Thai manuscript art and crafts feature several characteristics that reflect sophisticated and refined craftsmanship. Mother-of-pearl inlay is one aspect of such fine art that reveals the painstaking efforts and the refined minds of the Thai manuscript makers. The mother-of-pearl’s exquisite patterns are created by pearl-shell chips in silvery pink, purple, blue and other shiny colours embedded in lacquered wooden boards to be used as manuscript covers, or in very rare cases, even the text in a manuscript could be created by using mother-of-pearl inlay on black laquered sheets. Mother-of-pearl was also used to decorate manuscript chests and cabinets to store the most valuable Tipitaka scriptures.

Manuscript covers with mother-of-pearl inlay, British Library, Manuscript number Or.1245

Manuscript covers with mother-of-pearl inlay, Central Thailand, 19th century (British Library Manuscript number Or.1245)

Buddhist and traditional Thai motifs were selected to befit the materials used and to suit the shape of the items being decorated. In many cases the Kranok and the Krajang designs were utilized as the themes for manuscript covers as well as for smaller manuscript boxes and containers, while stories from traditional literature like Sudhana and Manohra and the Ramakien (Thai version of the Ramayana), or subjects related to Buddhism were depicted on chests and cabinets with a larger surface. Chinese designs became more and more popular during the 19th century to decorate manuscript chests and covers, as shown in the example above.

The National Museum of Thailand holds the most important collection of Thai manuscript cabinets, including some decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay

An interesting article about Thai mother-of-pearl inlay by John J. Toomey can be found in the January/February 2013 issue of Passage, the magazine of the Singapore Friends of the Museums.