What is a netsuke?
A netsuke is a unique form of small sculpture which developed as an art form in Japan over a period of more than three hundred years. Originally, netsuke served both functional and aesthetic purposes.
The kimono, the traditional Japanese form of dress, had no pockets. Women would tuck small personal items into their sleeves, but men suspended their tobacco pouches, pipes, purses or writing implements on a cord from their sash (obi). These hanging objects are called sagemono. To stop the cord from slipping through the obi, a small toggle was attached. This toggle is called a netsuke (the most popular pronunciation is net-ski, while the actual Japanese is closer to net-skeh). A sliding bead (ojime) was strung on the cord between the netsuke and the sagemono to tighten or loosen the opening of the sagemono. The entire ensemble was then worn at the waist and functioned as a sort of removable hip pocket or wallet. All three objects were often beautifully decorated with elaborate carving, lacquer work, or inlays of rare and exotic materials including ivory, wood, precious metals, shell, coral, and semiprecious stones. A whole new group of talented artists emerged during this period of time to create these unique objects.
The netsuke-ojime-sagemono system was used for over three hundred years, until after Commodore Perry opened Japan to trade with the West. By the late 19th century, the Japanese had switched over to Western dress and pockets replaced the netsuke-ojime-sagemono system. However, by this time, the art forms had reached a pinnacle, and captured the attention of western collectors. They were fascinated by the incredible beauty of these delicate art forms in miniature and the intimate quality of these sculptures for the hand. Great collections were formed, and international respect developed for these art forms and the artists who created them. This is a phenomenon which continues to flourish today. A limited number of talented netsuke-shi (carvers) are dedicated to keeping this unique art form alive. In fact, the creation of fine netsuke is no longer confined to Japan. There are almost 100 talented artists worldwide who are carving netsuke. They have been inspired by tremendous demand by patrons, museum exhibitions, and a wealth of books and articles on the subject. Modern communication has made it possible for artists to exchange knowledge of materials, techniques and to develop a multi-national culture interpreted in this highly personal and intimate art form.