A town’s jump from yams to gems
The city of 320,000 is no longer trying to bring tourists by bragging about its stone pagoda, which is Asia’s biggest and dates back to the Baekje kingdom (18 B.C. to 660 A.D.). The stones they’re banking on are of the rarer type: gems, and how romantic myths about the ancient kings of Baekje show that gemstone art is what this town has always done best.
Despite the jeweled relics that seem to be unearthed on a daily basis here, the city does not actually have a long history of dealing in gemstone art. It only began to court the industry in 1977, after it received government support in the wake of an explosion at a train station, which killed 60 and injured more than 13,000. The city, then known as Iri, was looking for a way to shake off its image as the epicenter of a catastrophe.
“The city is going to try to get past its old image,” said Chae Gyu-jeong, Iksan’s mayor. But he added that the city knows that its reputation for antiquities is overshadowed by Gyeongju, the capital of the Silla kingdom.
Iksan’s history used to make it a popular designation for school field trips, but the poverty of archeological digs meant there was little to see ― the restoration projects were still unfinished and most of the relics had not yet been excavated.
The site that once was home to the Mireuksa Stone Pagoda is now empty, and the location of an ancient Baekje palace is now a barren field. No wonder the city wanted to change its image.
Mr. Chae said the city would like to use the jewel business to foster a more romantic image. For example, just about everything the city does to promote itself features two characters from a famous Baekje myth about Baekje’s King Mu, a noted figure during the 7th century. At that time, the kingdom’s development of Buddhism, pottery and jewelry influenced Asuka-era Japan.
The legend appears to have originated from the Korean folk song, “Seodong-yo,” or “Song of Seodong.” Historians believe King Mu wrote the song when he was young.
In the song, Seodong is a young yam farmer from Baekje who falls in love with Seonhwa, a beautiful princess from the neighbor kingdom of Silla. He writes a song about his wish for the princess to step out of the palace every night to see him. The song spreads across the country until it reaches the ears of the Silla king, who in his anger exiles his daughter. As Princess Seonhwa starts her journey westward toward Baekje, she runs into Seodong, and realizes that she is destined to marry the man.
The historical Mu was said to be talented diplomatically. Not only did he persuade the Silla king to grant him the king’s daughter, he also convinced the Chinese Tang Dynasty to name him as the successor to Baekje’s king.
The city’s legend-promotion material, admittedly, was pretty cute.
The city now has one of the largest industrial complexes for jewelry in the nation and a wholesale-gem store, offering its wares at prices 20 percent lower than retail.
For those who did not find this news romantic (my tour guide did; he said unmarried couples often visited the town to make reasonable purchases of wedding rings) there is the newly-constructed Jewelry Museum near the Iksan Interchange on the Honam expressway.
The museum is the town’s newest source of pride: it houses over 110,000 kinds of jewels and gemstones in a fancy glass three-story building that cost the city 40 billion won ($38 million) to construct. The building sits on a 14-hectare (35 acres) plot of grass.
Some of the museum pieces were replicas, but few visitors seemed to care as they soaked in the glitter. The exhibit was organized chronologically, from the ancient era of the Three Kingdoms (Baekje, Silla and Goguryeo) to modern-day jewelry.
The jewels unearthed at the sites of Baekje palaces attracted the most attention. There was a pair of golden shoes worn by kings, and golden hair pins for the queens. Another popular display was a gigantic crystal pagoda resembling a Baekje stone building.
Modern works also had their due: included in the exhibition was a piece called “Boseok Ggot” (“gem flower”), which is valued at about 2.7 billion won. Created by a German artist, it’s a pot full of flowers made out of precious gems and metals: the pistils were created out of 213 diamonds, 2,641 pieces of gemstones such as garnet and tourmaline formed petals, and the 45 stems were made out of 18-carat gold.
“Even though there are no longer mines here, the regional names suggest that the area has always been famous for its jewelry,” said Lee Ju-seong, an official at the Iksan city government’s cultural department.
He said the names of many mountains and counties in the region include the Chinese character for gold, pronounced “geum” in Korean. For example, the characters for Mount Ogeum, where Seodong was supposedly born and raised, mean “five gold,” in reference to the five gifts the humble yam farmer gave the princess’s father, King Jinheung of Silla.
Another example is the nearby town of Geumma, which means “golden yam.”
“[The legend] might just be the city’s effort to foster the local gem business, but many master craftsmen in the field are eager to work in the city because of it,” Mr. Lee said.
by Lee Min-a
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. but closes at 5 during the winter. It is closed every Tuesday. Near the museum is the site of the Mireuksa Stone Pagoda, currently being restored, and a five-story stone pagoda from the Baekje period as well as additional tourist attractions. Admission to the museum is 3,000 won for adults and 1,500 won for Iksan residents. Children are 1,000 and teenagers 2,000 won. All other attractions are free. (063) 850-4981