Silver Inlaid Brazier 18.5 × 18.5 × 18.5 cm

Historians consider silver inlay to be the best of craft techniques of the Goryeo dynasty. This traditional technique requires grooving the surface of an iron or copper plate with a sharp graver, weaving a thin thread of gold, silver or copper into the grooves, and then beating the surface in order to straighten it out. It was popular among the people of the Goryeo dynasty, who favored ornateness and refinement. The technique was often used for Buddhist items such as incense burners at Buddhist temples – since Buddhism was the official religion of the Goryeo dynasty – and was also used for expensive household ornaments and cigarette cases used by the nobility. Because of its magnificent decorativeness, in the Joseon dynasty the technique was used for office utensils such as writing instrument cases and paper weights, and luxurious everyday items such as incense burners and candleholders. Silver inlay works of these periods are displayed in the metal craft room of the National Museum of Korea.

Due to the labour-intensive process that requires long hours, this silver inlay technique, which has been handed down for more than a thousand years, is rarely bequeathed, and is learned only with great difficulty. Master Lee Gyung No has been officially acknowledged by the government as a repairer of cultural assets, and even in difficult living situations, he is among the very few people who are continuing Korean traditions.

Born in Namwon, Jeonbuk Province, he came to Seoul, and, thanks to the introductions of a hometown friend, started working at a factory that produced upscale furniture. The factory closed because of financial difficulty. At this time, forty years ago, he did not know how to maintain living; however, he fortuitously started studying under Choi Gyo Jun, who was designated as an inlay master by the city of Seoul.

The essential technique of producing silver inlay is to melt silver of 99% purity at a thousand degrees Celsius, pour it onto a plate, thinly spread the silver to the thickness of three millimeters, cut it, and heat it in a cast while simultaneously pulling out thin threads from it. This is not the end of the process. An iron or copper plate needs to be grooved with a sharp graver to make places for the thread to be inserted. After the thread is woven through the plate, the plate needs to be beaten until the thread becomes flat. It is important that the engraving is accurate and dense, so that the silver threads get inlaid properly and the detailed patterns are well displayed. Thus it often takes six months to make one piece. There are no useful records of the technique, and available jobs are limited to mending antiquities in museums. The inlay production requires more than ten-thousand hammer blows, and precise inlaying contributes to eyesight deterioration. Because of the physical pain, and the ill health of his eyes,he had sometimes considered doing other kinds of work, he said. But he enjoys the tranquility of the job, and it is his natural tendency to finish the things that he starts. He tells us that he cannot think of pursuing anything else than making silver inlay.

Because of the noise of the hammer blows, the work can only be done somewhere remote. His studio is located under a staircase of a secluded building in Doksan-dong, Yeongdeungpo-gu. He has worked alone until now, but fortunately he can hand down the tradition to his thirty-five-year old son, who has been selected as an inheritor of skillful artistry by the Human Resources Development Service of Korea. Even in a deficient condition, Lee Gyung No has steadily produced works referring to photographs of works made by old masters. His skillful mastery of hammering is well recognized by other masters of silver inlay. The detailed shapes and dense arrays of silver threads of his works are uniform and regular, as if they were made by machines, but they carry the tasteful touch of human hands.

Biography

Born in Namwon, Jeonbuk Province, Lee Gyung No came to Seoul, and at first worked at a factory that produced upscale furniture. The factory closed because of financial difficulty. He fortuitously started studying under Choi Gyo Jun, who was designated as an inlay master by the city of Seoul. In 1987, Lee Gyung No was officially recognized by the government as a restorer of cultural assets. He has won more than ten awards, such as the Award of Encouragement, and the Special Award at the Traditional Korean Handicraft Art Exhibition for a silver-inlaid bowl with a lid, a tobacco container, and other objects. In 1996, he won the Prime Minister’s Award for a Buddhist rosary case decorated with silver and gold threads. The inlay process requires more than ten-thousand hammer blows to make one piece. Because of noise, it was difficult to get a studio. However, he has maintained his small studio in a secluded place in Doksan-dong for forty years. His son has been selected as an inheritor of skillful artistry by the Human Resources Development Service of Korea, and is learning the skills from him.