도장 (dojang) — the traditional Korean seal

The fascination started back when my family was living in Seoul. One of objects I revered the most as a small child was the personal seal that my parents individually owned. I remember they were always kept safe, zipped up in tiny leather pouches and hidden somewhere out of my reach. I could play with the red paste, stamping my fingerprints everywhere, but the seals themselves were strictly out of bounds. This was because the seals were used in lieu of signatures — the concept of signatures didn’t exist in Korea, and the 도장 were the only recognised way to bind contracts. You can see why my parents were so careful with them.

There’s something intriguing about making a mark to claim an object as your own, especially when there’s a consistent and systematic way of doing so. I was 20 years old when my aunt back in Korea offered me a 도장 of my own. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. That was the point in time I had lived in Korea for the first ten years of my life, and the other ten in New Zealand. It was the perfect vessel that would hold the convergence of the two cultures. I intentionally drew up an English-based design.

The outcome was beyond any expectation. It still feels like a treat to be handling such a beautiful object. The exterior is embellished with fine lines of thread that make up a pattern of traditional motifs. To open the box, you simply unhook the small ivory piece from the loop. The felt that cushions the block of marble is bright red, a stunning contrast from the gentle green and gold.

Turning the marble block around to the stamp face exposes thin slashes around the lettering, strokes that have been chiseled away by the craftsperson. It’s easy to imagine how difficult a material this might have been to work with. The gleaming marble is cool to touch. Upon examination, there’s a deliberate blemish on one of the sides. A small zigzag has been hand-etched onto the surface that lets the thumb to orient the stamp correctly. There’s no need to twist my wrist to see if it’s oriented the right way.

The heft of the marble keeps the block in position without having to do much work. Like most stamps, I simply tap ink on, then press down to print. The slight curve of the top protects my palm safe from the sharp corners.

There is no practical need for a seal in New Zealand. However, the personal symbolism that my 도장 bears is important to me, and it has been my identity for half a decade now — appearing in professional documents to the more intimate personal paper-based exchanges. The combined experience of such contrasting materials make it a joy to handle each time.

It is a small but richly ceremonious object that I’ll cherish for a lifetime.