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What is a Netsuke?

A netsuke is a small, intricately carved toggle originating from 17th-century Japan. Crafted from ivory, wood, or metal, these artistic pieces served both functional and aesthetic purposes, securing pouches to the sash of a kimono. Each netsuke tells a story, reflecting the rich cultural heritage of its era. Curious about the tales they hold? Discover more about these miniature masterpieces.
Niki Foster
Niki Foster
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

A netsuke is a type of miniature carving that originated in 17th century Japan. Originally, a netsuke was used to attach an onro, a decorative wooden carrying case, to a man's obi or sash. A netsuke is somewhat like a large button, often round and sometimes quite intricately carved. Though utilitarian, netsuke became an opportunity for artisans to showcase their skill and eventually became admired and collected simply for their own sake. Today, both antique and modern artisan netsuke can sell for thousands of US dollars (USD).

Netsuke may be made of a wide variety of materials. In the past, ivory was the most popular. Other animal horns, bones, or teeth may be used as well. Hippopotamus tooth is the modern day substitute for ivory. Netsuke may also be made of coral, bamboo, agate, porcelain, Tagua nut, woven cane, lacquer, and a number of hardwood varieties. Many netsuke include metal accents as well.

Modern netsuke carvers use hippopotamus teeth as a substitute for ivory.
Modern netsuke carvers use hippopotamus teeth as a substitute for ivory.

There are many different traditional shapes for netsuke as well. Katabori and Anabori, together the most common type, are round and carved all over. Anabori are hollowed out through the center. The second most common type of netsuke is made to look like a mask from the Japanese Noh style of drama.

Manju netsuke are round but flat, like a thick disk, and typically carved in relief on each side. Ryusa and Kagamibuta are the same basic shape, but ryusa are more intricately carved, allowing light to shine through, and kagamibuta feature a bowl of ivory or a similar material with a metal lid. Finally, netsuke may be shaped like long sticks. These models are known as either sashi or obi-hasami, the latter of which features curved ends that lie on either side of the obi. Some netsuke feature movable parts as well.

Netsuke may be abstract in design, or they can depict anything in the artist's imagination. Antique netsuke from the Edo period often offer an interesting glimpse into Japanese culture at the time. Some popular subjects for the netsuke carver include people, animals, sexual scenes, plants, mythical or religious figures, and literary or historical scenes.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a netsuke and what was its original purpose?

A netsuke is a small, intricately carved toggle originating from 17th-century Japan. Its primary purpose was to secure the sagemono (a small container used to store personal belongings) to the obi (a sash worn with a kimono). Since traditional Japanese garments lacked pockets, the netsuke, attached to a cord, served as a functional anchor, preventing the sagemono from slipping. Over time, netsuke evolved into highly collectible art forms, showcasing the craftsmanship and artistry of their creators.

What materials are commonly used to make netsuke?

Netsuke can be crafted from a variety of materials, with the most traditional being ivory, wood, and stag antler. However, due to ethical concerns and regulations, ivory is less commonly used today. Contemporary netsuke artists also utilize materials such as boxwood, bamboo, and various hardwoods. Occasionally, metals, ceramics, and other natural materials like coral or shell may be incorporated, each adding unique characteristics to the finished piece.

How are netsuke valued and what makes some more valuable than others?

The value of a netsuke is determined by several factors including age, rarity, the material used, the skill of the artist, and the intricacy of the carving. Antique netsuke, especially those signed by renowned artists or with proven historical significance, are highly prized. The condition of the piece also affects its value; well-preserved netsuke with minimal damage are more sought after. Collectors often pay premium prices for netsuke that exhibit exceptional artistry and craftsmanship.

Can you still find artisans making netsuke today?

Yes, the tradition of crafting netsuke continues to this day, with contemporary artisans creating both traditional and modern designs. These artists often blend time-honored techniques with new styles and themes, keeping the art form alive and relevant. Collectors and enthusiasts can find modern netsuke at art galleries, specialized dealers, and through online platforms where artisans showcase their work.

Are there any legal restrictions on collecting or selling netsuke?

There are legal restrictions on the trade of netsuke made from certain materials, particularly ivory, due to international laws aimed at protecting endangered species. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) regulates the ivory trade, and many countries have specific laws that govern the buying and selling of ivory netsuke. Collectors and sellers must ensure compliance with these regulations to avoid penalties and contribute to the conservation of wildlife.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a MusicalExpert editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

Learn more...
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a MusicalExpert editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon188422

My frog netsuke has a small like button embedded on the bottom of it with a signature. Where can I get information on the signature?

BoatHugger

There was an auction in Beverly Hills containing around 150 famous netsukes. Almost 100 of them came from a Texas collector by the name of Herb Brochstein. There was an ivory netsuke of a mythical figure (an oni) carrying a tobacco pouch and a pipe. It was signed by Mitsumasa before 1946 and sold for $6,900.

christym

There are some very valuable netsukes around. The most valuable are the older ones that were made in the 18th and early 19th century. Okatomo’s, Tomotada’s, and Kokusai’s are very valuable. Some will be signed and others unsigned. However, just because they are signed does not guarantee their origin because many students imitate their master’s signature.

There are still very valuable netsukes still being carved today. They still adhere to the standards of the original netsukes in regards to detail.

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    • Modern netsuke carvers use hippopotamus teeth as a substitute for ivory.
      By: Uryadnikov Sergey
      Modern netsuke carvers use hippopotamus teeth as a substitute for ivory.