One of the wonderful things about watching Korean TV dramas is that you see a lot of beautiful things. Take, for example, those delicately designed jewelry boxes that are as precious as the jewels inside them.
A scene from Feast of the Gods
Or those intricately patterned cabinets that give off a soft sheen.
A scene from Moon That Embraces the Sun
So much so that no matter how handsome and regal King Lee Hwon’s (Kim Soo-Hyun) royal body looks in The Moon That Embraces the Sun, you can’t help but be distracted with OTHER beautiful things.
A scene from Moon That Embraces the Sun: King Lee Hwon
Or maybe that’s just me. I’m too old to be a fangirl, anyway.;-)
But I digress.
These OTHER beautiful things, I learned, are called najeon chilgi. `Najeon” means mother-of-pearl, and “chilgi” refers to lacquerware.
Check out Korean online gift shops and you’ll see najeon chilgi jewelry boxes, hand mirrors, key holders and business card cases. The abalone shell, from which najeon chilgi is made from, is prized by Koreans for its bright colors and light reflections. This iridescence comes naturally from the inner lining of abalone shell, which contains transparent crystals of calcium carbonate.
A scene from Moon That Embraces the Sun: King's luxurious table
Najeon chilgi makes a fine heirloom of sorts because each piece is strong enough to last for thousands of years, thanks to the lacquer which is resistant to heat, acid and humidity.
Najeon chilgi in Korean dynasties
You know what makes Korean drama viewing more fun? Spotting najeon chilgi in various scenes and guessing which dynasty the najeon chilgi properly belongs to. Geeky, I know. But that’s precisely why I’m Organic Geek.
So here’s what I mentally take note of:
Mother of pearl lacquer ware became popular in Korea during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). The dynasty’s artisans made najeon chilgi one of its major artistic contributions, aside from celadon ceramic ware and metal works. In fashion during the time were mother of pearl designs depicting flowers such as chrysanthemums and peonies, exotic plants such as the arabesque “Tang Plant” pattern, and abstract designs. Designs favored were intricate and overly luxurious, which was characteristic of the era. People from the Goryeo Dynasty surely loved luxury, and made it a point to display their wealth and status by owning objects of desire.
Even the Sung literari in China admired and acquired najeon chilgi from Korea. Historical records show that Seo Geung, an envoy from China during the Sung Dynasty, praised the najeon chilgi and deemed it “valuable enough because it is extremely exquisite and elaborate” in his book An Illustrated Book of Goryeo.
Najeon Chilgi art from the Goryeo Dynasty is distinguished through the techniques it employed in producing their mother of pearl lacquer ware. The first technique consisted of using tiny mother of pearl pieces called ‘threads’ which are inlaid one by one to form the actual design. The second technique consisted of using wires, silver, bronze and brass together with the mother of pearl. The third technique was the use of treated tortoise shell pieces in combination with the mother of pearl.
A scene from Feast of the Gods: Jewelry box
This blatant display of luxuriousness was a huge contrast to the Joseon Dynasty, where najeon chilgi began to adapt the Confucian aesthetics and value of simplicity. Thus, designs began to reflect the austere lifestyle advocated by Confucian teachings, as exemplified by the natural designs prominently seen in Joseon era najeon chilgi—blossoms and bamboo, flowers and birds, animals and plants, human figures and Chinese characters.
So if the design looks lavish, it’s probably from Goryeo. If it’s simple, it’s probably from Joseon.
Korea’s rapid economic development and modernization during the first half of the 20th century affected the production and popularity of najeon chilgi. The art enjoyed a revival in the 1960s and 1970s when Korea’s economy began to pick up again. But since then, lifestyles have been Westernized and the najeon chilgi is now a thing of the past. Or is it?
A technological twist
Sure, a najeon chilgi jewelry box will make any girl feel like a queen. But the geek in me, I realized, is far happier with this:
A najeon chilgi thumb drive I got as a souvenir from an academic forum.
I like it because it’s pretty and practical, keeping my “jewels”—digital copies of academic journals and drafts of my writings—safe and portable. The stylish design is a definite plus. I find that the Korean alphabet design reflects my geeky pursuits, too.
Beautiful and functional at the same time, lending the centuries old art of najeon chilgi a technological twist is a very fitting transformation for today’s modern girl. And because Korea has mastered the art of najeon chilgi and high technology, I sure hope to see more najeon chilgi gadgets in the future–cellphones, laptops, tablet computers, digital cameras….