|There are only approximately 15 mother of pearl inlay works of art from the Goryeo Dynasty
surviving today, and many of the pieces, including a sutra box, rosary case and incense container,
are related to Buddhism. While the number of remaining pieces is quite small, they are all
considered masterpieces and have been collected by museums around the world. Several
Najeon Chilgi art works, including the ‘Lacquered Incense Case Inlaid with Mother of pearl
Willows and Ducks,’ are housed in the National Museum of Korea. Meanwhile, various
containers are part of the collections of the Dokugawa Art Museum, Daimasa Temple and
Keishunin in Japan, while some of the remaining sutra chests are displayed in renowned
museums in the U.S.A., Britain, Germany and the Netherlands.
Lacquered Tri-Leaf Container Inlaid with
Mother of pearl and Tortoise-Shell
Chrysanthemums and Arabesques
Goryeo, 12th Century
This exquisite mother of pearl inlay work is
believed to have been a cosmetics container
used by a noble lady during the Goryeo period.
The heavily embellished surface, as well as the
elaborate shape of the container, is a glimpse into
the lavish lifestyle of Goryeo’s ruling class. It is
widely regarded as one of the best examples of
Najeon Chilgi made when the art was at its peak.
Najeon Chilgi art changed in design when the Goryeo Dynasty was overthrown by a group of Confucian scholars and
the Joseon Dynasty was born. The opulent decorations preferred by Goryeo aristocratic families were now replaced by
much simpler and more natural designs that reflected the austere lifestyle recommended by Confucian teachings.
The use of colorful tortoise s and wires of precious metals disappeared while new artistic motifs, such as maehwa
blossoms and bamboo, flowers and birds, were introduced. The focus was then placed on capturing simple scenes from
nature rather than making elaborate designs using abstract patterns. The new trend persuaded Joseon artisans to try
different decorations, such as various symbolic animals and plants, human figures, and auspicious Chinese
characters. The 10 Creatures of Longevity ( 'Sipjangsaeng' ) and the Four Noble Beings ( 'Sagunja' ) were
among their favorite subjects. As the artisans began to seek diverse elements, their designs became
wild, humorous, and even coarse in the late Joseon period. The dynamism and rhythmic beauty of the
motifs distinguished the Joseon Najeon Chilgi from other mother of pearl art forms in China and
Japan during the same time.
Najeon Chilgi art was detrimentally affected by the rapid modernization during the
first half of the 20th century. It survived, however, and when Korea’s economy was
stimulated in the 1960s and 1970s, the art also enjoyed a revival. New tools, methods
and materials were introduced as demands for mother of pearl gifts grew, and artisans
actively sought after new designs. Today, Korean Najeon Chilgi artists are creating the
third wave through which they can contribute to the wonderful artistic heritage from their
ancestors. The evolution of the art, from elaborate Goryeo motifs to the accented elegance
of the Joseon designs, is now beginning a new era.
The city of Tongyeong is well-known in Korea for its wonderful seascapes, but what makes it more famous is the beauty
created by the traditional art of mother of pearl inlaying. For hundreds of years, Tongyeong has been one of the main producers
of fine mother of pearl inlay works in Korea. In fact, in 1604, when King Seonjo of the Joseon Dynasty decided to set up a major
naval base in Tongyeong, the city began to gain a nationwide reputation for high-quality mother of pearl gifts and artworks.
Following the establishment of the naval base, the Joseon government set up 13 government-sponsored workshops to help
bequeath the tradition of making Najeon Chilgi (literally ‘lacquer ware inlaid with mother of pearl designs’) to future generations.
Najeonjang Song Bang-ung was born in Tongyeong, home of Korean Najeon Chilgi. His father, Song Ju-an, began to
study mother of pearl inlaying at the age of 17 and eventually dedicated his life to the art. In 1979, the Korean government
designated him as a Master Craftsman of Kkeuneumjil, or mother of pearl cutting, and appointed his art as ‘Important
Intangible Cultural Property No. 54.’ Song Senior held this distinguished title until his death in 1981. His wife, the mother
of Song Junior, was a devoted woman who did everything she could to help her husband and raise their children even
though they were poverty-stricken.
View the master's works