Back in the 1960s, when weekend visitors to the United Nations could roam the grounds freely and peek into meeting halls, imagining themselves VIPs, the gift shop offered exotic tokens and memorabilia from all over the world. On one such visit, during the era of Secretary-General U Thant on a muggy Sunday in August, my mother took my sisters and me to the UN to absorb its rarefied atmosphere, so far removed from our beach-going life on Long Island.
After swooning over the cavernous chambers and strutting down the wide-open hallways, our shoes echoing against the hard, glossy surface, we entered the gift shop as I felt myself panic: so much to choose from with such little baby-sitting money! After careful browsing, abandoned by my family, who had headed to the coffee shop, I picked out an $8 white mug from Ireland, decorated in tiny green shamrocks that I cherished for decades long after it cracked.
Today, the UN Gift Centre, presumably in the same spot it was in decades ago — the lower level of the UN — may appear staid if not quaint, but inside the dozen or so glass display cases lies jewelry from countries that some of us may never see. Presiding over the shop for three decades is a small dominion herself, Hanna Shoukry, whose Egyptian accent, blending sounds of a distant land, makes her a bona fide expression of the UN itself.
In the display cases, you’ll find pearl necklaces, earrings, rings and bracelets from the Philippines; native-American turquoise pieces from the United States; cameos in 14-karat gold settings from Italy.
These are the most popular items, a saleswoman whispered (wary of offending any of the 193 UN countries), though who can resist the rival beauties: amber from Sweden; malachite from the Democratic Republic of the Congo; beads from South Africa; semiprecious stones from China; fake Faberge eggs from Russia; Byzantine-style glass from Israel; sterling silver from Ireland; garnets from the Czech Republic; enamel from Austria.
Assembled among these member nations are more native jewelry from Egypt, Botswana, Morocco, Bahrain, Japan, Ethiopia, Poland, Spain and other shores.
Prices range from $6 to $3,000 (those pearls!)—but inexpensive jewelry, like dangling bracelets, is available on top of the counters if you’re feeling thrifty. Some good deals, like the Swedish amber bracelets, are worth the small investment. At least one mother-in-law found herself smitten with the gift.
The shop sells other intriguing wares grouped by region: Africa, Asia, Europe and North and South America. For the discerning gift-giver and recipient, these goodies include dolls from the Czech Republic ($250 to $274) and Russia ($30); brocaded cloth handbags from Myanmar; cuckoo clocks (if you stay long enough, they’ll chirp) from Switzerland ($479); clothes, china, glasses, napkins, wall hangings (the ones from Laos stand out); Kenyan baskets.
And for every woman: slender, delicate Egyptian glass-perfume bottles ($21).
The shop, accessible through the main UN entrance on First Avenue at 46th Street, is open to the public Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Be prepared to go through a security check.
And if you have a UN pass or a friend with one, you receive a 20 percent discount.
Alas, the Irish mugs are gone, yet in their stead is a white teapot, $375, perfect for the diplomat in your life.
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.