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Could this be Umimatsu?...

Discussions, identification and analysis of the different types of natural shell and corals
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Postby Clive » Wed Jan 25, 2017 1:50 pm

Natasha wrote:Umimatsu is not fragile, it is very comfortable raw material, black coral contains a lot of protein, so it is resilient, it is well-cut with any tool in all directions, perfectly polished.


Umimatsu is the Japanese word for black corals but there are numerous types of black corals... some of which aren't even black. While I'm always loath to challenge your "alternative facts" given the fiery response it will no doubt illicit, this is still an educational forum and we are principally concerned with the sort of facts that are related to observable reality. (Well at least I hope we are.. sometimes I wonder. ;) )

So FYI but mainly for the benefit of anybody confused by your earlier comments, there are black coloured corals, pink corals, red and brown hard corals and lots of much rarer corals like the famous golden hard coral and even green coral. In the Japanese netsuke tradition and our netsuke literature many of those different types of coral have been lumped together and routinely referred to as umimatsu although some corals like the pink corals do have other more specific Japanese names. All the corals and indeed different parts of individual coral species have their own workability characteristics and many diverse qualities although according to Bushell (13/ 2:6), "As material, umimatsu is more acceptable to collectors than carvers. Leading carvers naturally avoided the material. It was prone to crack, crumble or chip. Carvers find that it is risky for carving details and subtle effects."

That said.. some species of black corals are as hard and uniform as you describe.. and they will indeed take fine detail. Many others however are far less so.. some are extremely brittle and structurally much more varied, but with many wonderful colour characteristics, textural qualities and translucency which still makes them highly desirable as a netsuke carving material. The species of coral that are most commonly seen in the Japanese Netsuke tradition are those that occur around the coast of Japan and Western North Pacific.

Here is a netsuke carved from a particular black coral species.. while structurally dense you can see thick layers partially separating.

Here is some raw dense black coral from my personal collection..

And here is a dense black Umimatsu carving done by the very talented Dutch carver Ko Baas from some coral I sent him as a gift.
2010jan31_4143 (1).jpg

But as I said before... there are other types of Umimatsu, such as that used in this famous Kanman netsuke.. this would also be a black coral but its structure is a great deal less dense than the previous examples. The material also has prominent colour inclusions and some areas that are very much weaker that surrounding dense dark areas.

Simply put.. black corals are often simply not uniform in structure irrespective of their overall molecular composition and can be strongly veined with softer brown or red material..

Then there are the much rarer umimatsu types like the commonly referred to "golden corals"..
Here's a pic of what some of that might look like in the raw form.. again from my personal collection.

and the same material partially worked showing some of its colour potential..

As you can perhaps see from the cross section the structure of that coral is even less uniform and dense than the blacker corals and it is as Martyn correctly said.. extremely fragile,thinly layered and is indeed very difficult to work successfully. What's more, the fine dust produced if carved with powertools is also very dangerous and more than a few carvers have over the years been badly affected by it despite using powerful extraction fans, including one very seriously. This close up image posted by Alain Ducros gives some insight into it's potential weaknesses.. a layer might suddenly and without warning crack or crumble.. its extremely unpredictable and virtually impossible to impose a design onto. It has to be approached with the greatest respect and sensitivity.. through an intimate dialogue between the carver and the material. IMO, carving this sort of umimatsu is really one of the most intellectually challenging of materials to work in..

but its incredible richness and beauty makes it decidedly worthwhile if one can pull it off.
Last edited by Clive on Thu Jan 26, 2017 12:16 am, edited 2 times in total.

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Postby Natasha » Wed Jan 25, 2017 8:30 pm

These days, anyone can use the Internet and find information. I read about the black coral. Its distinguishing feature from all other corals - keratinous, a protein. According to the structure resembles a black coral horn, but the fibers are very compacted and do not interfere, coral dust on burning has smell of horn. Black coral can be boiled for a long time, it becomes softer. Corals cut and straightened in the plate. Plates are used by jewelers. Like any organic matter is highly susceptible to drying out. Keep right! The collector has certificate of CITES, type II, it was black corall. I saw brownish rings as on tree. Also the handle from black coral was covered with very thin layer of a lacquer, perfect condition! I protected paw with Urushi, it was almost 2 years ago, no problem till today. Again, black coral is wonderful and comfortable raw material, I would be happy to work again.

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Re: Could this be Umimatsu?...

Postby lohrberg » Mon Apr 03, 2017 12:04 pm

Lacquer Applications on a Non Lacquer netsuke

When I added this netsuke recently to the collection, I thought: Simplest of the Simple. However one bonus for the material, black coral. Just a branch if it, measuring 5,7 cm. No evidence of a carving knife, nothing. Wabi sabi style so to say.
After I owned it for some days and using a magifying glass, I made out a signature.

A Lady collector passing by, asked: Do you know, there are insects on it, six of them. Indeed. Then I took pictures and blew them up. I found out, the insects are ants, but not carved. They were applied in lacquer. I sent those pictures to Bavaria KPR, saying, coral material, six ants in lacquer and a signature obviously in ukibori. His answer was: No, signature as well in lacquer. I had to agree and was a little ashamed of my misjudging.

Applying lacquer is not a carvers work, but comes from the skills of a lacquer master.

To get closer in identifying this netsuke, it needs knowledge about those artist, who worked with lacquer. Hm, what to do next? May be look into E. Wrangham's book THE INDEX OF INRO ARTISTS? No idea, the road ahead seems to be rough and stony,


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Re: Could this be Umimatsu?...

Postby TSB » Mon Apr 03, 2017 12:57 pm

Dear Reinhard,

Your signature reads Zeshin 是真 and maybe it could be from Shibata Zeshin.

When I look to your piece and thinking on Shibata Zeshin, I tried to find something genius, seen in so many works of him. But it is a very simple style, also the lacquered ants, where it looks that some of them carry something (small gold lacquer dot). Do you have some additional images from all the holes?
Kind Regards Thomas

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Re: Could this be Umimatsu?...

Postby carlomagno » Mon Apr 03, 2017 8:35 pm

Dear Reinhard, in my humble opinion you face not a rough path but a fascinating one! This is an amazing sculpture, an okimono? full of wabi sabi in the inner spirit of the Japanese culture and art. Congratulations! I can imagine a daymo showing to his acquintances some spectacular sagemono, old Kioto pieces. Then from a particular box in a corner this amazing piece is presented and he just enormously enjoy the amazement and curiosity in the concurrence, simply lot of fun. :)

Let me show you another umimatsu Netsuke about 4 cm long with perfect himotoshi, conceptually very simple carving, just seaweed carved but one little piece of rock included most probably part of the of the branch of coral.
Nec spe nec metu

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Re: Could this be Umimatsu?...

Postby lohrberg » Tue Apr 04, 2017 8:39 am

Dear Thomas,
your quick reply surprised me, since I expected a struggle through a thick grove. And this signature of course offers a thrill of joy. Thank you very much! I will try to bring more light to the "holes".

Regarding Juan Carlos's netsuke, I might add another black coral, which is similar from its shape. Inlaid are four shells in ceramic. With their colour they make the dark background more lively and illuminate the piece,


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Re: Could this be Umimatsu?...

Postby LUBlub » Tue Apr 04, 2017 12:36 pm


All the pieces posted give a perfect idea of the use and meaning of utilitarian netuske, essential and having Aji, the charm of the time, plus the merit of the material.
Thanks for sharing them.

In these photos, Unimatsu with inlaids in ivory and green stone - jade? -
Size 15,2 cm
Signed in red lacquer seal Baiko, mysterious artist mentioned in ND and Lazarnick books, only registered netsuke.
The LUB Collection (1).JPG
The LUB Collection (3).JPG
The LUB Collection (4).JPG
The LUB Collection (6).JPG
The LUB Collection (5).JPG
Excellence in netsuke art don't need signature or pedigree, or age, only quality, aesthetics, beauty.

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Re: Could this be Umimatsu?...

Postby LUBlub » Tue Apr 04, 2017 12:41 pm

Sorry this piece already posted before....
Excellence in netsuke art don't need signature or pedigree, or age, only quality, aesthetics, beauty.

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Re: Could this be Umimatsu?...

Postby AFNetsuke » Tue Apr 04, 2017 10:16 pm

Luigi, is there a date estimate for this artist? It's a highly polished piece.

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Re: Could this be Umimatsu?...

Postby LUBlub » Wed Apr 05, 2017 5:20 am

From iPad
Alan, U m not at home, but si remember the important auction house description was in 19th as well ND quote the artist in 19th...
And The red tablet signature in Lazarnick
Match with this piece...
Excellence in netsuke art don't need signature or pedigree, or age, only quality, aesthetics, beauty.

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