Screen Given to Kim Jong-il
North Korea Dictator Presented with an incredibly-valuable Gift
in 2007, a folding-screen with the "Twelve Symbols of Longevity"
"During the historic 2007 inter-Korean summit
in Pyongyang, former President Roh Moo-hyun
handed North Korean leader Kim Jong-il
a handmade eight-fold lacquer-ware screen to
commemorate the special occasion.
The screen was inspired by the famous wall
decoration in Busan's APEC Nurimaru House,
which features 12 objects of immortality inlaid
with abalones, tortoise shells and gold strips.
Korean lacquer-wares are relatively unknown to Westerners, who are more familiar with Japanese and
Chinese designs. However, the Korean wares' sophisticated craftsmanship have long been admired
and sought-after by collectors and aficionados worldwide. Widely used as household items in the past,
they are now gaining a reputation in the luxury-art arena.
The Korean word "najeon chilgi" literally means "lacquer-ware decorated with mother-of-pearl," which
is also called nacre. Korean nacre lacquer-wares are believed to have originated from the third century.
They gained popularity during the unified Silla period (668-935).
The oldest lacquer-wares that have survived are those from the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), although
none are currently in Korea. They are being shown at museums on foreign soil. South Gyeongsang's
Tongyeong is the most famous place for Korean nacre lacquer-wares. The abalones produced in the
clean and warm waters off Tongyeong's eastern coast are claimed to be the best in terms of quality
and color. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), Admiral Yi Lee Sun-shin established 12 workshops
in Tongyeong to promote the production of the lacquer-wares.
Korean nacre lacquer-wares are resistant to heat and water and have elegant colors. The materials used
to make the wares include a variety of shells, bamboo, leather, metals and stones that are found in and
outside of Korea. The secret to the wares' resistance to heat and water can be found in the many layers
of lacquer coating. Lacquer is a resin made from highly toxic saps of lacquer trees, which are a variant of
poison ivy. Lacquer is widely found across the Korean Peninsula. When exposed to bare skin, it can
cause serious rashes.
Lacquer is often referred to as a natural plastic. When applied to wood, it is remarkably resistant to water,
acid and heat. By adding natural and artificial coloring agents, the lacquer's color can vary. But when dried
naturally, it is usually black or dark brown. Nacre lacquer wares usually require eight to 12 coats. Each
coating takes at least 24 hours to dry completely under consistent humidity and temperature.
For surface decoration, thinly stripped metals, jewels, shells and ivories are often used. They can also be
powdered and mixed to create a variety of effects. Surface decoration is consuming work, and cannot be
replaced by machines or mass production. A handmade nacre lacquer ware usually takes three to six
months to complete. It can take longer depending on the size.
Although internationally recognized as high-luxury items, nacre lacquer-wares have had setbacks in Korea
in the last decade. Firstly, many Korean consumers are turning to ready-to-use modern furniture. Experts
also point out the lack of education, which is essential in maintaining the high quality of lacquer wares.
Today's efforts, however, have regained Korean lacquer-wares their credibility and reputation. More than
30 universities in Korea provide courses on nacre lacquer ware design and production. Such courses are
now widely recognized as a branch of fine arts. In addition, 12 artists have been designated as the nation's
intangible cultural properties to impart their expertise.
There are many ways to appreciate lacquer-wares, including festivals like the annual Najeon Chilgi Festival
in Tongyeong and exhibitions held throughout the year."
Article in The Korea Herald newspaper, 2008.09.20
"Korean Lacquer-ware Dazzles Art Lovers" by Jeong Hyeon-ji