[MARKET GUIDE: Jongno Jewelry Market]Ringing up a clienteleAudrey Hepburn ate breakfast at the window of Tiffany's, but jaunty and fashionable young women in Korea pay tribute to precious stones on the streets of Jongno, in central Seoul. It's not only young ladies who frequent the area. Middle-aged women bring their future daughter-in-laws to choose wedding rings and gifts. Young couples looking for the right couple rings or promise rings, fill up mammoth jewelry wholesale stores.
What you usually see next to movie theaters would mostly be fast food places, Internet cafes or take-out coffee shops. Jongno is a major movie theater center, but it's the giant jewelry stores that crowd the major road from Jongno 2-ga to 4-ga. There are about 1,500 jewelry stores, including 50 colossal ones with gaudy signs saying "jewelry department store" or "jewelry wholesale shop." Inside such wholesale stores, as many as 10 to 20 small-time jewelers have booths. According to the Korean Jewelers Association, jewelry stores in Korea have been on the decrease since 1998, from 18,600 to 12,000. During the same period in Jongno, however, the number soared up to 1,500 from 800, and is still on the increase. Jewelers have conquered Jongno not only in the open air along main streets but also in thick clusters on back lanes.
Chae Hee-won, who owns a booth at Taepyeongyang Jewelry Wholesale Department Store, has been nestled at Jongno 2-ga street for 24 years. Before Korea hosted the Seoul Olympic in 1988, Mr. Chae said that jewels had negative connotations. To wear a ring, an unimaginably luxurious item, showed that you had more money than most people could hope to have. "The government even had the policy to discourage people wearing jewelry items for fashionable reason," Mr. Chae said. "The jewelry industry was thought to gnaw at the national economy."
Up until the late 1980s, jewelers mainly dealt with gold, except a group of jewelers in Myeong-dong near Midopa Department Store, which targeted only the richest people. The Myeong-dong jewelers began to disappear in the 1990s, and are now hard to find. Instead, Jongno became their new home. The first generation of jewelry shops based in Jongno started in the backstreets in Yeji-dong, further east by Jongno 5-ga.
"From the 1990s, the public started to show more interest in personal ornaments, and they became more open about being bejeweled," Mr. Chae said. With the changing perception of jewelry as a fashion item, a group of shops targeting the public began to move out of the backstreets of Yeji-dong to the main avenues on Jongno. Instead of the Jongno 5-ga backwater, new shops sprung up near the popular movie theaters and restaurants. Shops in Yeji-dong, on the contrary, began to fall off. "It has been seven, or at most eight, years since huge jewelry shops started to fill the main streets of Jongno," Mr. Chae said. Jongno has various age groups filling its overcrowded sidewalks, creating a positive and diverse market for the jewelry market district. "The secret of the Jongno jewelry market is that it created an image that there is a variety of items at reasonable prices," Mr. Chae said.
Different areas from Jongno 2-ga to Jongno 4-ga attract different types of customers. Around 4-ga street, the shops are more designed for older customers. Mr. Chae's shop across from Jongmyo Park at 4-ga has a group of mostly middle-aged women looking to buy jade and diamonds in more gaudy designs. To the west, however, toward the 2-ga part of the street, shops deal with much younger people, specializing in couple rings and fashionable items that are not lower in price.
Han's Jewelry in Piccadilly Jewelry Department Store, is one such place on 3-ga. Kim In-hee, who works at the Han's Jewelry, said that more than half of her customers are young couples, from high school sweethearts to those who are in their late 20s. "It's more like a ritual for a faithful couple to wear couple rings," Ms. Kim said, "and we have a lot of young couples bargaining over price." Ms. Kim also has soon-to-be-brides and their mothers or mother-in-laws looking for wedding rings and gifts. "I can easily tell whether a middle-aged woman is the bride's mother or mother-in-law," she said. And she prefers true mothers to mother-in-laws, because they want their daughters to have quality items regardless of price.
"I used to take a 30 percent profit before, but these days, I can only get about half of that," Ms. Kim said. Despite the jewelers' grudge at having so many competitors, Jongno jewelry market is a paradise for young people. Kim Dong-gyu, who brought his girlfriend to choose their couple rings, said he frequents the market for various designs at affordable prices. Though he should have been a bit more careful in saying the word "frequent," his girlfriend at the Jongno jewelry market looked happy enough, just like Hepburn at Tiffany's.
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Being up-to-the-second among the fashionable crowd is not easy. For Korean young ladies, however, it just takes a few hours of watching television. Pop stars are the main fashion leaders. If a celebrity wears a certain jewelry design in a hit television drama, the item is soon sought-after all over the peninsula. Kim In-hee introduced the three most popular "celeb accessories" these days ?a pair of Kim Nam-ju earrings, the Kim Ha-neul necklace and a Choi Ji-woo pendant.
Kim Nam-ju earrings, rectangular with fake diamonds, are also known as "refrigerator earrings," as Kim wore a pair in a commercial for a refrigerator. The Choi Ji-woo pendant, gold and silver rings centered by a fake diamond, became popular by appearing in the television drama, "Winter Love Story." The pendant was a gift to the character Choi played. The Kim Ha-neul necklace, a glittering heart-shaped piece of white gold, became well-received after Kim wore it on "Romance." Kim Nam-ju, Choi Ji-woo and Kim Ha-neul clones fill the streets downtown.
Prices for those celeb jewelry items range from 50,000 won ($40) to 100,000 at jewelry shops around Jongno. "At least 30 percent cheaper than at other places," Ms. Kim stressed. If you are good at bargaining over price, you can expect some discount as well.
by Chun Su-jin
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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