Najeonchilgi: A Traditional Korean Decorative Design

By Asia Society Korea staff

In the past, Korean craftsmen and women developed a wide range of techniques to produce the items they needed at home such as wardrobes, cabinets, and tables. With time and practice they gained a keen eye for balance and symmetry. The artisans later developed the art of using aesthetically dyed oxhorn strips, iridescent mother-of-pearl inlays, and abalone shells for decoration, which were widely utilized in making attractive garments, household objects, and fashion accessories. The technique, known as Najeonchilgi, is a method where colorful pieces of shellfish are inlaid on an object. 

This traditional decorative design has a 2,000-year heritage; however, it has been gradually decaying from existence. One key factor for this unfortunate phenomenon can be attributed to the fact Najeonchilgi needs elaborate and careful handiwork to connect each of the little pieces of abalone, turban shell, pearl shell, and other necessary materials. Moreover, the procedure consumes a long period of time, which is a major issue as the lacquer, along with an unbearable smell, is detrimental to human skin. Naturally, there are not many skillful artisans who would willingly partake in this strenuous process today. The government, as a result, has been making great efforts to preserve these master artisans by addressing them as essential and intangible cultural assets in recent years.  

Traditions and cultures such as Najeonchilgi have been slowly fading into the realm of history with each passing year. It should not be forgotten, nevertheless, that traditions are like a beautiful exquisite light that have left an indelible mark on the modern world.