KOREAN MOTHER-OF-PEARL INLAY LACQUER WARE.

Mother-of-pearl, also known as nacre, is an inorganic composite material produced by certain mollusks as an inner shell layer, and accumulated in other shells, such as freshwater pearl mussels, in the form of pearls. It is very strong, resilient, and iridescent. It can be found in strains of mollusks in the class of “Bivalvia“, such as the clam, oyster, or mussel; “Gastropoda“, such as snails or slugs; and “Cephalopoda“, such as cuttlefish or squid. At current, pearl oysters, freshwater pearl mussels, and to a lesser extent, abalones are predominant sources of mother-of-pearl material.

The mother-of-pearl material used in traditional inlay crafts is mainly that of abalone. Though artisans do also use the mother-of-pearl of other shell-fish, they believe the abalone is of the highest quality, producing the most beautiful colors and light reflections.

Abalone shell.

Mother-of-pearl can be adhered onto many different kinds of materials such as wood, porcelain, metal, and thick paper. There are three main methods of attaching the mother-of-pearl, the first of which is to carve the surface of the base material exactly to the shape of the mother-of-pearl motif and inlay it. The second method is to glue the sheet of mother-of-pearl directly onto the surface. Lastly, one can process the mother-of-pearl into miniscule pieces and scatter them onto a glue-applied surface.  

The origins of mother-of-pearl are not clear but it is known that the crafts enjoyed huge popularity in China during the Tang Dynasty (618~907). Most of the wood and mother-of-pearl shells at the time were sourced in South Each Asia, which may lead us to believe that the origins of the craft also lie in South East Asia. During the Ming (1368~1644) and Qing (1616~1912) Dynasties, the methods of applying metals, gold, or some other materials to the back of mother-of-pearl sheets so that one could see the beauty through the almost translucent sheets of mother-of-pearl after applying them onto the surface of wood crafts developed and reached their peak in China.

In Korea, lacquerware with mother-of-pearl inlay is referred to as “najeon chilgi“. The term “najeon” is composed of the character “na“, signifying shell, and “jeon“, denoting decorative techniques, while “Chilgi” is the term used for lacquering.

Korea’s “najeon-chilgi”, mother-of-pearl inlay methods, are known to have been passed down from China’s Tang (618~907) Dynasty to Shilla (57BC~935AD); a country located in the south-eastern part of Korean peninsula) during the time of the Three Kingdoms. Following on from the Tang Dynasty, this craftsmanship deteriorated in China during the Song Dynasty. On the other hand, in Korea during the Goryeo (918~1392) period, mother-of-pearl craftsmanship developed and spread extensively leading to mother-of-pearl inlay crafts and ceramics becoming representative of the Goryeo period. 

The “najeon-chilgi” of Goryeo are highly valued black lacquered mother-of-pearl crafts adorned with images such as chrysanthemums and vines. Such crafts of the Goryeo Dynasty, while hugely popular at the time, deteriorated with the falling of the Goryeo Dynasty. Towards the end of the 13th century and into the Joseon Dynasty period (1392~1910), such crafts underwent stark transformations.

Trefoil-shaped covered box with decoration of chrysanthemums. 12th century. Lacquer inlaid with mother-of-pearl and tortoise shell over pigment and brass wire H. 4,1cm, W. 10,2cm, D. 4,4cm. Lacquer, celadon, or bronze ensembles composed of four trefoil boxes surrounding a larger round or flower-shaped box served as containers for cosmetics or incense. Very few Goryeo-period lacquer boxes with mother-of-pearl inlay have survived; this is a particularly fine example. Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET), New York.

Trefoil-shaped covered box with decoration of chrysanthemums. 12th century. Lacquer inlaid with mother-of-pearl and tortoise shell over pigment and brass wire. Collection: National Museum of Korea.
Covered Box
12th century
Lacquered wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl
H: 4,5cm. x Diam.: 12,4cm.
Taima-dera Temple.

Najeon-chilgi” of the Joseon Dynasty can be categorized into 3 broad groups.

  • Images of lotus flowers and peonies, a pair of phoenix, a pair of dragons, or “Bosanghwa”, an imaginary flower resembling the lotus, were among the common motifs appearing on mother-of-pearl crafts of 16th century pre-mid Joseon Dynasty. These patterns were noticeably simpler and larger in scale than those of the Goryeo period.
  • During the late Joseon Dynasty period (1700~1800), mother-of-pearl designs became more free, with images of peony blossoms and bamboo, or flowers and birds appearing frequently. Many mother-of-pearl images of this time portray realistic representations of the “Ten symbols of Longevity” (sun, mountain, water, rock, pine tree, moon, boolocho, turtle, crane, and deer), and other natural objects. At the same time, peony blossoms, bamboo, flowers, and birds started being portrayed in humorous and childish ways, leading to another unique and simple dimension to the beauty of Najeon from the Joseon period.
Ogival tray decorated with floral scroll. 15th to 16th century. Joseon period. Lacquer inlaid with mother-of-pearl. H. 1 5/8 in. (4.1 cm); W. 12 in. (30.5 cm); L. 17 3/8 in. (44.1 cm). Floral scrolls consisting of delicate leaves and chrysanthemum-like petals are ubiquitous in Korean lacquers dating to the Goryeo dynasty, an aristocratic age noted for its elegant artistic traditions. The scrolls on this tray follow that tradition but are distinguished from those on earlier pieces by the use of pearl shell, rather than silver or brass wire, for depicting the stems. This tray, which is comparable to one in the Tokyo National Museum, is among the few Korean examples that can be dated to the beginning of the subsequent Joseon dynasty. Collection: The Met, New York.
  • Following on from the Joseon period, Korea entered a period of Japanese colonization (1910~1945), during which mother-of-pearl craftsmanship was only barely able to survive. Restoration of Korea’s independence in 1945 re-opened doors for this craft.
Stationery box decorated with peony scrolls. 15th – 16th century. Lacquer inlaid with mother-of-pearl; brass fittings.
H. 9,2cm. W. 24,1cm, D. 36,5cm.
Scholarly men collected and used stationery boxes like this to hold paper and writing implements. A rare example of early Joseon lacquer, the box’s ornate design of peony blossoms and acanthus-like leaves illustrates the expansion of sophisticated Goryeo-dynasty techniques and traditions. Peony blossoms of similar form can be found on inlaid buncheong ware; the stylized acanthus-like leaves are distinctive to this example and to the few other extant boxes of its type, which are nearly identical. Collection: The Met, New York.
This box displays several elements of the mother-of-pearl inlay techniques common in the Goryeo period, including the use of tortoise shell, chrysanthemum and bead designs on the edge of the lid, scrolling vines and metal lines on the edge, and trapezoidal patterns.
H. 18.8cm, 83.5×52.6cm.
Clothing box decorated with peony scrolls. Lacquer inlaid with mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell, and brass wire. 17th century. H. 21,3cm, W. 79,1cm, D. 46cm. This box demonstrates stylistic variations on the peony scroll, a favorite design on Korean lacquer ware ornamented with shimmering abalone shells, or mother-of-pearl. Here, the large luscious blooms are accentuated.
Collection: The Met New York.
Lacquered letter box. H. 7.0cm, L. 20.5cm, W. 37.2cm. This top and sides of this letter case are adorned with an inlaid mother-of-pearl grape design, while a pair of bees is portrayed in the margin to provide a sense of liveliness. It displays the typical features (such as the bold layout of the patterns, realistic portrayal, and use of margins) of lacquerware inlaid with mother-of-pearl from the mid-Joseon period. Collection: National Museum of Korea.
Box. Dark lacquer with mother-of-pearl inlay. Lotus vine pattern. Late Joseon Dynasty probably 18th – 19th centuries.
H. 18cm, W. 46,1cm, D. 31,3cm, Collection: National Museum of Korea. (3 photos).
Photos left & right. Box with flowers & clouds. 18th century. Lacquer inlaid with mother-of-pearl. H. 21cm, W. 21cm, D. 31,9cm. Collection: The Met, New York.
Presentation box for a wedding (yemulham), wood, black laquer, inlaid mother of pearl, horn with underpainting and brass wire, hinges and lock fitting of brass, 15,7 x 19,8 x 28,5 cm, early Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), 15th century. Collection: Museum für
Ostasiatische Kunst Köln, Germany.
If you have this antique box in your room, what would you keep inside? People from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897) used this lacquered box to store combs and hair ornaments. The top of the lid is adorned with a pair of phoenixes holding the herb of immortality in their beak, and the edge is ornamented with half-flower patterns. The front shows a chrysanthemum and peony design; the sides have plum blossom, bamboo, and a pine tree with a pair of birds. The back is decorated with water plants and a pair of birds. It displays typical features of mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquerware of the mid-Joseon Dynasty.
Lacquered Comb Box Inlaid with Mother-of-Pearl, Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). Collection: National Museum of Korea.
A Large Lacquered-wood Box Inlaid with Mother-of-Pearl Dragons
Joseon dynasty (early 20th century)
Rectangular, with rounded corners elaborately inlaid on the overhanging lid in large pieces of mother-of-pearl with two confronted dragons facing off on either side of a flaming jewel with a backdrop of scalloped clouds, the sides of the lid inlaid in mother-of-pearl with lotus arabesques on the long sides, inlaid with bamboo on one short side and inlaid with plum branches on the opposite short side, the ground of the lid black lacquer, which is repeated on the plain lower box; interior lined with green paper
28½ x 17 5/8 x 5¼in. (72.6 x 44.8 x 13.3cm.) Christie’s Auction. 
Clothing box decorated with dragons. Lacquer inlaid with mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell, and ray skin. 19th century. Joseon dynasty.
H. 17,1cm, W. 73cm, D. 45,1cm.
This box’s lively design features two dragons chasing a flaming jewel. The beasts’ long, sinewy bodies wrap around the sides of the box; their heads face each other at opposite corners at the top. The masterful mixture of diverse materials—mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell, and ray skin—highlights different textures, emphasizing not only the tactile quality of the mythical beasts but also their dynamic character. Collection: The Met, New York.
A NORTH KOREAN CHEST (Photos above)

Mother-of-pearl three-story cabinet with ten symbols of longevity pattern, 2006 North Korean crafts.

“A rectangular parallelepiped shape features a storage cabinet with a swinging door beneath a rectangular ceiling plate. This three-layer structure has each floor separated, and horse-drawn legs are attached to the lower part, connected by foot straps. The swing doors on each floor are hinged with square hinges, and a square front base is attached. A lock engraved with the letter ‘囍’ is placed on the pear tree in front of the 2nd and 3rd floors. The four corners of each door plate are reinforced with ear decorations. Four drawers with bat-shaped handles are attached to the top of the first-floor door, and a ‘ㄷ’ shaped handle is affixed to the top of the third-floor door. The front four corners of the ceiling plate, gunny sack, and each layer are reinforced with gamjabi. The entire surface and interior are painted with black lacquer, and the front is adorned with the Ten Longevity Symbols, while both sides showcase landscape patterns created using the mother-of-pearl technique—a method in which mother-of-pearl is carved into the patterned part of the tree and then inlaid with mother-of-pearl”. 

Written by Seo Geum-ryeol, a professor at Pyongyang Art University in North Korea.

Nong. Japanese occupation period. H. 140cm, W. 77cm, D. 39cm. Collection: National Folk Museum, Seoul. 4 photos under.

Three level chest with mother of pearl inlay. Collection National Folk Museum, Seoul. 4 photos under.

Two level chest. H. 138,5cm, W. 77,2cm, D. 38cm. Collection: National Folk Museum, Seoul. 3 photos under.

MOTHER-OF-PEARL APPLICATION METHOD.

The following analysis is based on an excellent study conducted by Colleen O’Shea, Mark Fenn, Kathy Z. Gillis, Herant Khanjian, and Michael Schilling, published as “Korean Lacquerware from the Late Joseon Dynasty” by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

To begin with, each object consists of a wooden or bamboo substrate, a textile layer, a lacquer surface comprising one or more layers, and numerous inlay elements. The inlay materials are used to create designs on the prominent surfaces of the objects and may include mother-of-pearl, ray skin, tortoiseshell, wire, golden-colored flakes, and possibly horn.

To fashion mother-of-pearl pieces into various shapes, craftspeople from the Goryeo through the Joseon dynasties utilized a range of tools, including knives, chisels, engravers, scissors, awls, needles, and gimlets for piercing holes. In the twentieth century, they began using fretsaws. The cut mother-of-pearl pieces were either applied in their entirety or further refined using the “tachalbeop” technique. In this method, curved pieces of mother-of-pearl were struck with a hammer or a knife to flatten them, resulting in a distinctive cracked texture.

Table top. Black lacquer with mother-of-pearl and wire inlay. Dragon & phoenix motifs. Very popular during the late Joseon Dynasty period.
Table decorated with floral scroll. Joseon dynasty (1392–1910)
Date: 19th century. Lacquer inlaid with mother-of-pearl and metal wire. H. 38,7cm, W. 42,2cm, D. 30,8cm. The decoration on this table continues the designs of Goryeo-dynasty lacquer. The scroll pattern in wire, delicate three-pointed leaves, and circular geometric pattern are common in the earlier tradition. The scallop framing of the floral motif on the tabletop evokes the shape of ogival trays. Collection: The Met, New York.
Table decorated with floral scroll. Top view.
Table decorated with floral scroll. Joseon dynasty (1392–1910)
Date: 19th century. Lacquer inlaid with mother-of-pearl and metal wire. H. 25,4cm, W. 33,3cm, D. 33,3cm. The decoration on this table is inspired by Goryeo-dynasty design. The wire-inlay scroll pattern, delicate three-pointed leaves, and circular geometric pattern are common Goryeo-lacquer motifs that were carried through in this Joseon lacquer. The scalloped framing of the tabletop’s floral motif evokes the shape of the ogival trays.
Collection: The Met, New York.
Table decorated with floral scroll. Top view.
Korean lacquered chest. H. 107cm, W. 72cm, D. 27cm.
This “Nong” consists of two separate boxes placed on top of a base. The first and second levels share the same pattern and structure. Each box features a swing door with a sliding door inside the swing door. The swing doors are connected with spool-type hinges and reinforced with ornate corner decorations at the four corners. The joints between the top panel, side panels, and bottom panel are strengthened with shank-shaped corner hinges, while the four corners are reinforced with barrel-shaped fittings.
The hinged doors and the front of the ‘Nong’ are adorned with an Ajamun (亞字文) pattern running around their perimeters. Each compartment depicts icons representing the Five Principles of Conduct. Starting from the right, the contents and titles of Maengjongeupjuk (孟宗泣竹) and Wang Sangbubing (王祥剖氷) tell the story of a filial son, while Songnyeo Bulgae (宋女不改) and Yeojongjirye (女宗知禮) narrate the story of a virtuous woman. These intricate designs were executed with precision, employing the Mother-of-pearl inlay technique. The top and bottom compartments of the swing door were adorned with twisted Ajamun (亞字文) and turtle gate designs.
Handles were installed on both side of each box for convenient transportation. This ‘Nong’ was elevated to prevent damage from the heated floor, and foot-shaped legs were securely fastened to the footrest. Only the corners of the front were reinforced with elixir-shaped plate decorations.”
Collection: Busan Metropolitan City Museum.
Nong.
H. 116cm, W. 82cm, D. 40,5cm.
The craft of najeonchilgi refers to lacquerware inlaid with nacre (mother-of-pearl), including such items as furniture and accessories.
The surface of the lacquerware is with decorative patterns made by inlaying very thin pieces of nacre (processed from iridescent shells, such as abalone).
Tongyeong, which harvests many abalones, is famous for najeon chilgi nacre-inlaid lacquerware.
This two-tiered chest of lacquer inlaid with mother-of-pearl depicts landscape designs and hexagonal flower patterns (龜甲花文).
Here, the inlay technique involves slicing the nacre into thin thread-like strips and stretching them with the tip of a knife before cutting them off and attaching them to the object.
Collection: National maritime museum of Korea, Busan.
Nong. Lacquer with mother-of-pearl and tortoise shell inlay.
H. 117cm, W. 73,4cm, D. 32,7cm.
Collection: National maritime museum of Korea, Busan.
Chest decorated with the map of Tongyeong. Black lacquer with mother-of-pearl inlay. H. 48,5cm, W. 81,8cm, D. 40,1cm.
Collection: National maritime museum of Korea, Busan.
Front part of the chest with map of Tongyeong.
MOTHER-OF-PEARL FURNITURE PRODUCED DURING THE LATE 20TH CENTURY.

Regarded as a symbol of wealth, chests ornated with mother-of-pearl experienced a surge in popularity in Korea during the 1960s and 1980s. It became a sought-after item, with new brides purchasing it as a wedding gift and housewives acquiring it as a status symbol.

Korean black lacquer mirrored vanity with mother-of-pearl inlay.
H. 65,5cm, W. 45,5cm, D. 17cm. 
Photo courtesy of Bucks County Estate Traders, Inc. USA.
Mother of pearl three level chest.
H. 190,5cm, W. 92,2cm, D. 47,3cm.
Collection: National Folk Museum of Korea.
Mother of pearl wardrobe, H. 203cm, W. 104cm, D. 53cm. Collection: Kyungwoon Museum, Seoul.
Mother of pearl wardrobe. H. 206cm, W. 107cm, D. 56cm. Collection: Kyungwoon Museum, Seoul.
Mungap or stationary chest. 20th century. H. 46,8cm, W. 104cm, D. 34cm. Collection: National Folk Museum, Seoul.
Wardrobe. H. 201cm, W. 121cm, D. 68cm. Mid to late 20th century. Collection: National Folk Museum, Seoul.
Wardrobe. H. 201cm, W. 121cm, D. 68cm. Mid to late 20th century. Collection: National Folk Museum, Seoul.
Dressing table. H. 173cm, W. 91cm, D. 38,5cm. Mid to late 20th century. Collection: National Folk Museum, Seoul.

The 1960s in Korea marked a period when the economy, previously stagnant due to the Korean War, underwent revitalization. The social atmosphere was increasingly imbued with a growing desire for material wealth. It was during this era that chests adorned with mother-of-pearl lacquerware, radiantly gleaming in five colors and exclusively associated with high-end craftsmanship, emerged as a symbol of affluence and gained immense popularity. Mother-of-pearl wardrobes found their way into countless households, and it became a nationwide trend to possess a complete set of mother-of-pearl doorcases, dressers, and cabinets. Newlyweds often included a set of mother-of-pearl wardrobes in their wedding items.

The primary production center for this furniture was Tongyeong, renowned for its long-standing tradition of crafting the highest quality mother-of-pearl lacquerware. In close proximity, a mother-of-pearl workshop was situated just three or four doors away, and the exquisite mother-of-pearl products swiftly set the standard for furniture nationwide. As the popularity of mother-of-pearl lacquerware grew, the number of factories adopting machine-based abalone shell processing also increased, finding success not only in Tongyeong but also in the neighboring Goseong. During the 1970s and 1980s, the expansion of mother-of-pearl workshops extended to cities like Seoul, Busan, and Daegu, leading to a surge in the number of factories, which is estimated to have reached around 1,000.

The mother-of-pearl lacquerware craze that swept the country persisted until the 1980s but waned in the 1990s. To meet the escalating demand for increased production, synthetic lacquers like cashew lacquer, which are cost-effective and dry quickly, were employed in place of traditional lacquer. However, in contrast to the subtle scent of natural lacquer, synthetic lacquer emitted an unpleasant odor, tended to become cloudy over time, and exhibited lower durability, causing the mother-of-pearl inlay to detach easily. Consequently, consumers gradually began to shift away from it. Furthermore, as residential spaces evolved to accommodate Western-style living, such as Western-style houses and apartments, mother-of-pearl furniture was gradually displaced by Western luxury furniture brands.

LINKS:

Shell and Resin: Korean Mother-of-Pearl and Lacquer.

Making mother-of-pearl lacquerware.

Conservation Korean lacquer.

Mother-of-pearl lacquerware from Korea.

One comment

  1. Charles Keyton

    Fabulous article !

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