These handy, little sculptures which were often prepared for several months were generally made from hardwood (cherry wood, boxwood) or ivory. Since the netsuke was hanging on a silk cord and all of its sides could be seen, the makers took great care of the workmanship. Japanese people met with ivory at the beginning of the 17th century and they graved the first ones from remaining pieces of picks produced for a Japanese stringed instrument.
Most of the time netsuke depict human figures or subjects from nature. The subject of the figure could come from the Buddhist mythology or it could be a zodiac animal – like a tiger, a horse or a snake.
According to their shape, we can differentiate more types. The most familiar is the katabori, the three-dimensional netsuke, with a wide variety of subjects.
Common, but from an artistic point of view really valued, the mask-netsuke, are the reduced versions of the ones used in theatre. Typical figures are the female demon, the young women, the old man or the funny character. These ones are equally made of wood or ivory as well.
From the late 1800’s by the changing of dressing habits, with the release of traditional wears the netsuke lost its function. It has become a commercial article and the foreign demand has immediately increased. The European and American collectors just realized the enormous artistic work inherent in these tiny objects. As the result of changes netsuke lost its functional role, and they became independent as an ornament or object of art.