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The History of Najeonchilgi (feat. Dragon of Pearl)

The History of Najeonchilgi (feat. Dragon of Pearl)

If you have ever visited Korea or watched historical K Dramas, you most likely have come across Najeonchilgi (나전칠기), a delicate technique used to decorate objects and furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl and other shellfish. The term, Najeon, originates from the meaning "mother-of-pearl" and chilgi meaning "lacquerware". This decorative style has been passed down for thousands of years. The practice of lacquering with the addition of mother-of-pearl was introduced during the Shilla Dynasty (668-935 A.D.) and was later popularized during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392 C.E.). The craftsmanship today, however, is slowly dying out due to the elaborate skill required to shape materials, long and labor-intensive crafting period, and health risks caused by the lacquering process.

12th Century, Goryeo cosmetics case (Source: The Met).

Over time the art of Najeonchilgi in Korean culture evolved stylistically. During the Goryeo Dynasty, objects were often heavily detailed with intricate chrysanthemums and vine patterns and were often influenced by Buddhist teachings. These items were depicted as a status symbol for the nobility. The Joseon Dynasty style, however, was much more simplistic and scenic, often depicting scenes from nature such as lotus flowers, dragons, birds, and bamboo. Towards the end of the Joseon Dynasty, Najeonchilgi was enjoyed by the common people.

Tiger Patterned Pillow Case. Circa Joseon Period.

During the Japanese occupation (1910-1945), the craft died down as many traditional Korean practices were outlawed. However, when Korea gained its independence in 1945, Najeonchilgi resurfaced and was repopularized. Post Korean War, Korea’s economy flourished in the 60s and 70s and the demand for Najeonchilgi rapidly grew as it became a status of wealth once more. Its popularity was so grand that the country’s natural resources began to run dry and therefore had to import shells from surrounding countries. 


Lacquered Xbox inlaid with mother-of-pearl crafted by Kim Young Jun and commissioned by Bill Gates.

Today, you can find Najeonchilgi sold throughout Korea. Although the art is slowly dying out, there are still a few artisans who continue the craft and are recognized by the Korean government. One of the most famous Najeonchilgi artists, Kim Young Jun, creates pieces with a “modern twist” and has been commissioned by Bill Gates and Pope Francis.    

With our latest Spring Collection, we were inspired by the Joseon-esque Najeonchilgi and created the Dragon of Pearl. Capturing the vibrant colors reflected from mother-of-pearl, this design symbolizes the history of najeonchilgi while also playing homage to this year's zodiac, the dragon. As you may know, dragons have been deeply rooted in Korean mythology and symbolize good fortune, fertility, and wisdom. The specific illustration we designed depicts a dragon styled in a way that is historically only found on the official attire of Korean Emperors. This design is available in Tee, Crewneck, and Hoodie.


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