Spirit of the Times' at the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, County Durham, until 4 October (01833-690606). Wayne Meeten is on 0181-672 6408.

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