Inlaying, a method known as “ipsa” in Korean, involves cutting lines or grooves into metals like copper and iron, and then filling them with other metals such as gold, silver, and copper to create intricate patterns. Creating these grooves is a challenging task that demands hours of meticulous chiseling. In the art of ipsa, every step is carried out by hand, from preparing thin wires to meticulously hammering them onto the finely chiseled and engraved surface, resulting in splendid designs. This process demands the highest level of dexterity and precision from a craftsman, skills that can only be acquired through years of dedicated practice.

There are several techniques in metalworking, including casting, forging, and sculpting. The inlaying technique, which has evolved in various ways around the world, originally appeared in ancient Mesopotamia around 3000 BC and further developed in Persia and the Islamic world. In East Asia, it prominently features in bronze objects from the Warring States period in China.

In Korea, the exact origins of the practice of inlaying metal surfaces with other metals remain uncertain. However, it is believed that this method was initially employed during the Three Kingdoms period (57 BC to 668 AD) and further developed into a technique involving thin plates during the Unified Silla period.

During the Unified Silla (668–935) and Goryeo (918–1392) dynasties, this decorative method found significant application in Buddhist crafts, particularly in the embellishment of items such as incense burners and bowls. Under the Joseon dynasty, it underwent further refinement and began to be widely utilized for adorning everyday objects, such as braziers, candlesticks, and cigarette cases.

Insertion is a technique in which a gold or silver wire is introduced by creating a groove in the area to be decorated with a motif. This method is primarily employed in ironwork, where an entire object or a part of it is intricately worked with a chisel and then intricately inserted.

LINKS: Ipsa (Korean traditional silver or gold inlaying) – 전통공예 입사(入絲), Metal inlaying.

INSERTION METHOD. First step: Cutting lines or grooves into a metal plate (iron), including three types: horizontal, perpendicular, and diagonal lines.
Second step: Filling the plate with other metals, such as gold or silver threads, to create the design. This is achieved by pounding the threads into the grooves using a hammer, as illustrated in figure 2.
Korean brazier. Height 21cm, trunk diameter 18cm.
National Museum of Korea.
During the Joseon Dynasty, many incense burners were produced following the tradition of Goryeo. These incense burners were used not only in temples, but also for various rituals. Each of these braziers represented a combination of the ten symbols of longevity, such as pine trees, bamboos, grapes, deer, cranes, and turtles, in a circle of four sides, and various geometric patterns. was decorated with incident without a margin.
Iron Silver Incidence Brazier. Height 15.8cm, mouth diameter 15.2cm, body diameter 16.1cm. National Museum of Korea.

Iron Silver Incandescent Square Brazier. H. 25,3 cm, W. 18,4 cm, D. 18,7 cm.

National Museum of Korea.

Bronze Silver Incense Burner of Cheonggoksa Temple.
H. 39 cm, diameter 38,2 cm. National Museum of Korea.
Gongyanggu (供養具) is an offering to the Buddha, such as incense, flowers, water, and food, and includes incense boxes, incense burners, flower baskets, vases, and candlesticks. In particular, incense burners, vases, and candlesticks are the basic offerings used in Buddhist altars, and are called the Three Gujok (三具足). Among the incense burners used to offer incense to the Buddha, the incense burner with a high heel that spreads like a trumpet and a bowl-shaped body with a wide jeon is called an incense burner. Cheonggoksa Temple in Jinju is the temple of Queen Sindeok, the second wife of King Taejo Lee Seong-gye. This incense burner was made in 1397 to pray for the repose of the queen who died in 1396. It was produced by the initiation technique in which grooves were cut according to the pattern on the bronze background and then silver wires were inserted to decorate it. The entire body is elegantly decorated with Sanskrit characters and lotus vine patterns.
Bronze Silver Incense Burner
H. 9,5cm, diameter 21cm. The incense burner of the Goryeo Dynasty began to be decorated with splendid patterns using the silver inlaid technique after the middle of the 12th century.
Collection: National Museum of Korea.
Bronze bottle with silver inlay. Goryo Dynasty.
H. 34,8cm, trunk diameter 12,1cm.
Jeongbyeong” is a bottle that holds clear water. During a Buddhist ceremony, it is also used when the monk leading the ceremony sprinkles nectar water with a pine branch to drive away all demons. During the Goryeo Dynasty, it was especially produced in large numbers with the rise of Buddhism.
The front of the body is gracefully decorated with a silver-inlaid Poryusu-Geummun pattern, which was mainly used as a decorative pattern on Goryeo Jeongbyeong or Goryeo celadon.

Collection: National Museum of Korea.

Iron silver inlay pencil case. H. 17,6cm, mouth diameter 7,5cm, bottom diameter 10,1cm. 19th century. Collection National Museum of Korea.
Iron silver candlesticks. Late Joseon dynasty. H. 102cm, diameter 24,3cm. Collection: National Museum of Korea.
Iron Silver Inlaid Cigarette Box. 鐵製 銀入絲 梅竹文煙草盒, iron silver inlaid thread, Maejukmun tobacco box, 銀象嵌樹鳥文圓形筒, round cylinder with silver inlaid water pattern, plum blossom pattern tobacco casket. Collection National Museum of Korea.
It is said that tobacco was introduced through Japan and China during the reign of King Gwanghae and spread nationwide during the reign of King Injo. Cigarettes at that time were not processed tobacco like today, but a method of smoking by putting finely chopped tobacco leaves in a pipe. So, a container to hold the cut tobacco leaves was needed. This tobacco box has a cylindrical shape, and the plum tree, bamboo, and birds perched on the branches are appropriately placed on the front of the body, and it is joined with silver. In the middle of the lid, the Chinese character ″Su (壽)″, which means auspicious fortune, is placed, and a diamond-shaped lightning pattern [雷文] is decorated around it.
Iron Silver Inlaid Cigarette Box. H. 13,5cm, W. 9,8cm, D. 9,2cm. Collection: National Museum of Korea.
A box for storing tobacco, made in the shape of a long rectangular hexahedron. The character ″Hee (囍)″ is engraved on the lid, and the rim is decorated with a lightning pattern [雷文]. On the side, the 10 symbols of longevity, such as deer, pine tree, crane, and turtle, are inlaid with silver. There are some corrosion and cracks on the inside, but it is in relatively good condition.
Iron Silver Inlaid Cigarette Box. H. 6,7cm, W. 11,2cm, D. 8cm. Collection: National Museum of Korea.
A box for storing tobacco, made in the shape of a long rectangular hexahedron. One side has rings and opening and closing decorations, and the other side has 10 symbols of longevity, such as deer and cranes, inlaid with silver. And on the lid part, the word ″Subok (壽福)″ is engraved. The interior and bottom are rusted, and some parts that have been incident with silver have come off, but they are in relatively good condition.
A Korean silver-inlaid iron box
19th century
of rectangular form, decorated with inset silver to show animals and a double character within circular reserves over a diaper ground. Private collection.
Tobacco box. 19th century. Iron inlaid with silver; brass fittings. H. 2 1/2 in. (6.4 cm); W. 4 1/8 in. (10,5cm); D. 2 7/8 in. (7,3cm). Collection The Met, New York, USA.
A Korean silver-inlaid iron box and cover, probably Joseon, 18/19th C. H. 7,5cm, W. 11cm, D. 6,5cm. Private collection.
Top view.
Iron silver inlaid longevity pattern cigarette box. 19th century.
H. 9,1cm, W. 10cm, D. 6,8cm.
Collection National Museum of Korea.
Photo left & right. Tobacco box. H. 9,2cm, W. 11,7cm, D. 9,7cm. Collection: National Museum of Korea.
Copper cigarette box. 19th century, H. 6,1cm, W. 6.2cm, D. 9,8cm. Collection: National Museum of Korea.
The decoration was made using the silver inlay technique, and the lower body has a kind of “Manja” pattern around the Taegeuk pattern. The Taegeuk pattern was also placed on both sides of the upper part.  Collection National Museum of Korea.
Spirit House
철제 은입사 감실 (鐵製銀入絲龕室)
Late 1800s. Iron inlaid with silver and copper decoration
H. 35cm, W. 30cm, D. 14 cm.
Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
The rectangular body with a pair of hinged doors decorated with geometric plaques beneath a frieze of roundels and flanked by panels decorated with Buddhist emblems, the sides and reverse undecorated, 32.5cm x 30cm x 18.5cm. Sold at Woolley & Wallis auction, UK. May 2017.


Korean Traditional Silver or Gold Inlaying –

한눈에 보는 입사.

Author: Choi Eung-chon.

Publisher: Korea Craft & Design Foundation, Seoul, Korea.

Year 2016. ISBN. 9788997252701

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