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Golden Earrings of Silla

Along with the famous Golden Crown of Hwangnam, the tombs of Silla contained many other, less immediately eye-catching objects of beauty. An example is the golden earrings, one of the literally thousands of accessories such as necklaces, rings, belts and shoes that were buried with the dead kings and queens in Kyongju, capital of the Silla kingdom, 57 BCE – 935 AD.

Earrings were worn by men as well as women. In the case of kings and queens, they were not attached to the ears but to the crown itself.

The finest example of taehwan (대환: ‘thick’ earrings – worn by women, as opposed to sehwan – 세환: ‘thin earrings’ worn by men) was found in a tomb dating from the 6th century. The length of the earrings, shown below, is 8.7 cm.

Silla gold earrings
Silla gold earrings

The hexagon shaped pattern on the upper ring represents the back of a turtle, which was a symbol of longevity. All the patterns on the earrings are described with numerous tiny golden beads (diameter 0.7mm) and thin gold threads. Although it is hard to believe, each earring is covered with 5,000 of these beads, which were applied to the surface with miraculous precision.

These particular earrings have 37 hanging ornaments, almost double the amount we find on similar earrings of the period.

The golden granule technique, seen in the Sarira Reliquary of Kameun Temple, originated with the ancient Greeks, and spread to Korea via Central Asia. Although used in other countries, the work of Silla craftsmen has a special quality which is not found elsewhere.

What is it that sets it apart? Words like ‘precision’ and observations about tiny size and level of detail only restate the question. It was not so much a question of technique, but of mindset of devotion, a much harder quality to learn. More amazing than what they did, is why they would take such trouble to do it, considering that most people would never know how much labour the work required. As the obscurity of Korean art today attests, they did not do it for the sake of their careers.