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Sunday, 31/12/2023 08:15

Ancient village preserves mother-of-pearl craft

UNCLE HO: Chuôn Ngọ Village is renowned for exquisite mother-of-pearl inlay crafts on wooden objects or seashells, especially truyền thần (photorealistic portraits) of celebrated figures in history. VNS Photo Trần Khánh An.

Trần Khánh An

On the side of Nhuệ River in Hà Nội's outlying rural district of Phú Xuyên lies the millennium-old Chuôn Ngọ Village, renowned for its mother-of-pearl inlay. 

According to the village's historical record mother-of-pearl inlay has been practised here since the Lý Dynasty (11th to 13th century). Trương Công Thành, a scholar and army general in the royal court was said to have founded the craft and then taught the villagers the art.

Mother-of-pearl inlay is the practice of inserting mother-of-pearl pieces into wooden objects. The craft involves great precision, as the carving of the wood and the shaping of the inlay to be placed within it must be matched precisely.

The distinctive feature of mother-of-pearl products is their durability through time and their intricate details and sophisticated qualities, making them a gem of traditional craft. 

After over a thousand years of ups and downs, Chuôn Ngọ's mother-of-pearl products have made a name for themselves in both domestic and foreign markets. 

DETAILED: A mother-of-pearl inlay artwork made by Chuôn Ngọ craftsmen. VNS Photo Đoàn Tùng.

Exquisite craftsmanship

To create a mother-of-pearl inlay product, artisans have to go through various working stages, which require a high level of patience, care, and attention to detail. 

From the drawing design, they select suitable pieces of clam, oyster, other seashells and then cut them into desired shapes. For a single inlay item, hundreds or thousands of mother-of-pearl pieces may be required.

According to Vũ Văn Hùng, owner of Hùng Tâm workshop in Chuôn Ngọ, carving the surface of a wood object and cutting mother-of-pearl from seashells as inlay material is the most challenging step in the process. 

"Meanwhile, in the lacquerware technique, the artisans put pieces of mother-of-pearl layer on top of the wood surface, and then cover it with a layer of lacquer paint,” Hùng said.

The artisans then use steel knives to carve out the small patterns and trim lines with black powder to highlight the details. 

Finally, the wooden object is ground and polished to make the raised patterns come to life. 

Due to the level of complexity and details, some products take a considerable amount of time to finish.

“A painting with complex details may require months or more to be crafted,” said Nguyễn Thị Tâm, Hùng’s wife, who is also a craftswoman at the workshop. 

CRAFTSMANSHIP: The process of making mother-of-pearl inlay products requires a high level of patience, care, and attention to detail. VNS Photo Trần Khánh An.

Advance techniques 

Chuôn Ngọ workers' craftsmanship has evolved with constant improvement over many generations. 

Mother-of-pearl inlay products by Chuôn Ngọ artisans are not limited to furniture and paintings with traditional scenes. Photorealistic portraits on mother-of-pearl inlay products have created a brand of excellence in the village.

"To create freshness in craft products, many workshops in Chuôn Ngọ create mother-of-pearl inlay portraits of renowned figures. In particular, the mother-of-pearl portraits of President Hồ Chí Minh are warmly received by domestic and international customers," said artisan Nguyễn Đình Hải.

The most challenging technique, regarded as the pinnacle of mother-of-pearl inlay – carving with black powder to highlight the facial expression of a person – necessitates the craftsman to be an artist as well. 

Besides mastering the inlay technique, craftsmen also cultivate knowledge of photorealism to transform inanimate materials into lively portraits.

Nguyễn Văn Lăng is one of the masters of photorealistic portraits in Chuôn Ngọ. 

“Compared to inlaid scenery or natural animals in domestic utensils, conveying the charisma of a person to emanate from the inlay portrait is challenging and requires a talent,” Lăng said. “Artisans use a specialised knife to cut the mother-of-pearl inlay material, just like the brush painters use to draw.”

Lăng is the author of the mother-of-pearl inlay painting that General Secretary of the Communist Party of Việt Nam Nguyễn Phú Trọng presented to his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, during the latter's state visit to Việt Nam in December. 

The painting portrayed the two leaders enjoying a tea party in Beijing during Trọng's visit to China last year. 

The artwork took him six months to finish, and inlaying the photorealistic portrait of the two leaders alone took up to a month.

“I worked meticulously to create this work of art so that our friendly nation could witness the essence of mother-of-pearl inlay craftsmanship and the excellence of Vietnamese artisans,” Lăng told Việt Nam News.

LEADERS: General Secretary of the Communist Party of Việt Nam Nguyễn Phú Trọng (right) presents a mother-of-pearl inlay painting to his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, during the latter's state visit to Việt Nam in December. VNA/VNS Photo Phương Hoa.

“My hometown is where the mother-of-pearl inlay craft in Việt Nam originated. No matter where you go, Chuôn Ngọ Village is home to the most innovative and sophisticated craft. It is sacred,” Lăng added.

The future

Despite being a thousand-year-old village with renowned craft, Chuôn Ngọ now faces the challenge of its trade disappearing. 

“Currently, it is estimated that there are only four large workshops and a dozen households making mother-of-pearl products left in the village. They produce in a moderate amount following consumers' orders, instead of mass-producing like before the pandemic,” Hải said.

"Not having enough capital and resources to establish a workshop, many artisans have to receive small orders to work at home. They often do only one single step in the making process, and gradually lose interest in the craft and find other jobs. It is a dying art."

Every day, Lăng's workshop is still busy with orders from across the country. However, as young workers become uninterested and the master artisans themselves age, he remains concerned about the possible loss of the ancient craft.

“The technique is easy to learn, but craftsmen must have a passion for the work and years of practice to master it. Unfortunately, the younger generation lacks the diligence to continue,” Lăng said.

Shop owner Hùng said that people under 20 rarely bother to learn and practise the trade.

With changes in mindset and lifestyle, young people have chosen new careers and often lose touch with their forebears' traditions. 

“Young people have more job opportunities with higher income without having to spend so much time and effort training as craftsmen,” Hùng said. 

He told Việt Nam News that the young often pursue higher education and get better work. The industrial zones near the village also attract many labourers. 

ON SHOW: Artisan Nguyễn Văn Lăng introduces Chuôn Ngọ mother-of-pearl inlay products at the Festival of Phú Xuyên District's Craft Villages 2023. VNS Photo Đoàn Tùng.

Authorities are implementing policies to support Chuôn Ngọ Village to promote the mother-of-pearl inlay craft.

They have organised trade fairs to showcase multiple exquisite handicraft products to customers nationwide, as well as publicize the brand name of the village’s products. 

“I have participated in the Festival of Phú Xuyên District's Craft Villages over the years. More and more customers have heard about the brand name of Chuôn Ngọ mother-of-pearl inlay, and visited my workshop and ordered products,” Hùng said. 

“I hope that as the village's reputation grows and we sell more products, more  young people will return to promote this truly exquisite craft.”  VNS

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