Written and photographed by Josh Garcia
As I approached Misub Hur’s workshop on an overcast Saturday afternoon, the first thing I noticed was the assortment of plants potted in sneakers on the front porch of the building. I walked in, following a mutual friend, and caught a glance of Misub in the back of his shop, handling some sort of machinery. A few other locals were in the room as well, getting ready for their usual jewelry workshop where Misub teaches them how to make their own rings, necklaces, bracelets, and earrings every Saturday afternoon.
He knew that I was coming to interview him that day but was fairly uninterested in talking about himself. Dawning a pair of magnifying eye glasses, he shifted to a nearby table to zero in on the details of a new ring. Fortunately, a good friend of his, Vanessa McClellen, was there and helped in my effort to learn the backstory of this artist’s rarely talked about past. Essentially, Vanessa conducted the interview, and I had the pleasure of being a fly on the wall as Misub’s tale unfolded.
Vanessa began by explaining to me, that Misub started the Saturday workshops about two years ago to break up his seven-day work week with some socializing and teaching to whomever was interested in spending the afternoon there at the shop. Students would begin on the anvil, melting silver to create ring bands in the traditional way. Now, more of the carving and sculpting techniques are practiced on wax before students move on to using torches for molding metals. Buffing and polishing are taught near the end of their training.
A native from Japan, Misub first came to Korea at age 12. His father had passed away when he was young, and his mother had remarried a Korean man that she met while the two were working at the same factory. The family moved to Naju, but Misub and his step-brother moved away to Gwangju to attend middle school, where they would face daily harassment, threats, and attacks from school mates because of their Japanese lineage. Misub jokes around about those times, saying that the other kids at school really only attacked him because he was so handsome, but he also admits through chuckles that he was a short, skinny kid. The antagonism was relentless. He recalls one fight where another boy hit him so hard on the ear that it caused permanent damage. Taking it in stride and opening up a bit more, he laughs and mocks himself trying to have a conversation on the phone using his deaf ear.
Misub and his step-brother soldiered on through middle school, but after about seven months of his first year in high school Misub dropped out, got his GED, and entered into a vocational school to learn about jewelry making. He was tired of being poor and hungry, and attributes praise to a high school teacher whose friend helped him enroll in the vocational school. His drive to work hard and learn carried him through three and a half years of training at this school, but as someone who comes from nine generations of jewelers, the creative edge was in his blood. He graduated and began to work on private projects for various people in Gwangju.
In 1985, Misub was Gwangju’s representative for jewelry making in the International Vocational Training Competition in Seoul. You can think of this contest as essentially the Olympics for vocational fields. Misub’s ring designs took home the gold medal for all of Korea and advanced him to the international championships! His success here was not only important as a representative from Gwangju, but as a spotlight for everything he had overcome. He had made his country proud, and continued to do so by serving in the Korean Marines for 36 months shortly thereafter.
At age 24, Misub obtained a full scholarship to study jewelry design in Tokyo, where he would obtain a master’s degree and begin his PhD. He was also working for his uncle’s jewelry company during this time, holding a position among the top three jewelers out of the 800 within the company. However, his studies were left unfinished as he returned to Seoul to take a job teaching at Sungshin University. After three years of teaching, Misub found himself longing to be in Gwangju once again to simply focus on private jewelry work. This move led him to meeting his wife, who is also an expert potter. She suggested that they start a jewelry shop together, and their popularity soon led to five different shops throughout Gwangju. The shops were thriving until problems with Misub’s heart brought upon a very serious surgery, resulting in the closure of some of the shops. Determined and tenacious in his efforts to help his wife run the stores, Misub only rested in the hospital for ten days after his heart surgery before returning to work.
Since then, he and his wife have transferred some of their previous store inventory to a website and continue to steadily provide handcrafted, but still affordable, jewelry for the people of Gwangju. He says that after 38 years in the business, he still loves designing and creating jewelry. He has evolved with the times to incorporate computer programs, such as CAD, and 3D printers to construct his designs these days, and he shows no signs of stopping.
By the end of the interview, Misub has warmed up quite a bit and is playing jokes on the workshop attendees, hiding their phones and teasing them about whatever topic is at hand. He finishes up some of the rings he’s been working on and asks everyone if they would like to go grab a beer. The jewelers in training begin to pack up and organize their stations so that the shop can go back to its usual function. Misub tells me that his uncle in Tokyo is 84 years old and still working as a jeweler today. He plans to follow in those steps, and I have no doubt that he will.
Josh Garcia is an English teacher who lives in Gwangju. He is a native Texan and uses most of his free time playing music and enjoying the outdoors.