A Meiji period shibayama inlaid ivory elephant with crystal ball, circa 1880

Although not strictly speaking jewellery, we are very impressed by this imposing ivory elephant of substantial size, decorated with typical Japanese shibayama inlay of half pearls and multi-coloured mother-of-pearl plaques carved with narrative themes.

The period from 1868 to 1912 in Japan is known as the Meiji era, the name chosen by the young prince Mutsuhito when he followed his father to the throne.

Meiji in Japanese means ‘the enlightened rule’. During the Meiji period, Japan underwent a dramatic transformation from a medieval society to a leading economic and political power in Asia. It was a time when the arts flourished and were appreciated by an astute clientele.

During the Meiji era art objects were finely crafted out of a variety of materials, including iron, bronze, silver, brass, and specially developed alloys of sentoku (copper and tin), shuibuichi (silver and copper), and shakudo (gold and copper), as well as out of ivory.

David and Daniela inspect the shibayama inlaid ivory elephant

Ivory was a material that could be fashioned into a diversity of objects for daily use as well as sculpted into a netsuke or okimono, small carved decorative objects. The surface could be inlaid with coloured gemstones and pearls in the shibayama technique.

The items decorated in this method range from ivory tusks to vases, boxes, table screens and swords. This elephant is a rare example. Whereas most sculpted ivory articles are small in size, this elephant is monumental.

A close up view of the shibayama technique

The harness, saddlecloths and blanket are grandly adorned in the shibayama technique with mother-of-pearl, coral, pearls and metal.

In contrast to typically rigidly portrayed animals, this elephant is about to take a step with his left leg slightly ahead of the right. The real life portrayal is also seen on the splayed ears, as if the animal is listening for a command.

The curled trunk and wrinkles on the legs denote his advanced age.

This elephant sculpture is a tour de force of design and workmanship.

Due to the delicate nature of the art form and the fragility of the resulting pieces, intact shibayama items are highly valuable and prized by collectors.

Decorative motifs from the surface of the elephant

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Further details: 
A mother-of-pearl, pearl, coral and metal decorated ivory elephant with mother-of-pearl flowers on stained ivory harness and headstall with half pearls, saddlecloths with carved Japanese figures bordered by fringe with mother-of-pearl and blanket with branches, flowers and leaves, carrying a plinth with mother-of-pearl rosettes supporting a platform with border of stained ivory, half pearls and mother-of-pearl with pillars and scrolled railing, supporting a crystal ball


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