Once made in Joseon Dynasty kilns for the upper class and nobility, these pale and slightly asymmetrical moon jars have fetched prices of up to $4.5 million.
The very name “moon jar” sparks intrigue among those who’ve never encountered the beautifully imperfect pottery piece. Pale, spherical, and slightly asymmetrical, the jar has come to represent South Korean identity. Beyond that, it’s garnered global attention for its unique and inspiring appearance.
Older moon jars made during Korea’s Joseon period (1392-1897) fetch for millions of dollars on average. In March of this year, Christie’s auctioned an 18th century piece for a record-breaking price of $4.5 million. Later in September, Sotheby’s sold yet another Joseon moon jar for $3.6 million during a single-lot sale (the piece was titled “Everything is Transient”).
These pottery pieces have even inspired famous pop culture figures like philosopher Alain de Botton (who wrote of them in his book Art as Therapy), the great contemporary potter Bernard Leach (who owned one himself), and of course, BTS member RM.
RM has been particularly vocal about his love for the jar, which he describes as “exactly Korea,” as per Christie’s. The rapper also extensively collects contemporary recreations and iterations of the jar from modern potters like Dae-sup Kwon. The K-pop star even told fans on Twitter that the jar made him feel calm. It seems like a strange sentiment, but a closer look at the ceramic’s history, creation process, and symbolism paints a clear picture of its appeal and cultural impact.
Capturing a Nation’s Values
Moon jars are also known as dalhangari. During the Joseon period—Korea’s last dynasty—craftsmen made them for more than a century in the royal kilns of Gwangju. Traditionally, potters would use a refined kaolin clay called baekja to create moon jars, whose white color is a result of a lack of iron oxide, according to Christie’s. They’d shape and combine two hemispherical halves of clay in a kiln; gravity would then pull them and create an imperfect, round figure. This produces a jar that does, indeed, resemble a moon. It also means that no two jars are alike, despite their shared lack of adornment and white color. Heat would sometimes produce peach hues that further add to the appeal.
Unlike Chinese pottery, which is often embellished with intricate paintings, moon jars are simple forms. They remain plain, yet look different when viewed from various angles, which is why so many people have fallen in love with the pottery pieces. The plainness of the jars were meant to embody the Confucian ideals of “simplicity, humbleness, modesty, purty, and austerity,” as per BBC Culture.
When Korea was annexed by Japan from 1910 to 1945, the jar became an even more significant symbol of the country. Sol Jung, an assistant curator of Japanese art at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, told BBC Culture that the jar transforming into a “cultural icon” was “in direct response to liberation from 35 years of colonial rule in 1945.” After the Korean War of 1950-1953, it then became a prominent symbol of South Korea specifically.
Moon jars served both ceremonial and practical functions during the Joseon period. On a ceremonial level, people displayed them “as vases when foreign dignitaries were visiting,” shared Korean artist Choi Bo-Ram. As such, one would often find them in the homes of affluent figures or nobility. On a more utilitarian level, people used the jars to store dry goods like rice.
The main reason why Joseon-era moon jars fetch high prices—and why collectors avidly seek them out—is due to their overall rarity. Today, experts estimate that only around 12 to 30 pieces have survived, as per CNN. Earlier or older jars tend to have a “compressed and more rounded opening at the top,” according to Christie’s, while later ones possess a “straighter and higher mouth.”
Larger moon jars from the Joseon Dynasty also tend to sell for much higher prices (which was the case with the piece that Christie’s sold for $4.5 million). This makes sense, considering the labor-intensive process of these ceramic rarities.
Reviving an Old Art
The baekja clay of moon jars requires much hotter firing temperatures of at least 1300°C (2370°F), as per Christie’s. This is why kilns during the Joseon period frequently moved every decade or so, as firewood reserves would deplete.
CNN added that the labor-intensive process involves a lot of “washing, sifting impurities from the clay, kneading and rolling it to remove air bubbles, carrying around these large hunks, not to mention hand throwing the clay itself to that oversized bowl shape without collapsing, and the work keeping a pine wood fire burning for 24 hours while the pot hardens in the kiln.”
Today, newer generations of Korean artists are breathing life into the old art, coming out with their own interpretations of the famous jar. However, potter Dae-sup Kwon has spent years creating pale moon jars that mimic the older Joseon ones—including their intensive processes. The artist doesn’t seem to mind the difficulties.
“I do this because it’s fun,” he told CNN in a phone interview. “Every time I make something, it’s novel … The quality of the material is different every time. The conditions in which I make the pots is new every time.”
Evoking Peace and Calm
So, we return to RM of BTS’ ardent admiration of the jar, and its ability to calm him. What exactly does it mean? Like any good work of art, the moon jar evokes emotions that are indescribable—and perhaps untraceable, but that may be the point. It’s as simple or complex as one wants it to be.
Despite its plain appearance, it always holds undiscovered depths, depending on where you’re coming from. A piece of clay holds a nation’s history and culture as well as any written record, and on a deeper level, it tells the story of a tradition that lives on despite years of attempted erasure.
“It’s hard for someone to really comprehend how a pot can make you feel that way,” explained Angela McAteer, Sotheby’s international head of Chinese art for the Americas and Europe, to CNN. “It has this real meditative presence. If you’ve sat in front of a great [painting by US artist, Mark] Rothko and you feel this kind of palpable energy emanate from it, and you could sit for hours and just feel something in its presence—the moon jar has that too.”
“The more you look at it, the more there is to see,” she continued.
Banner photo from The MET Museum website.