SEOUL, South Korea — When young South Koreans are engaged, their thoughts often turn to wedding venues, guest lists — and Swiss watches.
“In Korea, there seems to be quite a strong wedding or bridal gift culture,” said Tina Kang, marketing and communication manager for IWC Schaffhausen in Korea. “In many cases, the bride and the groom will exchange rings and watches.”
The Korean terms are yemul, for the gifts the bride and groom exchange, and yedan, for the gifts that the bride’s family gives to the groom’s. These presents used to be simple items but, as the country’s affluence has increased, many modern couples choose costly items.
“Nowadays, the wedding gift trend is focused on practical items like watches,” said Tellhim Shin, a publicist at Hanwha Galleria, the well-known department store in the wealthy Apgujeong neighborhood, where Korean trendsetters often have their first encounters with new international labels. (The lavish two-building complex is something of a landmark, too, its pearl-like facade used for a vivid light show at night.)
In addition to its dizzying array of cosmetics, designer clothes and handbags, the Galleria’s Luxury Hall East has two floors dedicated to watches, with in-store boutiques selling brands like Vacheron Constantin, Officine Panerai and Patek Philippe.
One day in late September, two engaged couples came to the store to do some browsing. Coincidentally, both were marrying on Oct. 29, the height of the popular wedding season in South Korea, and at venues in the Gangnam district before about 400 guests.
So they talked about weddings and watches.
Fourteen years ago, Mr. Lee and Ms. Sohn met at an academy where they were being prepared for university entrance examinations. (He had a crush on her and started leaving a soft drink on her desk every day.)
When the couple became engaged last spring, they felt pressured to follow the elaborate gift traditions because many of their friends had. But in the end, they decided to follow their own hearts. “It’s really not about the money or getting something expensive,” Ms. Sohn said, “but it’s about doing something meaningful for your partner, and giving them something that will make them happy.”
At the Galleria, they first stopped at Jaeger-LeCoultre, particularly focusing on the sleek Reverso Tribute in navy and black. (Claire Cho, public relations manager of Jaeger-LeCoultre Korea, said its most popular models in South Korea are the Master Ultra Thin Moon for men and Rendez-Vous Night & Day for women.)
They then visited Bulgari — “We really love Bulgari,” Ms. Sohn said, “that’s actually where we bought our wedding bands.” They admired the Octo Finissimo Ultra-Thin Automatique, a slim model with a faceted case that was introduced in March. (The Lucea models are most often chosen by Korean bridal couples, said Jung Mi Park of Bulgari Korea, although the signature Serpenti collection, with a strap that spirals snakelike around the wrist, also is popular with brides.)
Later, the couple bought Rolexes.
“I’ve always had an interest in Rolex because growing up as a kid I was really into music, especially American hip-hop and watching music videos,” Mr. Lee said. “I had never owned an expensive watch but I knew that if I would ever own one, it would definitely be Rolex.”
He got his wish: a Rolex Datejust Ref. 116234 with a blue dial and Oyster metal bracelet.
Ms. Sohn also got a Datejust but a Ref. 279171, with a chocolate brown dial, diamond detailing and Oyster two-toned bracelet.
A little more than a year ago, Mr. Kim and Ms. Cho met at birthday party for one of Mr. Kim’s colleagues. (When they were interviewed Sept. 27, they knew they had been together 420 days.)
When it came to the gift exchange, Ms. Cho said, “Some traditional things should be included like rice cakes, grains, a hanbok, a small mirror — each has a specific meaning. The meaning of each item is the most important part. It can seem like it’s all about money but it’s not.”
Ms. Cho and her mother had chosen all the presents, which had been delivered to Mr. Kim’s family the previous weekend. Although, she said, “We also melted my parents’ wedding rings to make Eric’s wedding band, and I created an ingam, a traditional legal seal for Eric. I think those are very special gifts.”
Mr. Kim said he had given Ms. Cho a set of pearl jewelry; a dress and a hanbok, the traditional Korean garment; a handbag; some herbal medicine and traditional Korean carved birds that mean happiness. (Also, some whisky for her father.)
Ms. Cho said: “Nowadays people try to simplify the tradition because many couples think it’s not necessary to spend that much money. Maybe from the perspective of people outside Korea it seems like we only focus on money, but it really is about tradition and meaning.”
As the couple strolled through the Galleria, Mr. Kim talked about watches: “I love luxury watches, I always did. I like brands such as IWC, Breitling, Audemars Piguet.”
Ms. Cho said she loved jewelry but just didn’t have the same interest in watches. “ I never really thought about getting one, to be honest,” she said.
They decided to stop at IWC, and Mr. Kim immediately set his heart on a Portofino Ref. IW391007. (Ms. Kang, who was visiting the shop, said the Portofino models were designed to reflect the spirit of Italian fashion and lifestyle.)
At Breguet, Mr. Kim closely examined a Marine GMT with a waterproof rubber bracelet. And a sales associate displayed a model with the brand’s moon phase complication, which appears on the dial as a somewhat concerned looking moon face between two gold stars; the case of the women’s version was set with 66 diamonds.
In a later interview, Hyelim Uh, a public relations and marketing executive at Breguet Korea, said the Moon Phase is becoming popular among couples.
As for Ms. Cho, she loved Breguet’s Classique Dame 9088 in white with a diamond-set clasp. “Maybe I’m becoming more interested in watches now,” she said with a laugh.
But while Mr. Kim did get his favorite IWC Portofino, Ms. Cho got a handbag.