From Traditional Crafts to New Trends. A short outline of South Korean Art Jewelry development

Published: 13.08.2021
Jieun Park
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‘Korean Contemporary Jewelry Chronicle : 100 Brooches’ Exhibition View (1) .
‘Korean Contemporary Jewelry Chronicle : 100 Brooches’ Exhibition View (1)

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In comparison with the long history of Korean arts and crafts, the history of Korean art jewelry is relatively short. Despite that, it has achieved a remarkable development during a short period of time.
Last fall saw an exhibition “Korean Contemporary Jewelry Chronicle: 100 Brooches” held in Seoul. It was an exhibition devoted to present the past, the present, and the future of Korean art jewelry. It displayed 100 brooches by 50 Korean art jewelry artists, encompassing artists of all ages from the first generation of art jewelry who launched the genre in Korea to full-time artists who are working actively now.

Korean art jewelry was established by its first generation (2) who worked in the 1980s when they could access new trends overseas and introduced art jewelry in fresh styles to Korea. In the 1990s, major colleges in Korea started to teach metal crafts and art jewelry professionally, and soon art jewelry rose as an independent expression genre, with many art jewelry artists appearing in the world of art. These art jewelry artists explored and created only art jewelry, absorbing both Korean traditional jewelry and Western jewelry styles, and they attained qualitative and quantitative expansion of their art in terms of material, technique, and concept. In particular, from 2000 Western art jewelry has been effectively applied to education in many colleges, which has put spurs to producing full-time jewelry artists, developing Korean art jewelry further as an outstanding genre.

In comparison with the long history of Korean arts and crafts, the history of Korean art jewelry is relatively short. Despite that, it has achieved a remarkable development during a short period of time. About this, Korean metal craftsman Yongil Jean says, The outstanding development is the results of active international exchange that started from the first generation educators, abundant human resources, intensive education, and elaborate creation of full-time artists who have newly appeared from 2000. (3)

The trend of Korean art jewelry that you need to pay attention to in this flow is ‘well-made jewelry,’ that is, the technical characteristic of art jewelry. The first-generation metal craftsmen enhanced the specialty of art jewelry on the basis of the well-organized education system, and art jewelry artists who were educated in the system could make them equipped with high-level techniques and expertise. For example, Youjin Um creates art jewelry with the technique of sawing, one of the basic techniques in metal crafts. Her countless sawing contains moments of perseverance and efforts that are melted in her life. Like Um, many Korean art jewelry artists employ techniques of metal craft actively for their work. Shinryung Kim creates art jewelry with the technique of ‘Marriage of Metal’ in which she combines two metals to be a single plane under the theme of illusion. In particular, her jewelry features a precise chiaroscuro of ordered lines and figures, pulling our gaze with exquisite skills.
Shinryung Kim. Brooch: B.F.no12, 2020. 999 silver, 925 silver, nickel silver, 6.5 x 6.5 x5 cm.

Art Jewelry based on crafts has evolved in a variety of semblances, containing traditional aspects of metal crafts. Korean traditional metal crafts — from Korean traditional lacquer (ottchil) and enamel (chilbo) to granulation and filigree — enrich the trends of contemporary Korean art jewelry.

Najin Lee thinks of her drawing on enamel as the result of her passion and emotions. Focusing on the color and texture expressed on enamel, she inscribes her own world in art jewelry. She creates original images by adding her imagination to the technique of enamel that contains traditional values.

Najin Lee. Brooch: Imperfect and radiant, 2021. copper, 925silver, brass, enamel, pearl, beads, 16 x 13 x 4 cm.

Along with Najin Lee, Jongseok Lim performs a harmonious reinterpretation of tradition and modernity in his work. He describes tales of insects in the shapes of insects living in an unknown world delicately with the technique of filigree, one of the traditional techniques in metal crafts. The texture made with the pile of thin wires expresses the familiar yet alien features of insects vividly. Joohyung Park focuses more on traditional values than other artists. All the processes of her making artwork are carried out only by her hands. She thinks of an understanding of materiality and the passage of time as significant. Accidental shapes created while she cuts a block of wood become part of her work, and the slowly piled hours help her appreciate the world deeply. Korean traditional lacquer(ottchil) that she chose for her work allows her to feel relaxed and can be also said to be a continuity of accidents.

Joohyung Park. Brooch: Confluence, 2019. Chinaberry wood, ottchil, sterling silver, 15 x 12 x 7 cm.

On the other hand, recently, we can see new attempts that are beyond traditional techniques and keep up with today’s trends. Many artists are actively employing the fruit of today’s science and technology, getting the limelight of art circles. In the trend, Jung Ryungjae has brought industrial technology to his studio, deviating from the existing trend of art jewelry and making daring attempts. Jung creates works in a new style and form that cannot be realized in handicraft. So Jung’s work that is made in his unique plastic language, transcends the conceptual limits of the existing art jewelry and even leads viewers to feel a sense of freedom.

If it can be said that the trend of well-made art jewelry is the result of intensive education, it can be also said that the expansion of materials that have appeared from 2000 is originated from the reflection of international styles. The already broken boundaries of materials have influenced many Korean art jewelry artists, allowing them to explore materials daringly, and this has led to various results, letting a new stage set up.

One of these daring attempts is to use familiar yet new materials like fabric and wood. Hoyeon Chung makes art jewelry usually with soft and light materials. In particular, she applies soft yet tough fabrics, such as Korean hemp cloth, organza, and polyester mesh, to her work in a variety of styles, and conducts various experiments, such as drawing lines of black ink in cloth, overlapping textiles, and scorching cloth. In addition, she projects the continuity of time into these attempts. The overlapped textiles are intended to recall the image that memory is overlaid with another, and the textures and colors recollect special moments in the depth of the viewer’s memory.
Hoyeon Chung. Brooch: Time_s912, 2019. Polyester mesh, organza, Korean ink, 10 x 14 x 6.5 cm.

On the other hand, Jaiik Lee has created works of metal for a long period of time under the theme of transformation of life and evolution. In addition, he has examined flexible materials to express organic shapes. His examination and attempts have given birth to art jewelry — named ‘Lifeforms’ — in an organic form bursting with vitality. He uses leather to describe a moment of a stirring life, which allows him to create natural shapes of living things. In particular, he upgrades discarded leather into a valuable one by breathing life into it. Many other jewelry artists, too, create new values by using materials that are of no use. Jieun Park makes work in a fluid shape by connecting little metal studs that are usually used to decorate jeans. YongJoo Kim realizes her aspiration to make great artworks with Velcro that is usually regarded as valueless.

While these artists mentioned above create their work by breathing life into trivial daily things, there are artists who describe social values they mull over in their work. Seulki Lee puts in her work tracks of industries that were forgotten as time passed fast. Circuit boards and stainless steels were once main devices as driving forces in industries, but are now being gradually withdrawn from the world. Lee focuses on the potential energy of these devices. She chooses devices that arouse nostalgia for the era and expresses their vibrant energy in her art jewelry. There are also artists who actively employ new materials that represent today. Seulgi Kwon paid attention to the innovative and versatile material, silicon. She describes dynamically moving living things in her art jewelry, using various characteristics of silicon.

Seulki Lee. Brooch: Arrangement of thought, 2015. Plastic, steel, circuit board, electronic components, 7 x 8.5 x 3.5 cm.

Centering their ideas and esthetics, Korean art jewelry artists have achieved remarkable achievements in the expansion of materials and the quality of works (well-made jewelry). In particular, many artists with international competitiveness have been accomplishing encouraging results, like participation in renowned international shows and winning of prestigious awards — results that their enthusiasm has produced. Here, we cannot omit the efforts of many organizations, galleries, and the people who work hard behind them. Korea Craft & Design Foundation (KCDF) has made many efforts to introduce Korean art jewelry to the international stage through a variety of projects and programs.

Many galleries — like Gallery O — and curators too have put efforts into holding various exhibitions and projects to establish art jewelry firmly at home and abroad. Their efforts are a driving force for the development of Korean art jewelry, in which artists are producing good results with their passion. I think Korean art jewelry will develop continuously with its great capabilities. For this, it needs to devote all its energy to its development continuously but also to attract the eyes and interest of people around the world.

Korean Contemporary Jewelry Chronicle, 100 Brooches, 20-31 Oct 2020, Sueño 339, Seoul, Korea. Exhibition Planning, Curating: Dongchun Lee.
(2) Seunghee Kim, Jinsoon Woo, Yaekyung Choo, Junghoo Kim, Junggyu Yi, Meeyeon Jang, Jaeyoung Kim, Myungjoo Lee.
(3) Yongil Jeon. (2020). Dialectics of Ornamentation and Aestheticism: A Story of Contemporary Jewelry in Korea. 100 Brooches Korean Contemporary Jewelry Chronicle.


About the author

Jieun Park
received his B.F.A. and M.F.A from Konkuk University in Seoul, Korea and finished the Ph.D. coursework in metal crafts from Kookmin University. She operates a studio and works as an art jewelry artist. She has held five individual exhibitions and has conducted various projects, including a number of group exhibitions and workshops. Currently, she teaches art jewelry production classes, jewelry history, and art history classes at the university.
She is conducting various studies on how the artist's consciousness interacts with craft expression in the field of contemporary art jewelry. She is also studying how the flexible flow of unit repetitive structures can be applied to the human body.