By Elaine Kim
A Mother and Her Daughter’s Project of a Lifetime
In my family, the introduction to jewelry starts quite early and it has been a unique privilege to grow up with my mother’s collection which has served as a creative playground where I can let my imagination loose to experiment and play. Collecting jewelry is in our blood and the last seventeen years have been some of the most challenging yet rewarding, as we have watched our love affair with jewelry turn into a solid foundation for cultural exchange, collaboration and partnership on a global scale.
My mother, Lee Kangwon, has built a lifelong relationship with jewelry which can be traced back to her earliest childhood memories when she had lived together with her grandmother, one of the royal consorts of King Kojong, the last king of Choson Dynasty. She learned from her grandmother to wear jewelry not only as an ornament, but also as a supernatural and curative substance. Among the heirloom jewelry and the stories associated with them that she inherited from her grandmother, it is the fiery and glowing light from the enormous amber pendant that her grandmother enjoyed wearing which has kept my mother hypnotized all these years. There are signs of use of handling and rubbing on the amber which came from my great grandmother’s fingers to release its fragrance and perhaps to activate its divine associations. Even to this day when my mother wears the amber pendant it holds a strong connection to her grandmother.
Known to be the oldest evidence of the cultural beginnings of mankind, jewelry is the most intimate expression of what it means to be human. As a profoundly social species, humans are born for physical and spiritual connections and jewelry becomes the place where all these relationships touch. It is this unique ability of jewelry to touch people and to speak about human connectedness that has always fascinated my mother.
The idea of creating a museum exclusively dedicated to jewelry came to my mother intuitively when she caught the collector’s virus in Ethiopia in 1978. It was then she discovered from jewelry that art knows no cultural boundaries and it can even be wearable. One chapter of my family’s story closed when my father, a former ambassador retired from the Foreign Service, but a new one opened waiting to be written. My father often says “we had no idea how wide the world was when we embarked on our diplomatic career, and when our rootless journey around the world came to an end, the cultural diversity, collaboration, and interaction we had encountered over the years were embodied by the jewelry your mother has collected.”
My mother’s dream of creating a microcosm of the earth’s treasures and shared humanity was realized in 2004 when she established the World Jewellery Museum in Seoul, Korea. Spanning fifteen centuries, her collection is one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of jewelry of ancient, historical and contemporary jewelry from Africa, the Americas, Europe, Asia and the South Pacific regions which have been acquired during her years as a global nomad. The museum is located in the heart of Seoul’s premium historic cultural center “Bukchon” and operates out of a 3,550 square foot three-storied building which was designed by the award winning Korean architect Kim Seung-hoy. Due to its innovative display techniques and highly aesthetic approach to exhibit designs, the museum has earned its reputation as the “Jewel of Seoul” since its foundation. Fundamentally it is a space for exploring how our bodies relate to space and time, how we remember the past, our relationship to elsewhere and how we project into the future through innovative visual language.
Jewelry has always been inextricably bound to my family and it plays a significant role in my relationship with my mother. I have inherited my mother’s infectious passion for jewelry that is born out of its commitment to inspire such passion in others. The bond we share is forged in jewelry and my mother continues to open my eyes to the wonders of jewelry respiring, responding to stimuli, growing, and adapting to its environment.
A human magnet for jewelry, my mother is also a bestselling author and poet. Recently I had the opportunity to translate her new volume of poems into English which includes several poems about jewelry such as the Chequers’ ring, one of the most personal objects that once belonged to Queen Elizabeth I. It is a locket ring with portraits of Elizabeth and a mysterious woman hidden within. The bond between a mother and her daughter is one of the strongest in existence. My mother and I feel connected by the idea Elizabeth embraced the memory of her mother, Anne Boleyn, and the ring is filled with Elizabeth’s private love, magic, protection, and faith.
The most melancholy ring in the world
Wrapped in silence for 500 years
Henry VIII led her mother
Anne Boleyn to her death on the scaffold
A tragic victim of her father
In the shadow’s depth of a locket ring
Her mother’s portrait mourned
Aching longing and sadness towered over the queen
Long fermented years of heartbreak
Stretched back from her heart to her finger
The ring taken off at her journey’s end
Her mother’s face enshrined deep within
Tears of pearl shed between
A mother and a daughter
Royal guardian ring with a mother’s love
Forever encircling her daughter’s finger
Without the contaminated breath of putrefaction
A mother’s incorruptible immortal love
Until she died
Her mother’s portrait ring never left Elizabeth’s finger
Reigning in her heart who made an empire
On which the sun never sets
Small but a mighty ring
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