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OTTCHIL & NAJEON

Ottchil 옻칠(漆)
Korean traditional natural lacquer

“If you aim for firmness, using nut pine wood is the best,
and if you aim at perfection, applying Ottchil is the best.”

- by Ho-ik Jo, Book 6 of ‘Garyegojeung’ Joseon, 1646


The Korean expression “Ott, 옻” refers to the sap of the lacquer tree. The Chinese character “Chil, 漆” also stands for the sap of the lacquer tree or the lacquer tree itself. Nowadays, it has a comprehensive meaning, referring to ‘substances used as varnish.’ As such, the two characters are put together as “Ottchil” and generally refer to traditional and natural lacquer.

Lacquer trees maintain a certain amount of sap internally and excrete it to protect itself when its bark is breached. To collect the lacquer sap, the bark of living trees is removed, exposing the sap secreting organ. This is breached to encourage the sap to ooze out. The ash colored milky sap oxidizes into a brown color. Prolonged oxidization hardens the surface into a dark brown colored cover that prevents further oxidization, which is why lacquer sap is described as having ‘hardening’ and ‘drying’ characteristics.

Such hardened lacquer film has highly anti-corrosive, flame/heat resistant, water-proof, antiseptic, insect repellent, and insulating properties. Due to such surpassing characteristics, lacquer sap is increasingly being developed for usage beyond crafts, from industrial applications to eco-friendly varnish.

The traditional natural lacquer, Ottchil, established itself as the hardest and most adhesive pigment throughout its over 2000 year history. The various elegant colors and shine can only be achieved through the lengthy efforts and skills of artisans. Only by collecting lacquer sap over several months and through extensive delicate processes are these items crafted into beautiful works of art. As some archaeological artefacts prove, a well-made piece of natural lacquer art can maintain its original condition for more than 2000 years.


Najeon 나전
Inlaying with mother of pearl

“Najeon is so precise that it deserves to be called precious.”

- from ‘Things of Goryeo Observed by Friendship Delegation’, 1123


“Na, 螺” refers to shellfish processing helicoid shells, while “Jeon, 鈿” the decoration of the gold, silver, or bronze. Najeon, then, involves finely grinding the shells and the nacre patterns, and inlaying these into furniture or various items. Originating in Tang China and spreading as far as Japan, the art of Najeon has remained popular in Korea long after its decline in other countries, allowing it to develop into a mature handicraft of Korea.

As is true with most sophisticated crafts, the beginnings of Najeon are marked by high quality materials and elaborate techniques. Traditionally, the mother of pear (nacre) of Najeon was made from the South Sea abalone shells. Different types of shells were later introduced when new techniques for processing shells were developed.

While the process of Najeon art varies from artisan to artisan, it usually involves 45 steps. It is called a comprehensive art as it involves a number of crafts including woodwork, lacquering, metalwork, and an inlaying with the mother of pearl. From planning to polishing the final work, it takes a lot of expert effort from each master artisan.

Since Najeon blossomed under the influence of the Goryeo Dynasty (936-1392 AD)’s aristocratic Buddhist culture, the Korean Najeon has long been the best in the world.