When walking between the galleries and the small museums of Samchong-dong, downtown Seoul, you may see a beautifully tarnished building covered with sunset-colored copper.
If you associated it with an old jewelry box, you are right. The building cherishes jewelry ornaments from around the world with interesting stories to tell, though they are not as expensive or luxurious as Cartier or Tiffany diamond rings.
The World Jewelry Museum is the dream-come-true of poet and essayist Lee Kang-won, who is wife of Kim Seung-young, former ambassador to Ethiopia, Costa Rica, Colombia and Argentina.
Having lived in nine countries and traveled around almost 60 countries as a diplomat's wife, Lee was especially attracted by ethnic ornaments.
`When I saw a nomad wearing silver necklace at a market in Ethiopia in 1978, I was so overwhelmed that I could hardly breathe,'' Lee recollected her first encounter with jewelry. From then on, she dedicated herself to collecting them. About 1,000 articles are exhibited in the museum, on top of an additional 2,000 or more in the cellar.
When she was in Ethiopia from 1990 to 1993, the civil war was going on. The families of all other diplomats were leaving, but upon hearing that a 19th century necklace of an African tribe was on the market, she jumped on a car and drove 10 hours.
`There were four of us, including the wife of Egyptian ambassador and a jewel designer from Greece. We didn't care about doing without shower for a few days if only we could get them,'' Lee said.
Once brought home, she would polish them for a few days and cherish them like her baby.
She didn't collect just any expensive jewel, only the ones with a story. As she tried to learn the language wherever she went, she could get precious ones at a more reasonable price, she explained.
When she saw a lady selling vegetables at a market in Africa, for example, it was not onions but the bracelet where her eyes were fixed. She asked the lady to sell it, of course.
The museum itself is as artistically designed as any ornament. Instead of simply displaying jewelry, each exhibition room is designed with a theme and a story.
The wall of one room is decorated with amber ornaments.
``Formed by pine resin for 30 million to 50 million years,' they are called the tears of the earth.
They are widely used in Africa, but were also brought to Korea through Silk Road,'' Lee explained.
If the amber wall seemed neat, the ``El Dorado'' room is splendid, with golden ornaments from Latin America between 10th century and 16th century overwhelming you as you walk in.
``While Mexican Mayan relics are mostly architecture, Colombia had many splendid ornaments. When the king ascended the throne, he put mud and gold powder on his body and rode on a raft to the middle of the lake. He threw emerald ornaments into the water and thus became the king,'' Lee said. One of the most beautiful rooms in the museum, ``A Conversation Between Beads and Ivory'' has bead necklaces wound around pillars. Originally from Venice in Italy, the former Czechoslovakia and Austria, their diverse bright colors fascinated Africans. ``They gave Europeans gold and slaves for the necklaces. I think it is man's basic instinct to look beautiful,'' Lee added. According to Lee, nomads tend to have more splendid and luxurious jewelry, as they focus on decorating their body rather than their house. The most sacred place in the museum is the room of the Ethiopian Cross, with about 120 silver crosses of diverse sizes from between the 13th century and 19th century. Some of them cannot even be reproduced today. ``Designers of Chanel or La Croix were inspired by these designs,'' Lee said. She added that she was lucky to get them back then, since the Ethiopian government now forbids carrying out the crosses. Lee said she is so sorry that these ethnic ornaments are disappearing. ``Since they are not something as precious as diamonds, people often melt their ancestors' creations from hundreds years ago to make new necklaces that are up to today's fashion. I opened the museum as I wanted to share the emotion and excitement when I first saw this jewelry.'' 'How to Get There ' To go to the World Jewelry Museum, walk up a few meters along the alley across the Samchong Police Box. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. everyday except Mondays. Admission is 5,000 won for adults and 2,000 won for children. An English-speaking guide service is available.
For more information, call (02) 730-1610.