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Beads have forever been a part of history, covering virtually every culture.  Although most beads are used to embellish and adorn, they also serve a number of other functions, which covers political events, social circumstances, religious beliefs, symbolism of curative powers, and have even been used as currency.  Beads are also made in a huge variety of colors and designs, and can be made from all types of materials to include wood, metal, glass, ivory, and plastic. 

Many of the ojime beads made from ivory were first carved in China’s Heibei province.  However, during the mid-1980s, ivory was banned at which time ojime beads were made from boxwood.  These beads are not carved by just anyone, but actual master carvers who consider this a very valuable art form.  Many master carvers can create up to five to ten designs and while some will vary in color, the density and fine grain are what makes them unique.  For a single ojime bead to be crafted by a skilled master carver, approximately four to six hours is required.  Once the carving is complete, the beads are then signed by the artist, hand polished, and waxed to bring out their lustrous shine before being sold. 

With Ojime beads, these first originated in Japan.  The beads are meant to work with the netsuke so the Japanese people could hang items on a sash from their kimono.  Although these small beads are beautiful and intricately made, they had a very distinct purpose for every day life.  Because of the amazing carving of the ojime beads, they soon became somewhat of a fashion statement. 

Now keep in mind that during the 17th Century in Japan, pockets were not a part of clothing design.  Therefore, the Japanese people had no way to carry tobacco, currency, medicines, and other small personal items.  Over time, the tobacco pouch was created along with a writing set to keep things together and organized.  The Inro for example was a box with anywhere from two to seven layers, which were used to store small objects.  To keep the Inro together, cords made of silk were braided and then run through the box vertically. 

As a way of maintaining the integrity of the braid, ojime beads were used.  Then to close off the end of the cord, a small toggle called the netsuke was placed.  With this design, the Inro could dangle from the kimono out of the way yet within close reach.  Soon, the beautifully designed ojime bead became a piece of art expressed by the artist.  With so many different designs, the Japanese individual could choose the style, color, and design that best matched his or her personal preference.  For instance, some of the designs included whales, dogs, monkeys, snakes, crabs, tigers, dogs, dragons, mice, bats, roosters, owls, and much more. 

While you can still find authentic ojime beads, today, many reproductions are also available, which are quite charming and typically carved from boxwood found in China, but following the traditions of the Japanese.  The design of the ojime bead consists of a hole drilled from the top all the way down through the bottom.  Additionally, depending on the design of the bead, there may also be some holes running lengthwise.  The original and reproduced ojime beads are indeed amazing, refined pieces of art that are actually very sophisticated.


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.

 

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