Category Archives: Kanzashi

Compare and Contrast

On Ebay recently, there were two interesting auctions that deserve to be compared. The first was for a real tortoiseshell Edo set, consisting of a beautiful comb, blonde with brown markings, and a kanzashi with an attaching ornament of a plover bird on a coral branch. You may refer to my post I Love Japan to see a plover bird kanzashi ornament that belonged to a Japanese prince. The one for sale on ebay was only one little plover bird on one little branch, but who cares. Are we Japanese princes? No. ;-) This set was the real deal.

On May 21, it went on sale for a starting price of $490. For me, that was fine, but $490 is a high starting price for a hair comb on ebay. There is so much going on that amidst the noise, it’s very difficult for a seller to convince our audience that one piece is really worth $490 unless it has a name recognizable to Western buyers, like Tiffany, for example. Also, it’s very difficult to tell the difference between real shell and celluloid from a picture. The set did not sell the first time. It was relisted at at $250 and finally sold for $294 on May 31. Great buy. You may refer to item #190116714443.

Meanwhile, another seller aquired a Japanese piece from the estate of a geisha. Her great grandchildren told the seller the kanzashi with two ornaments was Taisho and could be tortoiseshell. He repeated the story in his auction. At one point in the auction, the piece was at $522. My eyes widened when I saw this because this piece is one part of a celluloid Japanese wedding set. These sets were sold in Tokyo department stores in the 1940s. If anyone knows that they were made earlier, please let me know in the comments. The entire set goes for around $200 now.

I wrote to the seller. Nice man. My guess: the great grandchildren loved their family member and didn’t know because at one time these sets were made in shell. But the story sold. Amid the noise, the story got the attention of our audience and caused a bidding frenzy that far outweighed the value of the piece. One of the frenzied bidders withdrew, leaving the auction at $9.99, and the piece finally sold for $102.50 on June 7 — within the range of sanity, since it did come from the great grandchildren of the woman who actually wore it. You may refer to Item #120127400313.

For reference, here is an example of a complete imitation shell wedding set.

And here is the real thing. Source: a book of a famous Japanese comb collection, which is in a museum.

I think the “shell vs. celluloid in a picture” debate will go on forever, but authenticity is perhaps the most important feature of any antique purchase. Know your history, and good luck in your bidding! :-)


Kanzashi are Japanese hair pins, which ornament a geisha’s nihongami, or coiffured black wig. Maiko, or younger geishas, wear more ornaments than the older, more experienced women. Different flowers are worn for each season.

Kanzashi are different than kushi (comb) or kogai (matching stick), even though all three ornaments serve the same purpose. I usually focus on antiques, but I feel modern kanzashi deserved some notice. Today, they are being made from vibrantly colored fabric and painted wood, as opposed to the tortoiseshell and silver of previous eras. The modern ones are quite affordable, too. So I thought I’d compare and contrast today and feature one of my favorite actresses: Zhang ZiYi.

These two tortoiseshell and pink-coral kanzashi ornaments are Taisho, c. 1920, and depict bamboo, plum and pine in an auspicious grouping, which the Japanese call “Sho-chiku-bai.” They were listed with a dealer who retired in 1999 at $300.  I’d say that now, they were worth 3 times that because of the rarity of the design, quality, and condition. Tragically, I have no way of hunting down the owner, so I can kidnap her and force her family to give these to me as ransom. :-(   ;-) But these are Maltese Falcons. :-)

These beautiful tortoiseshell and coral hana kanzashi are tree peonies from the late Meiji Era (1868-1912). Hana kanzashi have the flower anchoring the pendants. One pendant is missing, but that’s no big deal. They are on sale on Trocadero for $890.

Bira bira kanzashi are “composed of metal strips attached by rings to the body of the ornament so that they move independently, pleasantly tinkling (which is sometimes accentuated by additional bells) or long chains of silk flowers called shidare.” (src: Wikipedia) Here is a gorgeous set from the Edo era. Value? Anything you can get it for. Wouldn’t matter. These are fabulous, and any dealer who had them would know that.

And here is a modern fabric wisteria. You can get them for $50, and these are the kind of kanzashi that Zhang ZiYi wore in “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Miss Zhang’s hana kanzashi were more complex than these, but you could get replicas of them if you really wanted to.

In addition to wearing geisha ornaments with such elegance, Miss Zhang also appears in diamond tiara combs when she attends award shows. I think she is fabulously beautiful.