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There's a chance Linda Lee might have gone through adulthood spared from the collector's bug. "Maybe I collected stamps for a day, or coins for a day. My brothers collected stuff, but I never did." Until she saw one of Ming's sterling silver and ivory bamboo earrings during a visit to the Hawaii All-Collectors Show about 10 years ago. "My mom had all that Ming's jewelry with the pearls and jade, but I never cared for it. This piece was more sculptural. I had to get it.
"When I decide to do something I always have to learn all about it. After the show I looked at the list of all the vendors who carried Ming's and started calling them."
Out of that came friendships with people in positions to show her examples of Ming's jewelry from the 1940s through 1999, when the last store closed. She was also able to meet surviving members of Ming's founder Wook Moon's family, and recalled visiting the shop on Fort Street Mall when she was a little girl. "You would go inside and it would be dark, and you would see Mrs. Moon in a cheong-sam. I always remembered being a little scared because it was so dark and quiet and there was all this antique Chinese rosewood furniture. "I wasn't interested in jewelry at the time, but being on Fort Street Mall meant a lot of people collected this jewelry. Mr. Moon offered no-interest layaway, so that's how a lot of downtown secretaries, not highly paid women, were able to buy something."
In her search for vintage Ming's jewelry, Lee placed classified ads in newspapers, which turned up much of the more popular, generic pieces. "All the Japanese ladies had the woodrose. I don't know why." Although Lee had little attraction to the woodroses, she felt obligated to buy "a ton" of the sterling and ivory earrings and brooches just because the women "were so nice and they really wanted to sell. "I paid a fair price, so never got a deal, but I always thought I could trade those woodroses for something I really wanted. What's ironic is, now I can't find woodroses."
This is just for fun, if you're wondering what you have in your jewelry box that you didn't buy. If you have ivory pikake or plumeria it might be treasure, or it might be Chinatown ivory."
The latter represents cheap imitations that flooded the market after 1949, which do not have the cachet of Ming's ivory carvings, noted for delicacy and detail. Through her efforts, Lee is hoping to honor the legacy of an artist whose eclectic creations brought joy to generations of women. "Mr. Moon created Hawaiian flowers, Chinese flowers, he did a lot of leaves and he rarely did a flat leaf. His plumerias have a definite curve that make them look natural. "He also painted a lot of the ivory pieces himself. I can tell which ones he did because of the way he blended the colors." It was obvious that he spent time studying nature, which raises a question about his anthuriums. "Anthuriums grow with their noses down, but his earrings and brooches are made to be worn in a way where the nose points up," Lee said. "I would really have liked to know him. I would like to have asked why he did that."
By 2000, she had amassed 300 pieces and realized she was out of control. Today, she's in divesting mode, aiming only "to keep what I really like."
And, she continues to search for Ming's elusive red hanging hibiscus. She's only seen one set of earrings, peddled by a gentleman with a small sack of earrings. "It was the only find in the batch, but he wanted so much for it. My friend ended up buying it. "I'm thinking that if Mr. Moon made an earring, he probably made a brooch," Lee mused.
"But I actually think I'm kind of done, because I don't think I'll find that hibiscus."
Carved in Memory - A Collector's Story By Nadine Kam
Linda Lee cannot understand collectors who skip the long, arduous search for their objects of desire, in favor of buying another individual's collections outright. "To me, that's not collecting, that's accumulating. You don't get to meet the people who owned the pieces, or to hear their stories. To me, that's the fun part," said the collector of Ming's jewelry, who will be offering casual appraisals during the Hawaii All-Collectors Show this weekend.
"I started collecting by going to the collectors show, and I'm coming full circle, doing a display there."
The stories behind individual pieces of jewelry, linking people and objects to a particular place and time, appeal to Lee's inner historian. One search on eBay, for instance, resulted in her purchase of a rare sculptural brooch of silver and ivory from a person in Pennsylvania. "It was from a man who was selling it for his aunt, and it was one of a kind. Mr. (Wook) Moon would often make one thing, put it in a case and never make it again. ...
"The man who bought it was in the Navy and bought it here during World War II and sent it to his girlfriend. I don't know what happened but she never married him." The seller sent the piece with a photo of the sailor, signed in the back, "From Pete Fortin, Shirley I love you." "He must have really loved her, because he chose such a beautiful piece," Lee said.
Then there's the other kind of story, of the relationship that lasted, in spite of the jewelry. "I started collecting by going to the collectors show and I'm coming full circle, doing a display here."
"One woman had this blue sea horse set from Ming's, but she never wore it. She hated it. She said, 'My husband bought me this. Why the heck would he buy me this?' "Then she turned to her husband and asked again, 'Why did you buy me this?' He was all meek and just said, 'I thought it was nice.'" The set kept all its color, and the particular blue "is real rare," Lee said. "You cannot find it today." The husband probably paid less than $20 for it in the 1960s; Lee said it would probably be worth about $1,000 today.
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