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The Iridescent Allure of Mother-of-Pearl

South Korean artist Jian Yoo creates sculptures inspired by an ancient Asian craft

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“I tried to express the surging blue waves, the ocean shimmering under the moonlight, the waves full of energy as they embrace an island, and much more.”
—Jian Yoo

Mother-of-pearl, also known as nacre, has been used as a lacquerware inlay for over a thousand years in China, Japan, and Korea.

Mother-of-pearl is found in sea mollusks like pearl oysters, freshwater mussels, and abalone. With its iridescent colours, it’s a uniquely beautiful organic material for crafting jewellery, furniture, and art.

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In Korea, mother-of-pearl is most commonly used to create inlays for lacquered furniture and decorative objects. Such items are known as najeon chilgi in Korean (najeon meaning mother-of-pearl, and chilgi meaning lacquerware) and often depict motifs from nature, such as flowers, birds, and butterflies.

Najeon chilgi pieces usually have a traditional Eastern aesthetic, but Korean artist Jian Yoo has infused new life into this age-old art form with her contemporary mother-of-pearl creations.

The savoir-faire of Korean lacquer craft

Yoo is well acquainted with lacquer craft. Her father, Chulhyun Yoo, is a famous najeon chilgi craftsman who opened his own mother-of-pearl inlaying studio in South Korea.

Growing up, Yoo spent considerable time in his workshop, familiarizing herself with mother-of-pearl’s physical and tactile properties and understanding how to use the precious material to craft beautiful objects.

Her childhood home was filled with such furniture and art, and Yoo assumed every home was the same. When she went to New York to study design, however, she discovered this wasn’t the case.

“Even among people who know what mother-of-pearl is, there aren’t many who’ve personally used and encountered its beauty up close. That made me realize that I had grown up with a very unique and special experience,” Yoo says.

Although she didn’t initially plan to follow in her father’s footsteps, after evaluating her artistic strengths and weaknesses she decided to embrace her roots.

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The Intersection series is Yoo’s modern take on traditional Korean lacquerware furniture from the 1950s to the 1990s.

These days, Yoo operates her studio Arijian in Namyangju, South Korea, where she creates contemporary furniture, sculptures, and fine art using mother-of-pearl and other materials, incorporating both traditional knowledge and her unique ideas.

According to Yoo, Korea’s Golden Age of najeon chilgi lasted from the 1970s to the 1990s, when mother-of-pearl was plentiful, and many skilled craftsmen worked with the material. During this time, mother-of-pearl was used to create patterns on furniture.

Order the Magnifissance print edition to read the full story.

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 116

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