Interview with Jeong-Eun Lee
CHEYUL is a luxury handcraft brand from Korea, committed to preserve Korea’s heritage and culture, incorporate the skills and wisdom of artisans and play a pivotal role in modernizing the unique Korean beauty by reinterpreting and recreating it in a modern way.
From the year of foundation, 1988, to today, Cheyul’s path has achieved many successes. What characterized the strategic vision of the brand?
Cheyul’s foundation started with a deep reverence and commitment to preserving our fading history and culture in 1988. 20 years later, in 2008, a brand named Cheyul was officially launched, marking the start of business in earnest. Until the mid-2000s, well-known Korean conglomerates may have had the global presence, but there were no Korean luxury heritage brands worthy of being placed on luxury streets such as 5th Ave or Madison Avenue of New York, and even the museums shunned them as well. My older sister, who majored in crafts, and I, who was studying art history and traditional art, took a leave of absence and stayed in New York upon graduation. We were able to see and experience the luxury market to the fullest and learn about Korean crafts, such as jewels, that were in museums and used by overseas luxury brands. I thought that heritage elements such as ‘Ottchil(lacquer)’, ‘Najeon(mother-of-pearl)’, and ‘Chilbo(enameling)’ would shine well in overseas markets. And after careful preparation, Chaeyul was launched as a brand in a department store in 2008. Cheyul will certainly transform into a global luxury brand originating from Korea that shines even more in the global market. The whole world is curious about the Korean luxury market and art market, and at a time when ‘K-design’ and ‘K-art’ are experiencing a revival, the day when brands with the ‘K-luxury’ heritage will create sympathy in the world will come even faster. I’m very confident..
Is the need and desire to talk about and enhance local culture still a fundamental element for Cheyul today?
Luxury goods represent something precious, rare, and have the value of being passed down from generation to generation. In that sense, traditional crafts made by artisans can be said to be luxury goods. However, the current situation is that traditional crafts are disappearing not only in Korea but also all across Asia such as China and Japan. In an age where advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence are gaining attention, one might think that traditional handicrafts may become less practical. However, I believe that if we innovate both in terms of technique and design, we can create practical handcrafts that are similar to expensive imported furniture and reduce accessibility while preserving Korea’s unique culture. Cheyul is targeting a variety of age groups while maintaining tradition. Like other luxury brands, we are producing an entry line targeting a relatively younger generation, and are strategically planning products to suit various generations.
Jewels and precious objects for home furnishings. Why the idea of combining two different worlds within a single brand?
Of course, it comes in a variety of forms. The goal is to raise the level of Korean culture and arts, which have been formed over thousands of years of history, by translating them into people’s daily lifestyles. And yes, the characteristics of the product are important, but the crafting technique is also something that cannot be overlooked. As you asked, Cheyul’s product lineup is diverse, ranging from small jewelry to boxes that can hold them (jewelry boxes, wedding gift boxes), and art-furniture that spices up the atmosphere of your surroundings too. In the end, as we pursued elements that became heritage, we focused on things that shine over time, as the Cheyul brand slogan, “Be jeweled with time,” suggests. There are traditional products such as headboards and medicine cabinets, but also furniture that is suitable for modern design and usage, such as consoles, is also included. One-year-anniversary rings for a baby as well as interior accessories such as vases and jars are very popular regardless of generation. Ultimately, because we have the foundation of Korean beauty, we are making efforts to maximize the synergy by combining various product lines into one brand.
The theme of nature, of respect for the environment, is today a global theme, the central theme of the most important agendas. In your opinion, is there a real revolution taking place in the awareness that safeguarding the environment around us is the right choice?
This is very true. For example, all of Cheyul’s products are manufactured using eco-friendly materials and techniques. Of course, other brands use artificial chemicals to satisfy the diverse needs of customers around the world, but the reality is that everyone is questioning how sustainable these practices are. From Cheyul’s perspective, who creates works using materials obtained from nature, I agree that protecting the environment is a very important agenda. I also heard that there are many abandoned trees in the Gangwon-do region of Korea. In the future, I would like to work with meaningful wood carvers and craftsmen to make abandoned dead trees shine again in everyday life.
The same also applies to local communities, artisans?
I traveled all over the country to discover artisans, and I work with a variety of people from their 20s to their 70s. In each atelier, several artisans create products under the guidance of a human cultural asset of Korea. However, looking at the recent situation, there are many people who have skills but have been put out of business, just as there are many people who are living cultural heritage level craftsmen but are unable to do so because they are not familiar with the application process. One of Cheyul’s great missions is to constantly co-exist with local communities and artisans and help young craftsmen enter the field and preserve our heritage and culture. To add a few more words, we are getting calls from Japan, China and other East Asian countries with regards to the shortage of craftsmen. It is no exaggeration to say that companies like Cheyul are carrying on the tradition of traditional techniques in the 21st century. I believe that in the future, Cheyul’s technique, which is so valuable as a social enterprise, will become an asset not only in Korea but in East Asia.
Who are your interlocutors, the customers who most appreciate Cheyul’s products?
From 2009, Cheyul gradually began to establish itself as a ‘great gift suggestion’ for overseas VIPs and wedding favors, and as word of mouth spread among domestic and foreign collectors and department store VIPs, the product line expanded to include not only jewelry and tableware, but also objects and furniture, becoming a total lifestyle brand. After an early Cheyul boutique was successfully launched, we became very hot amongst major hotels asking us to open another boutique in their lobbies instead of other global luxury brands. Since then, Cheyul has served as a representative gift for Korea to overseas guests, and recently, Chaeyul’s products were given as gifts to the U.S. President Biden, LVMH Chairman Bernard Arnault, CEO of Dior Delphine Arnault and Kering Group Chairman François Pinault. I can proudly say Cheyul has been taking the role of an international ambassador considering the Manchester United legend Ji Sung Park and his family are spreading the word about Cheyul in London, as well as a great component of Andrea Bocelli’s mansion in Italy. Recently, younger generations such as Korean actor Song Joong Ki and his wife Katy Louise Saunders, Jisoo from BlankPink have chosen Cheyul as representative luxury gifts. Just like K-pop and K-food elevated the image and power of Korea, we hope that Cheyul will become a K-luxury loved by people around the world. We are committed to creating deep works of art and culture that promote Korean tradition, rather than extravagance. I want to promote to the world the value of traditional Korean handicrafts that have been used for generations.
What will be the news for 2024?
We plan to launch products that can cover more generations and customer bases including beautiful tube amplifiers(audio) in high-end living product lines by leveraging the power of IT . Additionally, in order to scale up globally with an impact, we are preparing for the first fund-raising since the brand was established. It will be an important first step in terms of growing as a unique luxury brand representing Asia beyond Korea, by gaining production capacity through collaboration with various companies and brands as well as financial leverage.
How do you see Cheyul in the future?
The materials that make up Cheyul’s products are familiar materials in the global market. Gold, silver, lacquer, mother-of-pearl, cloisonné, etc. are already used in products for global luxury brands. For example, mother-of-pearl is also a key material for watches and jewelry from European luxury brands. Ultimately, the key to Cheyul’s success is how well these rare ingredients can be used to express Korean beauty that satisfies everyone. I believe that the judgment day is not far when we can go beyond ‘Cheyul from Korea’ and become a brand loved by people all over the world.
Interview with Jeong-Eun Lee