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Netsuke: Solving Problems Elegantly

In my last two posts, I wrote about Chinese snuff bottles and about the tradition of Persian and Moghul miniature painting. In this post, I’d like to share a bit about a Japanese miniature art form: netsuke. The joint ornamental and functional nature of netsuke is a continuing inspiration.

If you'll look carefully at Japanese paintings and drawings from the past, you will notice that earrings, necklaces and bracelets are nowhere to be found. Items designed exclusively for personal ornamentation were virtually non-existent. Instead, items of dress and personal use, such as clothing and hair combs, were ornate. Objects of common use were turned into objects of art; the practical was elegant. This stands in strong contrast to many of our own “necessary objects,” which tend to have a utilitarian design one would not really characterize as “beautiful,” or consider a work of art (just think of the wall of fasteners in your local fabric shop, to get an idea of what I'm talking about).

Bead-style Japanese netsuke. Photo by David Wicks.Netsuke started out as a common bead, attached to the cords of a small pouch, which hung from the belt over a kimono or hakama. They probably originated in China. The function of the netsuke was to keep the cord from slipping out from under the belt, so one didn’t lose the attached pouch. Kimonos didn’t have pockets (when I think of all the things I really didn’t want to put through the wash, this seems brilliant). Over time, netsuke became more and more ornate, carved of various materials, in the shape of animals, people, nature, and fantasy. They could signal many things, including the profession and status of their wearer.

Netsuke inspire me not only because of their unique and often clever beauty, but also because they have introduced a new dimension into my work. They join two things often put into separate “boxes” here in the US: problem-solving and beauty.

Porcelain button by VIKA, used as a hair fastener.Buttons solve the problem of fastening clothing. Fibulae solve the problem of fastening a jacket, shawl or scarf. A snap or tie could also solve these problems, but thinking about netsuke allowed me to see decorative ceramic as a more elegant and personal solution. This has opened up many possibilities. Recently, it resulted in my buttoning up my hair.

What have you created already that solves a problem and adds aesthetic value, or makes a personal statement? What else can you think of for fastening hair, clothing, or footwear? How about for securing items that should not fall out of your pocket, such as keys, cell phones, glasses, or cards? These are all candidates for a netsuke-type counterweight solution. What do you set on the table when you sit down? Better yet, what do you lose all the time!? Where and how else could these items be “fastened?” Does another culture or time period already have an elegant solution: could it be rendered in ceramic?

Netsuke challenge us to move beyond producing beads and the exclusively ornamental. They encourage us to see the possibilities in very functional, problem-solving objects and to imagine a new life for them— as objects of art.


  1. Fabulous post Victoria. Did not know about Netsuke. Great concept. Love your hair button. And thank you for including my toggle clasp.

  2. Great post, I loved learning about the netsuke and I had to laugh when you mentioned losing things in the wash (me too!). Your barrette looks lovely in your beautiful hair.

  3. Sorry so slow to respond-- extra work appeared out of nowhere! Appreciate your comments...I'm excited about the hair buttons: always amazed at what has been sitting right under my nose!


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