When we visited Korea in 2010, the food, culture and tea production delighted and astonished us. Ceramics and pottery production, too, was distinctive and impressive, and we returned home with many treasured tea cups and tea bowls.
For years we have been familiar with modest but lovely Korean green tea infuser cups such as the one pictured here. We sell these tea cups in our store, and hoped to learn more about Korean celadon during our visit. As with much about Korea, we were not disappointed.
We learned that the Gangjin area in the southern region of Korea is where 90% of Korean celadon wares are made. In fact, there are 9 or 10 areas in Korea that are dedicated to the production of regional ceramics. Celadon has been made in Gangjin from the 9th century to the present day, and as many as 180 old kiln sites are claimed to be scattered throughout this area. Today, approximately 16 operative kilns produce celadon wares in several different styles. While other sites in Korea made celadon wares in the past, Gangjin was always considered to produce the finest celadon, and was the most widely exported.
So we were overjoyed when our friends Arthur and Mary Park invited us to join them for a visit to Gangjin to learn about the artistry and methodology behind the production of these gleaming, jade-green pieces.
First we toured the Goryeo Celadon Museum, where visitors learn the history of celadon and view displays of historic pieces. Just a short walk from the museum – but within the museum complex -visitors are welcomed into the museum-run celadon workshops. Here, artisans create masterpiece works that are sold at auctions throughout the year to raise funds for the museum. (No worry, there is a gift shop, too, where celadon items can be purchased!)
We stayed in the workshops for a long time, absorbed in watching these skilled artisans at work, and marveling at the extraordinary detail and precise, intricate steps involved in the crafting of these fine pieces.
This gentleman is beginning to carve a design in a large vase with a sharp metal tool. Vases of different shapes are made and some of them are quite large in size. The shapes of Korean celadon vases bear some similarity to the traditional shapes of Chinese porcelain vases, but over time Korean potters have tweaked the details of the shapes so that today these pieces are uniquely Korean.
Not only are the carvers required to be skilled in their technique, but their designs must flow gracefully with the curvature and complement the form of the piece.
After each piece in carved, the incisions are carefully filled in with colored clay slip that will change to the final colors during the firing. If you look closely at the photographs above and below, you can see where the colored slip has been added. All of these pieces are awaiting the final glazing and firing steps.
Some pieces are hand-painted, too, which adds to the sophistication, beauty and value of the piece.
Here is a magnificent piece in all its glory on display in the museum.
We learned that Korean celadon is made in three colors: blue, green and yellow (a tone that is more grey-blue than actual yellow). The pieces are given a translucent glaze, while Chinese celadons receive an opaque glaze. There are 6 steps in the process from potters wheel ( or mold ) to finished piece, but the three most crucial steps in celadon production are: throwing, carving and glazing. The carving and inlay process was developed in Korea during the 12th century, which is considered the pinnacle of celadon development.
After we visited the museum we were invited to visit the Department of Ceramic Crafts at Munkyung College. After a tour of the facility, Professor Yoo Tae Keun showed us how to make a carving tool out of an old metal umbrella rib.
Celadon carvers make their own tools and use three variations of tip for cutting and incising. Afterwards, he showed us how to incise a piece of copper, which, unbeknownst to us, was going to be used as a clapper for the celadon bells that his students had made for us to take home.
Such a thoughtful remembrance of our visit!! Our bells are hanging in our sun room where we can enjoy them everyday.
For those visiting Korea, Gangjin holds a Gangjin Celadon Festival each August which celebrates all things celadon.
The only sour note to this story is that we were just informed that the Korean celadon tea infuser mugs pictured at the top of this post have been discontinued. We are saddened by this news as they have always been popular. For those interested in owning one of these cups, we only have 12 pieces left. Click here to find them on our website