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General Interest

Korean Mother-of-Pearl / Shell Inlay

( Inlay with shell design on crafts )


Various Shell Inlay Sheet ( Click the below images )

The inlaid and lacquered mother-of-pearl on decorative objects and wooden furniture, called ‘na-jeon-chil-ki’, mother-of-pearl lacquerware, is so delightful that mother-of-pearl furniture has been treasured in the living quarters of Korean house.

To render the mother-of-pearl usable, the rough outer layer of the shellfish is filed away on a grindstone or dissolved by exposure to acid to bring out the iridescence.

This polished and flattened nacre is shaped with scissors, fret saw, knife, chisel or hammer, in accordance with the design the artisan has planned.

Each piece is superposed on a flat surface or inserted into grooves, tempered and smoothed to make the inlaid pieces even with the surface, and covered with natural lacquer.

The lacquer can be painted on objects of wood, metal, single-fired pottery, tile, leather, and paier-mache.

The lacquering methods vary by the base material and by the use of the objects.

The most popular material is difinity wood. Lacquer can be applied to diverse wooden objects, regardless of their size or use, because wood allows fast and fine absorption of lacquer.

The color of mother-of-pearl varies.

The Koryo Dynasty’s ( 918 - 1392  ) mother-of-pearl, mostly taken from abalone, projects a subtle rainbow hue in which blue is dominant. It is not clear how the polishing process was carried out, but the shaping was done with scissors or fret saw.

Sometimes a twisted thin bronze wire was inserted together with the mother-of-pearl to render the vignette pattern, or polished and colored tortoise shell and ox horn were intermixed with it.

The twisted bronze wire was replaced by sliced mother-of-pearl thread in the mid Choson Dynasty (연대 ), and the use of tortoiseshell gradually died out.

From the Koryo-Dynasty to the mid Choson Dynasty, arabesque like variations of floral patterns were favored, including intricate symmetrical designs of vignette, peonies, chrysanthemums, lotuses, and varied plants. They were mostly small, which allowed easy inlaying without much risk of breaking the pieces of mother-of-pearl.

From the mid Choson Dynasty, mother-of-pearl inlays evolved into more intricate designs embedding varied components at the same time., including flowers and birds, grapes, pairs of cranes, plum trees, animals, geometric patterns, and felicitous Chinese characters. Especially, plum, orchid, chrysanthemum, and bamboo motifs, known as the ‘Four Gentlemen’, were adored by the literati in the olden days, for they were believed  to symbolize the ideal spirit of a man of virtue. With this trend towards intricacy designs became complicated and mother-of-pearl took more space on the surface of objects.

Some artists tried to depict scenes like Oriental landscape paintings and some embodied the ten longevity symbols, namely the sun, mountains, water, rocks, clouds, pine trees, pullocho’o or the herb of perennial youth, tortoises, cranes, and deer. Later, decorative mother-of-pearl inlay was used on lacquered furniture, jewelry boxes, lunch boxes, mirror and picture frames, fan handles, and even chopsticks.

Most manual labor has been handed over to machine in this highly industrialized era, and so has work with mother-of-pearl. But, no machine can substitute for the master hands who created mother-of-pearl inlaid works of great aesthetic value.