Lacquered Comb Box inlaid with mother-of-pearl in a pattern of phoenixes, birds, flowers, and pine trees



Lacquered Comb Box Inlaid with Mother-of-pearl




Lacquered Comb Box Inlaid with Mother-of-pearl

in a Pattern of Phoenixes, Birds, Flowers, and Pine Trees


Period/Date: Joseon, 18-19th century

Dimensions: 27.4x26.7x27.0 cm

Accession no. Deoksu 3602



Najeon-chilgi 螺細漆器 is a representative art form of Korea based on the technique of mother-of-pearl inlay. First, natural lacquer made from the juice of the sumac tree is repeatedly applied upon the “skeleton” until a slick lacquer layer is formed on the surface. Designed patterns of mother-of-pearl are then inlaid followed by the topcoat. Finally, the lacquer topcoat is selectively removed to reveal the shimmering patterns.


Najeon is a Sino-Korean word based on the Chinese characters 螺鈿 which are also used in China and Japan to refer to the mother-of-pearl inlaying technique. In Korea, the word Najeon is used interchangeably with jagae, an indigenous Korean term, and often combined with chilgi 漆器, meaning "lacquerware", as mother-of-pearl inlaying has been applied predominantly on lacquered objects. Public recognition of Najeon-chilgi has become so pervasive that lacquerware without mother-of-pearl inlay is almost unthinkable in Korea.


Existing antique Najeon-chilgi pieces mostly belong to the 17-18th centuries during Joseon. While the exuberance of Najeon-chilgi may not seem appropriate for the Confucian society of Joseon, which valued modesty as one of the most desirable virtues, the heritage of Najeon-chilgi never diminished throughout the Joseon period. Rather, the Joseon Najeon-chilgi managed to create its own tradition that was different from Goryeo Najeon, which was characterized by its sophisticated appeal that catered to the taste of the aristocracy.


Najeon of the early Joseon period (15-16th century) demonstrates strong transitional characteristics as a result of experimentation that sought to pursue a new direction from the Goryeo tradition. The mid-Joseon Najeon, in the meantime, reflects social movements that pursued ethnic identity and originality, concepts that became prevalent after Joseon survived two major foreign invasions, namely the Imjin War 壬辰倭亂, 1592-1598 (the first Japanese invasion of Joseon) and the Byeongja War 丙子胡亂, 1636-1637 (the second Manchu invasion of Joseon). During this period, pattern design diversified from the usual peony and chrysanthemum scrolls to plum, orchid, bamboo, grapevine, birds, and flowers. Also notable is the full usage of the artificial flattening or crackling technique (打擦法). Invented during the early Joseon period, the technique enhances the shimmering effect of the mother-of-pearl.


A comb box or bitjeop is a tiny chest of drawers that contains such hair styling tools as combs, hair brushes, and comb cleaners called bitchigae. Usually, the top compartment with a lid held mirrors and the drawers were for combs and other cosmetic tools. Extant historical records on the Korean Najeon-chilgi are rare. According to Seungjeongwonilgi 承政院日記 (The Diaries of the Royal Secretariat) of Joseonwangjosillok 朝鮮王朝實錄 (The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty), lacquered comb boxes with inlaid mother-of-pearl were precious items used as gifts for Chinese emperors or state ritual ornaments. Also Oryeui 五禮儀 (An Expository Commentary to the Five Rites) of the Sejongsillok 世宗實錄 (The Annals of King Sejong) contains a brief comment on the lacquerware production process that states: “Mother-of-pearl patterns are inlaid on a wood-based lacquer object and then the lacquer topcoat is applied. The inside is lined with red silk fabric.” King Yeongjo (英祖, r.1724-1776) once designated lacquerware as an extravagant luxury good and prohibited its production and use.


The lacquered comb box inlaid with mother-of-pearl decorated with a pattern of phoenixes, birds, flowers, and pine trees is one of the masterpiece works that represent mid-Joseon Najeon-chilgi. This lacquered comb box features an ogive-shaped frame on the lid. Inside the frame are a pair of phoenixes holding Bullocho,不老草, the herb of eternal youth in their beaks. The front features an inlaid pattern of a slender tree with branches full of flowers. One of the sides is decorated with pine trees and orchids while the other side has a plum tree, a pair of bird perched on a branch, and bamboo trees. On the back, the craftsman inlaid a pair of bird playing amid wildflowers near a brook and various plants. The phoenix pattern is an indication that the comb box belonged to a royal family member since the phoenix motif was allowed only for royalty. Interestingly, the expressions of the decorative patterns are much more pictorial relative to early-Joseon lacquerware. In particular, the use of motifs such as Sagunja (四君子 , the four gracious plants of plum, orchid, chrysanthemum, and bamboo representing the four seasons of Korea respectively), pine trees, and other indigenous plants and birds exemplify the efforts of the master craftsman to establish a unique Joseon Najeon-chilgi tradition as well as the changed taste of his clientele who were enlightened to national consciousness.



Left side, Front side, Right side, Back side

An excerpt from NMK’s magazine: National Museum of Korea vol.14, NMK, 2011

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