Thirty-four years ago, each of the guests at Moon Sang Soo's first birthday party brought the customary baby present: a 24-karat gold ring.
When Moon was accepted to college, his parents had 20 of these rings, each weighing one don (3.75 grams, or an eighth of an ounce), melted down and recast as a miniature crown, which he now proudly displays in his living room.
But in December, at his own son's first birthday party, only half of Moon's 50 or so guests brought a ring. The others presented the baby with cash, slipping it into his parents' sleeves.
Gold is the traditional Korean gift to wish a baby good health and fortune in life, but with the world price of gold soaring to more than twice the level of just three years ago, that custom is breaking down. Guests at first birthday parties are resorting to alternatives. Some parents who do receive gold in their baby's name are even reselling it as soon as they can.
Gold has been a marker of many life passages in South Korea. Gifts of gold jewelry and watches used to be almost obligatory at weddings. Companies often awarded their employees with gold medals and gave them gold key chains when they retired. It was assumed that gold could be turned into cash in case of emergency.
As the country modernized, other items came into play as gifts. But the tradition of baby rings, valued not just for their monetary value but auspiciousness, has persisted. Most households have from 5 to 20 rings, or more, stashed away for each child, and resistance to selling them remains high.
"People gave us the rings to wish my children longevity," said Joo Sae Hoon, 37, a marketing director at an online bookstore who has two children, aged 7 and 11. "So I wouldn't feel comfortable cashing them in. Maybe I will have them made into necklaces when my children turn 20."
Attaining one's first birthday was a major cause for celebration when South Korea was poor and infant mortality rates were much higher. The gold rings were cherished as talismans safeguarding the children as they were growing up.
Moon said he preferred the gifts of gold to the cash at his son's birthday in December. The gold, he explained, was more likely to end up in his son's hands.
"It's less liquid than cash," he said. "So I can keep myself from spending it."
But the trend toward cash in place of rings seems likely to continue given rising gold prices, which in January surged past the 1980 record of $850 an ounce and are now hovering around $950. Rings that cost about 50,000 won, or $60 to $70, about three years ago have been priced at more than 100,000 won since the beginning of this year.
"A couple of months ago, I paid 95,000 won for a baby gold ring. I thought it was too expensive," said Lee Yon Jeong, a journalist.
Jewelers have been hit hard. According to the Korea Jewelry Association, sales of baby rings are down by half since the typical cost rose above 100,000 won.
"Customers keep coming in to buy baby rings," said Yoon Jae Hee, owner of Kobo Jewelry in central Seoul. "But once they find out that they cost 130,000 won, they hesitate."
"They might buy a ring half the standard size," he said. "Or they resort to cheaper accessories."
Gold jewelers have been trying to lure customers with lightweight baby necklaces or bracelets with bells - supposed to prevent a baby from going missing.
And several jewelers say that now more people are selling gold than buying it.
People have been bringing in graduation rings, lucky charms, key chains, mismatched earrings. A few have even started selling their baby's gold rings.
"The other day a woman pushing a child in a stroller sold us three," Yoon said. "As she did so, she murmured, 'Sorry, son.' "
He said he gave the woman 91,000 won for each ring.
Still, Cha Min Gyu, public relations manager of the Korea Jewelry Association, said he doubts the custom of giving babies gold rings will disappear completely.
"Families will never give up gold rings for their own precious children," Cha said. "In Korea, gold will always be a symbol of health, wealth and prosperity."
Judging by the current level of baby ring production, Cha said he believes that about 40 percent of guests are still bringing gold rings to first-birthday parties. "Otherwise the baby ring jewelers would be out of business by now," he said.
Moon, who received a crown made from his gold baby rings when he was accepted to college, says that once his own son reaches that point, he'll sell the 27 rings presented to his son in December to pay the first semester's tuition.
"For the rest of his higher education," Moon said, "he can support himself."