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Netsuke (pronounced “net-ski” or “net-skeh”) are tiny sculptures that originated in Japan as an accessory to traditional Japanese clothing. They have since evolved over a time period of three hundred years into works of art that are both collected and revered by art aficionados across the globe. 

Originally, Netsuke served both functional and aesthetic purposes. The Japanese kimono did not have pockets, so women would hold small objects in their sleeves, and men would wear a silk cord on their obi, or sash. From the cord, they would hang items such as tobacco pouches and coin purses. These items were known as sagemono. To stop the silk cord from slipping under the weight of their sagemono, they would attach a small toggle to the cord. These toggles were known as netsuke, which literally means, “root for fastening”. 

All three items (the obi, sagemono and netsuke) were beautifully decorated with carvings, lacquer work and inlays of precious metals, ivory, coral and other rare or expensive materials. Netsuke were often carved into different designs, and were shaped as everything from animals to humans to abstract patterns. Because of their individuality and uniqueness, netsuke quickly became highly collectable and their design became a coveted art form. Netsuke were also a sign of social status, as the craftsmanship and the quality of materials used varied between individual pieces. The wealthy tended to own better quality netsuke. 

Netsuke can be made from a large variety of material, the most popular being ivory. However, it is not uncommon to find netsuke made from wood, animal tusks and antlers, amber, pottery, bamboo and more. There are many different styles of netsuke as well. The most common style is called katabori, or figural netsuke. These are the netsuke that resemble people or animals. Another type of netsuke are sashi, which are long and thin. Manju netsuke are named after a bean paste dish because of their round shapes that look similar to buttons. Kagamibuta, which means “mirror lid”, are netsuke that consist of a metal lid and a bowl. Finally, mask netsuke are fashioned after the masks in the Noh or Kyogen style plays that were popular in Japan at the time. Common netsuke subjects included the animal characters taken from the Asian zodiac as well as mythological figures, heroes and scenes from everyday life, but netsuke subject matter was hardly limted to these and they could take the form of anything the artist could possibly imagine. 

By the 19th century, netsuke were no longer needed in their functional role. Japanese culture, and thus dress, was heavily influenced by European styles, and the kimono and obi fashion fell out of favor. They still remained highly collectable however, as the startling amount of detail that went into each netsuke was a true jewel in the crown of Japanese art development. Today, netsuke fetch hefty prices from collectors around the world who admire the intricate and delicate craftsmanship, and the uniqueness and individuality of these beautiful works of Japanese art.


Below is a sample inro. This inro has three section that open to reveal compartments inside. A silk cord passes through the inro, then the ojime bead, and finally ends at the netsuke. The ojime bead is slid down against the top of the inro to keep it closed.

 

Ivory, Bone, or ??? Snuff Bottles
Porcelain Jade and Gemstones
 
Mammoth Ivory Netsuke
Bone & Wood Inro
Ojime Beads
Hardwood Netsuke
Tagua Nut Netsuke
Curios
 
 

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