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.

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.
Clothing box decorated with peony scrolls. 17th century, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Lacquer inlaid with mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell, and brass wire.
H. 21,3cm, W. 71,1cm, 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.
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.

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.


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.

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.

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

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