The Enchanting Hue of Koryo Celadon


IN 1995 a treasure was discovered in the Truman Library in Missouri, U.S.A. What was it? A small ceramic water bottle bearing a floral pattern and a deep-colored glaze. Although only nine inches [23 cm] tall, the bottle has been valued at about $3,000,000. It is an example of the Korean pottery known as Koryo celadon, and it was given to former U.S. President Harry Truman in 1946 by the government of Korea.

What makes Koryo celadon so valuable? And what sets it apart from other ceramics?

A Unique Method

The designation “Koryo celadon” refers to a unique type of ceramic first manufactured during the part of Korea’s history known as the Koryo period (918-1392 C.E.). * The Korean word for celadon, ch’ongja, means blue-colored porcelain. Chinese of that period singled out celadon for praise, using such expressions as the “best under heaven.” It is Koryo celadon’s deep, lustrous blue-green glaze that makes it so special.

The attractive jade-green hue is the result of combining the colors of the clay and a glaze. This was accomplished by firing each piece twice. Korean art historian Yang-Mo Chung explains that in this process the vessel was shaped from clay that contained iron. First, it was fired at 1,300 to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit [700-800°C.]. Next, the surface was coated with a glaze that contained calcium carbonate and between 1 and 3 percent iron. Then, the vessel was fired again—this time at a temperature of 2,300 to 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit [1,250-1,300°C.] and in a reducing atmosphere. *

A close look at Koryo celadon reveals that its elegant lines and shape seem to be in natural harmony. Classic celadon bottles, teapots, dishes, and jars reflect the same artistic lines and form as traditional Korean dress and  even dances do. The artistic designs on the vessels also reflect themes from nature. Potters combined motifs inspired by mountains, trees, flowers, fish, birds, insects, and people into wonderful landscapes on the surface of the celadon. Some of the geometric patterns they used can still be found in contemporary pottery designs.

Now let’s take a look at colors used in celadon patterns. Most of the patterns were inlaid using black and white pigments. Initially, Koryo potters borrowed their techniques from China. But they soon began to demonstrate inventiveness of their own. An outstanding example is the inlaying technique called sanggam. In this process the desired motif is incised on the surface of the unfinished vessel, and the resulting grooves are filled with white or red clay. The piece is then fired. During this step the white clay remains a snowy white, but the red clay turns black.

Close examination of a celadon will reveal fine cracks on its surface. Is this an imperfection? What makes this phenomenon appear? The more elaborate the inlaid design, the thinner the glaze must be in order for the design to show up distinctly. Because of being so thin and brittle, celadon glaze inevitably developed tiny cracks over its entire surface—a side effect of the pursuit of a truly transparent finish.  Thus, the cracks came to be perceived as a natural feature of Koryo celadon and not as a flaw. In fact, some modern potters intentionally use glazes that crack.

Efforts to Revive Koryo Celadon

After the Mongols invaded Korea early in the 13th century, Koryo celadon suffered a rapid decline. Finally, potters stopped making the beautiful vessels, and their production methods became a lost art. Today, because of the high prices fetched by Koryo celadon and the limited number of pieces in existence, modern potters have been intent on reviving the technique. By examining fragments of ancient celadon, they have created pieces that are identical to the originals in size and form, and a few potters claim to have succeeded in matching older Koryo celadon’s enchanting hue. However, it is difficult to recreate the precise composition of the ancient glaze—a glaze that was made using only natural materials.

Modern potters are also faced with duplicating other details, such as how the pottery was fired and for how long. Researchers at the Celadon Research Institutes in Korea have experimented with various materials and techniques in order to revive the enchanting hue of Koryo celadon.

In recent years, long-lost treasures of Koryo celadon have been discovered. For instance, in 1995 a fisherman decided to act on stories that he had heard about fragments of pottery becoming entangled in fishnets. Along with other fishermen, he began looking for pottery. Eventually he pulled up 129 pieces of celadon. Following the success of these fishermen, the Korean Cultural Property Preservation Bureau formed an investigation team. They found a ship that had sunk while carrying celadon, and over several months the team recovered as many as 463 pieces! Needless to say, all of this greatly excited celadon researchers and art historians.

Enjoying Koryo Celadon Today

How can you enjoy the beauty of Koryo celadon today? Perhaps you can visit the exhibitions of Korean art in some of the famous museums of the world, such as the British Museum or New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Better yet, if you come to Korea, you may visit the town of Kangjin, where the largest number of early celadon kilns were located. Or you may attend one of several annual ceramics festivals held in Kyŏnggi Province. There you can see celadon being made. You can even try your hand at the potter’s wheel. Can you imagine shaping a vessel yourself, inscribing it with words or patterns, firing it in the kiln, and finally holding the finished product in your hands?

Of course, you can also obtain modern celadon at department stores or souvenir shops. There, vases, sets of teacups, and other types of containers are on display—either handmade by local potters or made in a factory. Perhaps you can then treat your guests to some Korean tea served in celadon teacups while a celadon vase filled with flowers graces your table.


^ par. 6 The modern name Korea is derived from the name Koryo.

^ par. 7 In a reducing atmosphere, the air supply to the kiln is limited, resulting in the presence of carbon monoxide.

[Picture on page 17]

An original 12th-century vase

[Credit Line]

The Collection of National Museum of Korea

[Picture on page 18]

Detail of a Koryo celadon showing the unique inlay