When you walk around some shops selling Korean traditional craft products in South Korea, you may notice some products with radiant inlay. They are mother-of-pearl craft works called najeonchilgi (나전칠기), which has more than 1,000 years of history in Korea. Let’s discuss about this Korean traditional craft in this blog post.
“Najeon” means mother-of-pearl which is an organic-inorganic composite material forming the shiny inner shell layer, and in Korea, processed abalone shells are used. If you still don’t have any idea of what “mother-of-pearl” is, you could watch this video. “Chilgi” means lacquerware. Najeonchilgi involves a mother-of-pearl inlaying technique which is laborious with more than 30 steps – first preparing a base from materials such as wood, metal, thick paper (made by gluing many layers of paper together) or porcelain, then, where appropriate, sanding the base and filling the gaps with a special paint made from lacquer tree resin and clay, after that pasting mother-of-pearl pieces onto the surface of the base, followed by more polishing and lacquering, and finally rubbing it to make it smooth and shiny. You could see a simplified version of the process by watching this video.
Najeonchilgi is a “Korean way” of lacquering craft combining two related art forms influenced by China, namely, the art of lacquering wood (introduced into Korea during the Three Kingdom Period (57 B.C. to 668 A.D.)), and mother-of-pearl lacquerware (introduced into Korea during the Shilla Period (668-935)). It enjoyed its heyday during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) when it was largely influenced by Buddhism. It was a luxury good owned by nobility, and the design was extravagant and elaborate using abstract patterns. At that time, najeonchilgi was given as gifts to envoys and overseas rulers. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), najeonchilgi’s design became much simpler and more natural focusing on capturing simple scenes from nature, perhaps due to the influence of Confucianism which recommended an austere lifestyle. This art spread across a wider population during the turbulent times plagued by wars in the 16th century and the pictures on the art works were mostly things about people’s daily lives, e.g. flowers, plants, birds, and fruits. From the 18th century onwards, this art was also enjoyed by the common people.
During the Japanese colonization of Korea (1910-1945), najeonchilgi barely survived but started to recover after the restoration of Korean independence in 1945. With the economic development in the 1960’s and 1970’s, najeonchilgil flourished and became a symbol of wealth in Korea – the demand was so great that the supply of abalone shells dried up in Korea, and pearl shells and turban shells were imported from Taiwan, Australia and the Philippines. In the 1980’s, after shooting up to exorbitant prices, najeonchilgi suffered from a big market decline and barely survived.
Nowadays, najeonchilgi is used not just for art works but also used as decoration for daily products such as jewelry box, furniture, phone case, water bottle, bookmark, comb, mirror, accessories (e.g., necklaces, earrings, bracelets and brooches), etc. You could see an array of products with najeongchilgi decoration in this online store. Najeonchilgi has received much attention when the Korean artist, Kim Young-jun was requested by Bill Gates to decorate the latter’s game console with mother-of-pearl, and decorated the Holy Grail and Holy See for Pope Francis (who visited South Korea in 2014). You could learn more about the art works of Kim Young-jun by watching this video.
If you are interested in Korean traditional crafts, don’t forget to visit the Korean handicraft shops and look at the najeonchilgi products.
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Lee Se-mi, “A Modern Master of an Ancient Art”, The Korea Collection: Selected Cover Stories from Years Past, edited by Korean Culture and Information Service, Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, 2012, pp. 14-15.
Lee Seung-ah, “Jeju National Museum exhibits rare mother-of-pearl lacquerware“, Korea.net, 2014
“Song Bang-ung – Master Craftsman of Mother-of-Pearl Inlaying“, Antique Alive
2 thoughts on “Najeonchilgi – Mother-of-Pearl Craftwork”
I love your site, Miss Kalbi!
The history of music, actually all of it-great job! 🙂
Beautiful work. I have a black enamel over brass with mother of pearl inlay vase with rooster. On the back it states translation ( lieutenant colonel Ha-Kintsu and Col. Shin Y.H.
I am trying to find out if this was made for someone specific. The time frame and the maker or family it was created for