Ever since I went to the V&A Museum when I first came to London back in the late 1980′s, and chanced upon the wonderful Japanese Arts collection, I have had a fascination for Netsuke, the small carvings that were worn as part of the traditional robes of Noblemen throughout the country.
These beautifully carved objects had both a functional and an aesthetic role. Firstly, as Japanese robes such as kimono’s, had no pockets, precious things like money, tobacco, medicine and herbs, were kept in lacquered wooden, segmented boxes (called Inro) that slid up and down a cord and were held together by an Ojime (a sliding bead). This cord was then tucked underneath the belt and was prevented from falling out by the Netsuke, threaded on to the other end of the cord. The wonderful example to the left shows the arrangement beautifully.
Netsuke started out life as a simple utilitarian object; a simple “lump” designed to stop things falling through a belt. Over time however, these simple objects (like the boxes and beads) developed into a highly sophisticated and artistic expression of not only a person’s status and wealth, but also of how cultured they were, a key aspect of Japanese Culture.
Netsuke (pronounced Netski) have been around for many hundreds of years. Early examples date from the Edo Period (roughly the beginning of 17th Century) and the relative scarcity of early ones and the intricate and supremely high quality of later genuine antiques, means that they are very valuable and consequently very expensive.
There is a however a market for newly made ones, and this has allowed me to own afew of these little pieces of beauty. Historically the large majority of Netsuke were made from either ivory or boxwood, with occasional highlighting in precious metals. As ivory is quite rightly banned now, other materials are used in its place.
Whilst in Hong Kong earlier this year, we managed to acquire a couple of excellent examples; the serene sitted boxwood water buffalo and his keeper, the happy monk. The monk is made from tagua nut, which is from the ivory palm and is often called vegetable ivory.
The other two netsuke’s above, are a dragon and a snake (our Chinese birth signs) which we got from Greenwich Market about 6 years ago.
The photo to the right is off the bottom of the water buffalo and shows the two holes through which the cord would have been threaded. Also visible is the peralesque makers mark, inlaid into the base of the carving.
As an aside, we were in Japan in 2005, and we went with high hopes of seeing lots of “proper” Japanese Netsuke. Sadly we were to be disappointed, as we visited a number of National Collections in Tokyo, with the most stunning and beautiful objects you could possibly imagine, but as I recall, I think we saw one case with about four Netsuke, Inro and Ojime sets in it. Very lovely, but not enough…