Object: Korean Jewelry Box

E/65/9/10
Jewelry Box
Seoul , South Korea
Unknown Date
Wood, Lacquer, Mother of Pearl, metal

This jewelry box was made using the traditional Korean process of creating shell-inlayed lacquerware. Lacquerware emerged as a popular art form in Korea during the Josean dynasty (1392-1910). The production of lacquerware is a lengthy process, requiring great care and dedication. First, the wood used as the core of the piece is carefully selected and allowed to dry for many years to ensure that it will never warp.

The lacquer coating is made from the sap of the local Rhus vernicifera tree. This tree has poisonous properties similar to those of Poison Oak in the United States. Artisans build immunity to the plant by exposing themselves gradually over an extended period of time. Each tree produces about half a cup of sap each season. After the sap is drawn from a tree, it cannot be taken from the same tree again for a few years. Historically, the collection of sap from the Rhus vernicifera tree was strictly regulated by the Korean government. As a result, lacquerware was only available to the elite class of society. Eventually, knowledge of the technique used to create lacquerware spread and it became more accessible to other classes.

The second step of the process requires the application of more than 20 thin layers of lacquer to create each piece. Each layer of lacquer must be allowed to dry and then polished before the application of the next layer to ensure that there are no imperfections. Once it has hardened, the lacquer is extremely durable being resistant to water, heat, and even mild acid.

The inlayed details are added last, often using mother of pearl shells to create a decorative design. The shiny surface of mother of pearl is created by a mollusk living inside the shell. Mother of pearl is also a local resource and can be found all along the coasts of Korea.

Korean culture is reflected in the design itself. The bird depicted on the jewelry box is a phoenix, one of the Four Guardians of Korea. As the guardian of the south, the phoenix represents elegance, virtue, morality, and a prosperous future. Korean lacquerware has been around for many centuries embodying these characteristics, and creating a strong form of art that will continue for many more years to come.

Take a look at this interesting video on making similar kinds of lacquerware:

Work Cited

Beautiful Lacquer Ware Created by Artisans. YouTube. YouTube, 20 Apr. 2012. Web. 28 Sept. 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2nacdN5X3M>

Department of Asian Art. “Lacquerware of East Asia”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/elac/hd_elac.htm (October 2004)

Lee, Soyoung. “Art of the Korean Renaissance, 1400–1600”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/kore/hd_kore.htm (September 2010)

Bone, Flesh, Skin: The Making of Japanese Lacquer (Part 1 of 2). Prod. Asian Art Museum. YouTube. YouTube, 30 Apr. 2009. Web. 28 Sept. 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkgCW-z-31w>.

Barkley, Stokes F.A. “Rhus Verniciflua.” Plants for a Future. PFAF, n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2013. <http://www.pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?LatinName=Rhus+verniciflua>.

“Pinctada Margaritifera.” Pinctada Margaritifera. CIESM, Dec. 2003. Web. 29 Sept. 2013. <http://www.ciesm.org/atlas/Pinctadamargaritifera.html>.

Peabody Essex Museum. “A Teacher’s Source Book for Korean Art and Culture.” Korean Art and Culture (n.d.): 1-33. Peabody Essex Museum. Web. 29 Sept. 2013. <http://www.pem.org/aux/pdf/learn/asia_curriculum/korea-tsb.pdf>.

[Lauren Fountain]

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