It was towards the end of the 16th century that they became used as portable containers for medicine. Inro are usually constructed with a wooden core and then lacquered. The production process was very precise as the tiered and interlocking compartments forming the inro had to be absolutely airtight meaning that the thickness of each lacquer coating had to be taken in to great consideration. Sometimes a single coat would take as much as one month to dry!
Originally, inro were simply made with plain black lacquer. However they later became very decorative being inlaid with shells and embellished with many different coloured lacquers, gold being the most popular. Usually an inro object would take two craftsmen to complete. The first would make the box coating it in lacquer and then this would then be passed on to a highly skilled lacquer specialist who would apply the decoration. Many techniques were invented and a wide variety of materials were used for the inlayed decoration such as ivory, coral, tortoise shell, porcelain and metals such as copper, silver and gold.
Ojime, obi and netsuke
Inro are usually held together by a cord running through the sides with a string fastener called an ojime attached, which would be used to adjust the length of the cord holding the interlocking compartments in place. The inro's cord would then be looped over what is known as an obi and attached to a netsuke which would act as a toggle. An inro would then be tied, hanging from the sash of a kimono, usually worn by males. The simple reason for this is that kimonos do not have pockets and so this was considered the most convenient way to travel with one. It was during the Edo period (1614 - 1868 AD) that inro were most popular and it was only due to Western influence in dress during the mid to late 19th century that their use began to diminish. However, they are still highly sort after by collectors worldwide, respected for their sheer quality and uniqueness and hence many command high prices at auction.
Seperated from netsukes
Unfortunately many inro objects have over the years become separated from their netsukes. There are inevitably many factors involved but this is partially due to the rise in netsuke prices and both inro and netsuke collectors being split into two separate groups. In my opinion these objects should always be kept together to admire as a whole but like with so many things in life, objects tend to become separated over the years.
If you have any Japanese inro or Asian Art items in general, please contact Robin Newcombe, Asian art specialist at Grand Auctions, Folkestone, Kent