For the kanzashi collector, it is helpful to be able to discern between that which is decorative and pieces which are art. Auction prices often confirm the fact that the more art qualities a kanzashi has, the more collectable it becomes. Decorative hair combs (which are often quite beautiful in their own right), will not possess the depth of expression that is seen in more artistic pieces. Art is distinguished by its originality, a sense of aesthetics and clear, purposeful expression. Often, within in it, one feels the presence of the maker – there is the sense that the piece has its own personality.
In the top comb set we see lovely decorative flower design. But on second glance we find a demonic figure hiding in the right side of the stick. The inclusion of ugliness with utmost beauty makes a statement about life that is beyond the decorative –the comb set has now become evocative and more poetic in mood. In the second comb, the artist reaches beyond the decorative in this complex, beautifully executed design. On it are two separate landscapes, each one on golden, smooth lacquer fan shapes. Around these shapes, darker, roughly carved water forms flow. The movement of the water gives a feeling of excitement to the piece, especially when contrasted with the smooth texture of the fan shapes and the serene designs within them. The water even cuts into the fan forms, just as water does in real life, showing that the artist who made this gave a lot of thought to the play between the two opposing elements: surging water and serene landscapes. When an artisan goes the extra mile to create something exceptional, the result is often that ever-elusive thing we call “art.”
The designs in most Japanese kanzashi most commonly are drawn from nature, such as animals ( tortoise, cranes and fish), plants (bamboo, flowers and pine trees) or landscapes (harbors, waves and mountains). Much harder to find are kanzashi in which people are depicted. The inclusion of human beings (to me at least) gives the piece a more personal touch and demands more from an artist because people are complex to render, as can be seen in the elaborate silver piece depicting a man seated on a lotus leaf. For this reason and the fact that they are so rare, hair ornaments which depict people are considered very collectable. Shown here are a few pieces from my collection except the comb depicting the man and monkey which is from the Okasaki collection.
From the Miriam Slater Collection, this set features an open-top kushi design filled with gold maki-e leaves, stems, and one mother-of-pearl bud. There is a scroll ornament painted on both sides. The kogai stick has the same scroll theme diagonally carated to separate the same leaf, stem, and bud theme on both ends. Stunning Edo style. c. 1800.
Chrysanthemums are the imperial flower of Japan. They represent friendship, which masks a secret wish for love. Perfection is defined by the unfolding of the flower’s petals.
As symmetry is an important principle in Japanese art, kanzashi are usually made in pairs. This pair from The Miriam Slater Collection combines dark and blonde tortoiseshell masterfully. You can see mottled sticks, dark leaves and centers, and blonde flowers blooming. A butterfly stops for a moment. The bira bira below have dark shell pieces linked by blonde shell chains. The balance between dark and light affects the way we see both colors. The Japanese were also known for portraying realism in exact detail.
I do not know what to do with myself when I see what artist Miriam Slater has collected. My mind basically goes blank. However, my jaw does recover within the hour. Here are two picks from the tortoiseshell part of her Edo collection. The first wedding set features a tortoise and a crane, symbolizing stability and freedom. The second has the scroll of wisdom.
The kanzashi’s original purpose was a charm against evil spirits. The tradition began as early as 1000 BC to 300 AD, in Japan’s Jomon Era. Decorating them with flowers invited deities. The art captured the Japanese cultural imagination in the Edo era (1603 – 1867), when criminal activity increased. This initiated laws that prohibited people from going out in hats or head coverings, so hairdressing once again came to the forefront of Japanese fashion.
There are many different kinds of kanzashi:
Mimikaki: an ear pick on the end.
Tama: decorated with a single coral or jade ball. However now, many materials are used.
Hirauchi: a flat silver circle decorated with flowers or symbols
Hana: strings of dangling flowers, worn by geishas
Bira Bira: fans with long dangling chains, which have ornaments at the bottom
My bridal kanzashi is decorated with Mino-Kame — a straw raincoat, which used to be worn before the invention of textiles; a tortoise and pine boughs for longevity; a scroll of wisdom; a treasure box; and flowers, indicating nobility.
Miriam’s kanzashi is unique. A man with a fishing pole sits on a curved leaf structure, surrounded by dangling chains.
Finally, the Creative Museum has one I absolutely love: a gold fish, whose face looks almost human.
I would like to welcome two new authors to our community blog.
An award-winning Canadian modern artist, Jessica Beauchemin creates balanced abstract wood sculptures, which I feel mirror the design sense of Alexander Calder.
Our second new author is Miriam Slater. We have had passionate conversations about Japanese hair ornaments for years, and she has put her collection online. When I saw what she had, I fainted. She will write about her own collection, as is proper, but as I have absolutely no emotional control, I must share three pieces. They are all Edo masterpieces, and I am sure Miriam will have more to say about her work in future posts.
Ivory Edo half-moon comb of plover birds sitting on a cherry tree branch, with blossoms.
Tortoiseshell Edo comb of three carp swimming in the water. The carving on the fish is so detailed, they almost have human expressions.
Do you see how the turtle is looking from underneath the water at the birds flying above? The artist achieves this metaphor by hooking the birds to the kushi with silver finials and coral beads. Brilliant.