Sunday, March 29, 2009

Dongdaemun & Beads

I mentioned earlier about the I'Park mall and its lack of "place." The same could be said for Dongdaemun Shopping Town, where I went yesterday to scope out Seoul's bead selection.

Again, the whole place was sorted into categories by floor, and each floor was not part of some larger, individual whole but rather a collection of market stalls, each a different vendor. They all had business cards for the taking, and I did pick up a few, but for the most part I found myself too overwhelmed to make any purchases. There wasn't really any kind of atmosphere of creativity or browsing, just "bali bali!" Quickly, quickly! This was a place to go when you knew exactly what it was that you needed. Which I did, but it quickly became apparent that what I needed was simply not to be found (Rhodonite nuggets, ~16mm or so) or probably quite readily found, if you only knew where to look—which I didn't. Add to that the fact that there's a specific lexicon to use with jewelry supplies that you probably never learn when studying English and thus asking the clerks for help is probably useless, and it all adds up to chaos. (To be fair, I didn't try to ask anyone if they had 3-strand separators—maybe they would have understood me and been able to produce some for me.)

Additionally, Koreans seem to tend towards "bling." I had noticed this before, looking at the jewelry selection in LotteMart or the Korean teachers' accessories (case in point: a tie with rhinestones in the design), but it was cranked up to 11 in Dongdaemun. Lots of sequins and rhinestones and so on, big ugly pins encrusted with Swarovski AB crystals (or, more likely, the Chinese knock-off thereof). Not really any kind of selection to be had in gemstones, in either kind or shape: just strands and strands of most-likely-Chinese stones just in generic smooth, round styles. One stall had a surprising array of shapes in hematite, but that was it.

The one surprising find was an absolute plethora of wooden beads and charms. I splurged and spent 10,000 Won on what looks to be heavily-lacquered wood with Hangul writing (which I'll have translated tomorrow). There were also a few stalls which had some interesting stuff going on in (what I assumed to be) jade, and pretty much every stall had a table or two devoted to freshwater pearls, in all shapes and colors. Charms also seemed to be pretty popular, though again a lot of them suffered from "bling" syndrome. I also found, among other things, $100 bill and Confederate Flag charms. Oh, Asia.

Every stall functioned to the same standard: clerks sat behind tables, sometimes just in rectangles, other times set up in miniature labyrinths where you could actually walk inside the "store" and poke around. The beads either hung in strands or sat individually in dishes and tins on the table. Merchants hung strands from every conceivable place: pegboard behind them, hooks attached to their tables, hooks attached to the top of their stall, etc. All of the stalls also sold jewelry, which the some of the merchants worked on while they helped you shop. It felt very sweatshop like, actually, since they seemed to work without any sense of creativity or artistic fulfillment but just to make a product as quickly as possible. Bali, bali! It actually gave me the willies.

The big difference between Dongdaemun and I'Park (aside from Dongdaemun's sole focus on crafts and handiworks) is that Dongdaemun is absolutely filthy. The floors were just bare concrete, with garbage tossed about haphazardly. This was also a contributing factor to the "I feel like I'm in a sweatshop" feeling. I'Park is equally big and busy but it's also very clean and shiny.

There is one other bead shop in Seoul, in Namdaemun shopping town. It's actually a chain stationary store, so I'm skeptical of what they have in the way of jewelry supplies, but it also sounds much less skeevy than Dongdaemun. For that reason alone I'm willing to check it out.


  1. hi :), happen to bum into this post and found something of interest to me BEADS.....

    I will be making my way to korea in a month or 2 and would definately love to do some beads shopping.

    Wondering if you can tell where i can do some shopping and your experience.

    I do not speak korean so you can imagine what mess i can get into if i do not know where to go or search in the wrong place - richard

  2. I would recommend Dongdaemun for beads. It's overwhelming, yes, but it's easy to find—whatever stationery store I saw suggested in Namdaemun was impossible to find (or no longer existed). And I spent a lot of time in Namdaemun.

    Dongdaemun Shopping Town is right by exits #8 and #9 of Dongdaemun station. It's quite easy to find. Beads are on the sixth floor.

    The actual purchasing of beads is quite painless. The vendors don't always speak English, but prices are marked so you can simply smile and hand over the money. That said, I recommend at least learning the numbers (the Sino-Korean set) in case you need to ask about a price.

    Good luck and happy hunting!

  3. Just manage to get some info that Namdaemun have some beads as well, mesa mall to be exact. Not sure if you can verify the existance

  4. There might be some wholesale type distributors in Namdaemun—I remember seeing signs, I think, but never going in. The only other place in Namdaemun I heard about was Alpha Stationery, which was absolutely impossible to find!

    Both markets are worth checking out, in any case. Namdaemun will probably be one of my first stops when I get back. :)