Arirang News
  Updated : 2011-01-12 00:00:00 KST
Geumbak Artisan, Kim Deok-hwan: Capturing Golden Dreams
Geumbak, or gold leaf crafting, has long been considered the jewel of decorative art.

With the gentle touch of skilled hands, an elaborate golden pattern reveals its beauty on the fabric.

Gold leaf artisan Kim Deok-hwan, holder of the title of important intangible cultural property number 119, adds color, beauty, and class to the traditional costumes.

[Interview : Kim Deok-hwan , Geumbak Artisan
Important intangible cultural property No.119] "This work is my one and only lifetime pursuit. I give it my absolute best and my all. No one else can grasp the feeling I get when I complete a piece of work."

Hwadong in Jongno-gu, Seoul, is a place that overflows with the spirit of timeless Korean culture.

Here, we find the 76-year-old artisan Kim, whose family has been tirelessly keeping alive the legacy of geumbak crafting for five generations.

[Interview : Kim Deok-hwan , Geumbak Artisan
Important intangible cultural property No.119] "Geumbak decorations are very precious. They don't change colors. The lifespan of a geumbak garment is determined by how carefully it is handled."

Geumbak crafting, which is emplying gold that is hammered into extremely thin sheets to decorate, boasts a long and global history of usage, dating back to as far as 2690BC, the time of Egypt's fourth dynasty.

Korea's geumbak crafting includes the gluing of gold leaf on desired objects, a technique often used to add patterns to garments.

[Interview : Song Mi-gyeong, Professor at the Dept. of Clothing and Textiles
Seoul Women's University] "The first remains of thinly pounded geumbak, date back to the 17th century mid-late Joseon dynasty. At this time, gold was scarce and very highly valued so not everyone was able to use it. It was primarily used by the members of the royal and upper class as a symbol of high social status and authority."

Every stage of geumbak crafting is processed manually.

First, a desired pattern is drafted, and it is then carved into wood to make a plate that is used as a template for the glue.

The making of the plate is the most crucial stage of geumbak crafting.

[Interview : ] "Generally, when making gold plates, artisans only use the wood of the wild pear tree because of its characteristic grain pattern which makes it ideal for accurate and precise carving. Even fine lines can be carved with much accuracy. It also lasts a long time."

Kim was born into a family that has passed down geumbak crafting as a family business since the time of the Joseon dynasty's 25th king, Cheol-jong.

Kim takes his task of continuing his family's five-generation legacy very seriously. To him, it is a meaningful pursuit that he considers a contribution to his family history.

[Interview : ] "Since even before I was born, geumbak crafting has been passed down as a family business for generations. Growing up in such an environment, and with constant exposure to geumbak, my body naturally picked up the skills, and I learned to do it myself. To this day, I am continuing my work using the skills I acquired back then. This is not something you can just pick up in a year or two. I have been doing this all my life but I still fall short of my ancestors' legacy. I'm simply not as talented as they were."

Thankfully, it's not a lonely journey for him. His wife, his son and his daughter-in-law are working alongside of him, as apprentices.

His son, Gi-ho, left his office job in 1997 and has dedicated himself to this family business ever since.

[Interview : Kim Gi-ho, Son and apprentice of Artisan Kim Deok-hwan] "I felt responsible for preserving the legacy of the family business that has been passed down for generations. I also found it to be very meaningful in that sense. So I quit my office job and began this work."

[Interview : Park Su-yeong, Daughter-in-law of Artisan Kim Deok-hwan] "Geumbak is used to decorate garments that are worn on special occasions. Even the patterns themselves symbolize blessings and loving wishes. So I am happy that I get to enjoy and handle something so meaningful."

Geumbak crafting uses a natural adhesive made from pine resin mixtures or fish glue.

Once the glue has been applied to the plate, fine pieces of gold leaf are manually placed and pressed on the fabric with care.

Excess gold leaf pieces are removed before the glue completely dries. Then, beautiful gold patterns make their grand appearance.

[Interview : ] "Even if it is perfectly done, I never get satisfied with my work. So something done superficially is completely out of the question.
The geumbak is supposed to last from a 100 to more than 300 years, so I can't allow myself to hear that one of my geumbak works has fell off. I won't hear something like that at least not until the day I die."

The true charm of Kim's works is found not in the intricacy of the patterns but in the natural elegance and overall beauty.

His emphasis on natural elegance stems from the artisan's spirit which he has inherited from his ancestors.

[Interview : Kim Gi-ho, Son and apprentice of Artisan Kim Deok-hwan] "I think it's important to adapt and modernize the existing geumbak patterns to make them appealing on a global scale, so that geumbak can be enjoyed by everyone. The change needs to be made with sufficient care and time, while preserving the original form and identity of Korean geumbak patterns."

Late at night, Kim sits with his son Gi-ho, to study ancient writings for inspiration.

Kim believes his task involves not only preserving the beauty of Korea's traditional patterns, but also continuously striving to improve and innovate them in order to create new designs.

[Interview : Kim Deok-hwan , Geumbak Artisan
Important intangible cultural property No.119] "My wish is that geumbak crafting will continue to be passed down to future generations so that the whole world will get a chance to see the astonishing beauty of Korea's geumbak-decorated garments."

[Interview : Kim Gi-ho, Son and apprentice of Artisan Kim Deok-hwan] "I hope that geumbak will become a cultural tool that promotes Korea as a nation and Korea's beauty to foreigners."

The unfading beauty of geumbak has been passed down for many generations. Artisan Kim Deok-hwan strives to preserve the legacy of geumbak and hanbok through his work.

As golden patterns created by his finger tips shine beautifully, so does his dream to promote Korean geumbak to the world.
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