What’s in an icon? As part of Thailand NOW’s mission to share authentic insights into all things Thai, we’re spotlighting iconic individuals who have not only excelled in their respective areas, but influenced the complex tapestry of Thailand as it exists today and, in doing so, inspire us to be a part of the fabric of Thai society.
In this Icon NOW interview, Jukkit Suksawat, a traditional mother-of-pearl inlay artisan, tells the story of this millenia-old art and shares his philosophical approach to this high art form.
Few can master the craft of pradup mook or mother-of-pearl inlay. Fewer still are masters quite like Jukkit Suksawat.
Mother of pearl—an iridescent inner shell layer found in certain molluscs such as pearl oysters, mussels, and turban snails—is carved out into tiny pieces that form the inlay designs and motifs on decorative items and furniture. Great dexterity goes into cutting out straight and flat pieces from natural shell curves.
Thai mother-of-pearl inlay can be found in door panels, window shutters, pedestal trays, food trays, sutra (Buddhist scripture) cases and cabinets, and other monastic paraphernalia seen in Buddhist worship.
The result is undeniable. Shimmering in an inky black lacquer, these mother-of-pearl pieces come alive like constellations in the night sky.
“It holds a certain soft power.”
Although farmers by trade, the Suksawat family holds a deep appreciation for art. Jukkit began taking vocational courses in international sculpture, but his journey as an artist really took off when he discovered a pradup mook course sponsored by King Rama IX.
Now, as a Nakhon Pathom native, he’s able to celebrate his roots through his original Bua Bang Len motif inspired by the lotus blossoms of his hometown, Bang Len district.
“The Bua Bang Len motif conveys innocence, purity, modesty, and Buddhism,” says Jukkit. To a pradup mook master, spirituality and service are essential to his craft.
“Service, in a way, is a means of sharing our cultural heritage, both its physical and moral manifestations, with others—it holds a certain soft power.”
According to Jukkit, this soft power means the perseverance, strength, and consciousness that allows someone to communicate their values and translate their cultural identity into artistic expression, vision, and imagination.
“These lasting creations are made from natural materials that endure for hundreds of years.”
His spiritual approach isn’t the only aspect that distinguishes Jukkit’s art. He employs the hallmark techniques of Thai mother-of-pearl inlay, relying entirely on natural materials.
The raksamuk technique, for instance, uses yangrak—a quick-drying black lacquer made from a mixture of lacquer tree sap (Melanorrhoea usitata) and charcoal powder made from burnt coconut shells and banana leaves.
The master craftsman also creates wooden lacquerware frames of lightweight rattan and coral tree, which are easily coated with yangrak.
These natural materials are more costly because of the time it takes to cultivate, grow, harvest, and create. The modern, factory-produced alternative to lacquer is resin, and is commonly used among the new generation of mother-of-pearl inlay artisans. As artisans increasingly opt out for more economical and profitable materials, these traditional practices increasingly fade into obscurity.
Mother-of-pearl inlay has always been an arduous craft. According to 1885 records left by Thai traditional artisan Luang Wisansinlapakam, a pedestal tray only 25.5 cm wide requires 1,500–2,000 shell pieces. For context, Nai Yu, a prominent pradup mook artist, could cut out 30–35 shell pieces a day. This seemingly small creation would therefore take almost two months of shell cutting, alone.
Nonetheless, Jukkit insists it’s worth the trouble.
“When we look at mother-of-pearl creations from the Ayutthaya period that still exist today in temples,” he explains, “these lasting creations are made from natural materials that endure for hundreds of years.”
While mother-of-pearl inlay has been practiced in Asia since China’s Anyang period (ca. 1300–1050 BCE), the art form first appeared in the region during the Dvaravati period (ca. 600–1000) and was documented at the Borom Puttharam Temple dating back to the late-Ayutthaya period (1351–1767). Since then, Thai pradup mook art has had significant influence across Southeast Asia.
“We see that Burmese mother-of-pearl pedestal trays were used in royal ceremonies much like the Thai pedestal trays,” Jukkit points out, “and we also observed the historical presence of mother-of-pearl inlay art in Laos.”
Thai pradup mook art varies widely, from floral and geometric patterns to mythological creatures, classical literary figures, and Hindu deities. These motifs require artisans to possess a precise knowledge of religious and literary symbolism.
For example, temple doors or sutra cases might feature Phra Narai on Garuda or the god Indra on Erawan, but not on pedestal trays, food trays, or cigarette boxes.
“My inspirations come from the brilliance of the craft’s predecessors.”
Jukkit sees pradup mook as a way to pay homage to the kruchang boran or the predecessors of Thai craftsmen.
“The artistic creations and imaginations of kruchang boran were absolutely exquisite,” he says. “What I like to call the classical period of mother-of-pearl inlay creations, or ton krung, are of the finest, most delicate techniques and style.”
These creations have survived at the Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho and the door panels in the scripture hall at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, Wat Phra Phutthabat in Saraburi province, and Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat Woramahawihan in Phitsanulok province. Excellent examples of more modern mother-of-pearl inlay lacquerware can be seen in certain pieces of Prince Paribatra Sukhumbandhu’s 20th-century collection at the Bangkok National Museum.
“My inspirations come from the brilliance of the craft’s predecessors. I understand that it is quite conceptual as I have no particular icon,” he laughs, “but I believe that we find meaning in the cultural heritage and assets our predecessors and ancestors have left behind for us.”
Interestingly, the Ninth King of Ayutthaya, King Borommatrailokkanat (1431–1488) established the Department of Mother-of-Pearl Inlay Artisans to reserve its craftsmanship to the royal courts, which automatically conferred “high art” status (pranit silpa chan soong). As a result, the average Thai did not have much experience with mother-of-pearl art. Its exclusivity may have played a part in the eventual lack of awareness surrounding mother-of-pearl pieces.
“Despite Thai architecture being known for its mother-of-pearl inlay interiors, local artisans and craftsmen are not highlighted in the conversation of Thai cultural heritage,” Jukkit laments.
“Pradup mook art is an iconic piece of Thai cultural heritage.”
Local craftsmen and artisans are integral to the stories we tell about ourselves, and it’s a story worth sharing.
“Pradup mook art is an iconic piece of Thai cultural heritage and a national treasure that should be celebrated,” Jukkit affirms. “I know enthusiasts from overseas who became interested in mother-of-pearl inlay from viewing photos of Thai temples, yet they do not know our local, artisanal side of the story and history.”
The current exhibit of Thai mother-of-pearl pieces may be viewed at the Bangkok National Museum on the first floor of the Phrommethada Hall. As for the master artisan, he currently resides in his hometown of Bua Bang Len district, Nakhon Pathom, where he teaches local children and other enthusiasts the art of mother-of-pearl inlay.