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The netsuke is a personal decoration piece dating back to the 17th century Japan. It evolved from the purely functional to highly detailed and varied over a period of approximately 300 years. Roughly pronounced "netskeh" or "netski", the netsuke was originally used as a toggle to keep items, such as purses and tobacco pipes, from slipping off the cord hanging from a man's kimono sash. Put together, this ensemble acted as a sort of hip pouch, a necessity as the kimono had no pockets. Prior to the invention of the netsuke, plant roots with toggles were used rather than the much fancier silk cord and carved netsuke. The Japanese characters 'ne' and 'suke' mean "root" and "to fasten"- hence the name of this unique and beautiful item. As men of the middle and upper classes wore more intricately carved netsuke, the netsuke developed a reputation as a status symbol. Netsuke are prized by art appreciators the world over, with pre-Meiji Restoration (late 19th century) netsuke being the most coveted. After this period, Japanese men began to adopt western dress and the netsuke went out of fashion. Care should be taken to ensure that one deals with a reputable art dealer, as reproductions are rampant and fairly easy to create. On the other hand, many appreciators simply enjoy the many variations of and materials used for creating netsuke, and collect them for visual appeal as much as the history they are connected to. Reproductions or modern interpretations are easy to find and can be obtained very inexpensively. Genuine netsuke is typically made of ivory or wood. However, a variety of other materials have been used throughout history. These include ceramic, horn, bone, amber and whale's tooth, among others. A genuine pre-20th century netsuke can be had for as little as $100 or, depending upon the detail, time frame and name of the artist, $100,000 or more.
Part of the appeal of Japanese Netsuke is that they reflect the society during which they were produced. Inspiration was drawn from the imagery important to the 17th-19th century Japanese lifestyle. Stylized animals, plants and mythological faces are common forms of the netsuke. Non-living entities include geometric shapes or coins and abstract patterns. Another interesting form is the "shunga" which depicts sexual depictions or symbols. References to history or literature also seem to have been popular. True appreciators may want to check out the International Netsuke Society. This organization, formerly called the Netsuke Kenkyuaki Society, was founded in 1975 and is devoted to the collection and study of netsuke and related art forms. It is based in Richardson, TX.