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Shell Inlay Master | Chen Fu-chiang

  • Date:2023-04-14
Shell Inlay Master Chen Fu-chiang

Chinese Name: 陳甫強
Born: September 28, 1953
Place of Birth: Hong Kong (China)
Did You Know?
Shell inlay is a form of handicraft that takes shells of various colors, cut into pieces, and assembles them into different shapes and patterns inlaid in wood. The tradition of this time-intensive high-precision craft stretches back for millennia. Products of this work can often be found on high-end furniture and homewares, like jewelry boxes, cupboards, and screens.

Chen Fu-chiang is one of the few shell inlay craftsmen currently working in Taiwan. His father, Chen Chi-sheng (陳志升), was a shell inlay craftsman who came to Taiwan from Hong Kong in the 1950s, and the younger Chen, who also showed a talent for drawing and art, developed a deep interest in woodcarving and shell inlay through his father. Once he reached high school, his father took him under his wing, teaching him the craft.

While Chen learned many of the skills of shell inlay from his father, his father was actually a carpenter by trade, and so he began with woodworking, with shell inlay an additional skill he picked up. In the early days, both carpentry and shell inlay were thriving trades in Taiwan. However, as the wood carving industry in the country began to decline in the 1960s, the elder Chen decided to shift the focus of the family business to shell inlay work, and his son followed suit.

In the 1950s, the combination of shell inlay craftsmanship and high-end wooden furniture in the Hsinchu area led to the flourishing of the shell inlay industry in Taiwan, even to the point of being an export product for a number of decades. The Taiwanese government even placed an order for two sets of works, which were sent to Middle East countries as diplomatic gifts, because the shell inlay handicrafts were exquisitely carved. At one point, there were hundreds of shell inlay masters just in the Hsinchu area alone, but in the 1990s, furniture makers began to move production to China, where labor was cheaper, leading to the decline of the shell inlay industry in Taiwan.

The traditional master-apprentice system, which entailed more than four years of study, also made it difficult to pass on the craft, especially with the existing masters of it busy trying to make ends meet. This was only further exacerbated by the fact that making a single shell inlay piece involved some 25 complex steps. All this combined to lead to fewer and fewer people being interested in learning the craft, and now only some five masters are left working.

Chen has dedicated the greater part of his life to shell inlay craft, familiarizing himself with the traditional knowledge and techniques while also staying abreast of the current state of the art. Building on the traditional techniques of his family, he feels a sense of duty to keep the craft alive, using exclusively steel tools he himself has made, as per tradition. He has also invested a great deal of energy into selflessly providing education, working hard to promote the art and entice more and more people into this craft with its lustrous jewels and glorious colors.

Shell inlay primarily works with, as the name would suggest, shells, and shells come in all kinds of wonderful colors and shimmers. With a bit of polish, the particularly vibrant interiors of these shells can be used to give a sense of the exquisite as they are cut into thin layers and pieces and assembled into beautiful inlays shaped like people, animals, plants, and all kinds of other images and patterns. There are two main varieties of shell inlay work—white inlay, which works solely with white shells, and "floral" inlay, which makes use of a wide variety of colors. These can each further be divided into "thick" and "thin" inlays, with thin inlay directly stuck to wood to create a raised effect, while thick inlay is recessed with intaglio carving. Today, most works are thick and floral, and while they are most commonly seen on larger furnishings, as they long have been, they also show up on more portable pieces, like makeup mirrors, combs, and even hairpins.