Netsuke are miniature sculptures invented in 17th-century Japan to serve a practical function. Traditional Japanese garments had no pockets; however, men who wore them needed a place to store their personal belongings, such as pipes, tobacco, money, seals, or medicines.Their solution was to place such objects in containers (called sagemono) hung by cords from the robes’ sashes (obi). The containers may have been pouches or small woven baskets. Whatever the form of the container, the fastener that secured the cord at the top of the sash was a carved, button-like toggle called a netsuke.
Chinese puzzle balls are ornate decorative items that consist of several concentric spheres, each of which rotates freely, carved from the same piece of material. Although the master carvers of old used ivory, in modern times you can find puzzle balls made of synthetic ivory, resin, wood, jade, and other materials. These detailed works of art are usually made up of at least 3 to 7 layers, but the world’s largest puzzle ball is actually made of 42 concentric balls all enclosed one within the other.
Chinese masters rotate a solid ball on a lathe and start by drilling holes toward the center of the objects. Then, using special “L”-shaped tools, they begin to separate the innermost balls. The tool with the longest upright has the shortest cutter, and the one with the shortest upright has the longest cutter. The craftsman lowers the longest tool to the narrow bottom of each hole in turn and rotates it to cut the innermost ball free. Then, using the second longest, which doesn’t reach as far down, but cuts a wider arc, he separates the second ball, and so on, from the innermost to the outermost shell. Because it is easier to work with, the exterior shell is the most elaborately carved, usually featuring an intertwined dragon and a phoenix.