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Artisan’s spirit in mother-of-pearl inlays from Goryeo and Hermes Birkin bags

Artisan’s spirit in mother-of-pearl inlays from Goryeo and Hermes Birkin bags

Posted August. 03, 2015 07:17,   


In the American drama "Sex and The City," there was an episode in which publicist Samantha, one of the main characters, is embarrassed by pretending that she is Hollywood star Lucy Liu to get a bag. This bag is priced from 10 million won (approx. USD 8,570) to several hundreds of millions won a piece. However, no matter how rich a person is, the person needs to put her name on a long waiting list to buy this bag. This bag’s name is "Birkin," named after British singer Jane Birkin. Recently, the bag drew attention as Birkin asked to remove her name from the bag after she was shocked by animal abuse committed by the bag maker to get necessary skin to make crocodile Birkin bags.

Along with "Kelly" bag named after Grace Kelly, Princess Grace of Monaco, Birkin bag represents French designer brand Hermes established in 1837. Hermes respects the artisan spirit in its products, even a smaller one like a tie, not to mention a Birkin bag. Each and every Hermes products are marked with the name of a craftsman who made it. Hermes’ such policy is to raise consumers’ awareness of the artisanship. According to the British newspaper Guardian, the economic value of a Hermes artisan amounts to 5 billion won.

Leeum Museum of Art in Seoul presents an exhibit titled ‘Exquisite and Precious: The Splendor of Korean Art’ in which arts and crafts with mother-of-pearl inlays made by ancient Korean artisans are on public display. The exhibit’s title came from words of an envoy from the Chinese Song Dynasty at the end of the 12th Century. The Chinese envoy saw mother-of-pearl inlays made by Goryeo artisans and said, “It is highly exquisite and precious.” Among many artifacts including ceramics and paintings owned and collected by the museum from 40 places in and out of Korea including the Metropolitan Museum in the U.S., the Goryeo Dynasty’s Najeon Gyeongham, a lacquered box inlaid with mother-of-pearl, boasts dazzling brilliance and extreme exquisiteness. This exhibit serves as a good opportunity to correct the prejudice to view that characteristics of the Korean traditional art are simplicity and rusticity.

The royal family of the Goryeo Dynasty put much care to artisans who can make mother-of-pearl inlays. According to the payment system of the Goryeo’s state-owned handicraft workshop, a mother-of-pearl inlay artisan received seven bags of rice in exchange for working more than 300 days per year. During that time, a bag of rice was the sufficient amount for an adult to consume throughout a year. The artisan received rice to feed seven adults for an annual salary. The mother-of-pearl inlay artisans returned the nation’s all-out support and favor with masterpieces highly recognized by the international society. Unfortunately, the Joseon era ruled by Confucianism looked down on technologies and craftsmanship, artistic masterpieces by artisans such as mother-of-pearl inlays were forgotten and extinguished.