Yeon Ok Sim
Professor, Department of Traditional Arts and Crafts, Korean National University of Cultural Heritage

Gold has been long viewed and used as an ornament of preciousness and luxury. Gold is often used to decorate textiles and this process is referred to as gold appliqué. Gold appliqué has a long history in Korea, and there are several records explaining a situation where the government prohibited the use of gold appliqué during the Three Kingdoms era (4-7 CE) due to concerns about the dissipation of the country’s wealth.

According to historical records, gold appliqué was called soguem (銷金) during the Goryeo period (918-1392 CE), and geumbakjang (artisans responsible for executing the task of gold appliqué) worked at the crafts workshop. During the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910 CE), people often decorated noeui (overcoats), jeokeui (ceremonial robes embroidered with peacock related patterns), myeonsa (veils), seonja (fans), dae (belts), and lib (traditional hats) with gold appliqué.

The earliest object related to gold appliqué is from the Goryeo period, but quite a few articles of excavated cloth belong to the late Joseon dynasty. Gold appliqué was used for various purposes. In the royal court, it was mainly used for women’s clothing, overcoats, ceremonial robes, formal dresses, upper garments of traditional clothes and long skirts. Additionally, boy’s clothing, ornaments, utensils, and headwear were also decorated with gold applique.

Patterns of gold applique were selected in accordance to cloth type. During the Joseon dynasty, patterns were strictly limited to a person’s social rank; however, the boundaries faded over time. Burial objects from the Goryeo dynasty are covered in floral designs, dragons, and phoenix decorations. During the Joseon dynasty, widely used patterns were dragons, phoenixes, fruit, birds, insects, flowers, and treasures in which case represent wealth, power, honor, peaceful life as well as prosperity. Chinese characters representing such ideals such as 喜 (pleasure), 壽 (longevity), and 福(fortune) were used as decorative symbols for certain objects as well.

Gold appliqué can be produced using two techniques: one is geumbak (attaching gold ornaments by heating them by hand) and the other is bugeum (pasting gold layers directly to the fabric). Unfortunately, only the bugeum technique has been transmitted up to this point. For gold appliqué, first an artisan needs to draw design patterns and apply the pattern to the wooden blocks, and then carve them accordingly. This carved wooden block is called a geumbakpan, literally meaning plate of gold applique. Carving geumbakpan requires skillful craftsmanship, and it is one of the most important steps in the process. Once geumbakpan is ready, the artisan makes a starch-based paste (traditionally, the air bladder of a croaker was used for making the starch). When everything is ready, the artisan places a piece of fabric on a table and spreads starch over the geumbakpan and stamps the fabric. Then he places a gold leaf on the stamp site and gently grazes over the area. The gold leaf needs to dry for a few days, and when the gold applique has dried enough, the artisan takes the gold leaf off the unglued area leaving behind only golden patterns. Generally, it takes approximately two weeks to complete only a few pieces of cloth.

Geumbakjang was designated an Important Intangible Cultural Heritage (No. 119), and it has been transmitted by Deok-Hwan Kim, who is identified as a holder of this craftsmanship, to Jeong-Ja Lee ( his wife) and Gi-Ho Kim (his son).