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Dec 10, 2023 / 22:33

Chuon Ngo nacre inlays - the millennium craft in the outskirts of Hanoi

Hanoi's artisans work tirelessly to preserve the quintessence of ancient craftsmanship passed down from generation to generation.

With centuries of history, Chuon Ngo is a traditional nacre inlay village in Hanoi's Phu Xuyen District. Their products are unique because the mother-of-pearl pieces fit perfectly into the wood surfaces, creating flat inlays with exquisite lines.

Meticulous artisans

 The Phoenix motif on the Chuon Ngo mother-of-pearl mosaic. Photo: Luu Viet Thang

“Chuon Ngo has Bodhi trees,

A cool river to bathe,

and a handicraft of nacre inlay...”

In the final days of the year, the village of Chuon Ngo echoes with the chiseling and sawing sounds of traditional mother-of-pearl inlay workshops. Artisan Pham Van Bac, who started learning the craft at the age of 12, now has more than 50 years of experience.

In fact, mother-of-pearl inlay is a craft that requires a lot of effort and meticulousness. Bac's product usually goes through five basic stages, including drawing shapes on a wooden surface, sawing the mother-of-pearl according to the drawing, carving the shapes into the surface, embedding the nacre pieces, and polishing the surface to accentuate the pattern.

According to artisan Pham Van Bac of Chuon Ngo Nacre Inlay Village, Phu Xuyen District, Hanoi, the steps of making mother-of-pearl mosaics in the artisan village are much shorter and easier, thanks to modern machines.

"In the past, artisans used to carve mussel shells along the grain, so they could only peel off a thin layer. With modern machines, the shells are cut along the curvature to get flat, smooth mother-of-pearl of different sizes," he said.

 The stage of drawing patterns on mother-of-pearl. Photo: Lang nghe Kham trai Chuon Ngo

Artisan Dao Thi Toan of Chuon Ngo Nacre Inlay Village happily shows The Hanoi Times reporter one of her mother-of-pearl mosaic works, saying: "This is a mother-of-pearl inlay depicting the legend 'The Oath of the Peach Garden'. It takes me half a month to make it. For the mother-of-pearl pieces to adhere securely when inserted, each carving stroke must be precise, and the spaces between the pieces must be flawless. It takes several months to make an inlay for a tea cabinet.

Nguyen Van Hien, a veteran craftsman in the village, said that he learned this craft when he was a child, and to this day he still works with mother-of-pearl inlay out of passion for his grandfather's work. Thanks to this ancient craft, he is able to earn a good income to support his family and create traditional handicrafts with high economic value.
The artists of Chuon Ngo Nacre Inlay Village, striving to maintain the authenticity of their original craft land, have impulsively adapted their ways of thinking and developed sophisticated works to satisfy the different preferences of customers.

A meticulous work

 A wooden box inlaid with mother-of-pearl mosaic. Photo: Lang nghe kham trai Chuon Ngo  

The unique feature of Chuon Ngo's inlay products is that the mother-of-pearl pieces, with vivid details, fit tightly into the wood surface, flat and unbroken. Making an inlay requires 10 man-hours of sawing and about five to six man-hours of carving. Then it takes up to 20 to finish the work.

The production involves many complex, often highly specialized steps such as drawing, filing, chiseling and polishing.

Today, there are a number of machines that assist in some stages, but many intricate mosaic pieces must still be made entirely by hand. Despite having achieved the title of Golden Hands, the artisans can do many steps themselves, but only in one or two steps can the sophistication and craftsmanship be brought out.

Like many Vietnamese traditional craft villages, Chuon Ngo nacre inlay has gone through ups and downs, especially with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, its quintessence is still preserved by the artisans and their love for the craft is passed on to their descendants.

The mother-of-pearl inlay patterns of lotus and bird on Chuon Ngo handicrafts. Photo: Lang nghe kham trai Chuon Ngo

From horizontal inscribed boards and couplets, mahogany beds and tea cabinets to wall paintings based on ancient stories and painting sets, mother-of-pearl inlay patterns are now found on many everyday items.

Uniquely decorated tea boxes, chopstick holders, bowls, plates, and souvenir paintings are highly sought after by customers at home and abroad.

The unique products, imbued with the tradition of Chuon Ngo, are made with care and passion. Not only famous at home, Chuon Ngo's mother-of-pearl mosaic handicrafts can be found in many exhibitions or flea markets around the world, conquering fastidious customers in Europe and America. The mother-of-pearl and shell mosaic products are becoming increasingly diversified and rich in designs, thanks to the craftsman's research and creation based on very strict, meticulous and complex secrets preserved and developed through many generations.

Located in Chuyen My Commune, Phu Xuyen District, about 40km south of central Hanoi, Chuon Ngo is the only village in Vietnam that specializes in providing raw materials of shell and snail shells for the whole country to make mother-of-pearl inlay mosaic on furniture and other handicrafts.

The craft village is famous for producing traditional Vietnamese wooden handicrafts such as beds, cabinets, altars and artistic items for home decoration.

The history of Chuon Ngo, a mother-of-pearl mosaic craft village, is associated with the founder of the craft Truong Cong Thanh, a Mandarin during the Ly Dynasty (1010-1225). In 1099, he taught the villagers the craft of mother-of-pearl inlay. After nearly 1,000 years, the traditional craft is still maintained and flourishing in rural villages on the outskirts of Hanoi.


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