Pearls, those magnificent treasures with a mother lode in Beijing

Beijing, China’s Pearl Market isn’t a discovery for those who are in the business or pearl lovers of those lustrous sea treasures. However, this is a market place in a four storey building, bustling with dealers, worldwide retailers, locals and people like me who knew nothing about this jewellery haven. But since I write about jewelry and pearls are my favorite gems, this lightening rod of a premise is like a dream of me falling into a heap of pearls from the South Sea waters off the coasts of Australia/ New Zealand , fresh water pearls in the Chinese waters and rare Tahitians.

My Beijing born friend, Ke, came along and at first sight it was as overwhelming for him as it was for me since he had never been. Ke, just wondered how he never knew about the market but then he never had to purchase pearls for anyone.

With a bit of pre-visit research, I knew that the fourth floor was the place to begin and for finished designs and quality gems.

Deciding which store to go to became the overwhelming issue. With literally several dozens of stores, all displaying marvelous looking items, I browsed a few before becoming very serious since my time in Beijing was so limited and I also wanted to include seeing the new wave of contemporary Chinese art .

Every store seemed to have great amounts of pearls from the perfect round to baroque and ringed, from white to champagne and black to brown, even pink, made up in, necklaces, rings, bracelets, pendants, cuff links and rings and just about any item one could demand. And usually, if not complicated, they could be made on the premises while you wait.

And if you finally do choose a string of pearls that fit your description, on site most of the jewelers have a few people that are there specifically to restring to your specification, perhaps a black pearl here, a white one there, mixed with many of the other colors offered. Service is a major part of their marketing as is bargaining.

Since the discussion of haggling came up, Ke suggested that since I seemed so confident, he would stay out of it, even asked me not to mention that he was a Mandarin speaking Chinese. He really felt that I would do better as a foreigner besides, he admittedly wasn’t up to haggling which is really considered an okay issue.

So after browing a few fine-looking shops, like JK (#4115), Jun Jewelry (on their card spelled Jewelrty, #4103), and Yonghong (#4201), it was time to get serious.

I suddenly spotted two men. It may seem strange as it did for Ke, but I just had a gut feeling. New York’s 47th Street is known as a Mecca for diamonds and jewelry as most of those stores are owned by religious (Hasidic) Jews and renowned around the world for their stock of precious gems including pearls and their honesty,these two were easily recognizable by their religious garb – skull caps and other Jewish tell-tell clothing . To Ke’s astonishment, I told him we were going to follow them and go into any or all of the stores they visited.

Luckily, it was only one, LingLing Pearls (#4334). Mrs LingLing greeted her old friends since they had been loyal clients for ten years, they told me. In fact, they said, they don’t even bother with any of the other boutiques. That was a good enough recommendation. They spoke Yiddish to each other and understanding and speaking a bit, I asked about the quality of the merchandise and if the pricing was fair. Of course, they said, or they wouldn’t be there.

Mrs. LingLing, is a tall, slim, stunning woman who may be about 50, with a constant smile, a great sense of style and humor who obviously enjoys her work. It seemed as though she invented multi tasking since Mrs. LingLing had time to discuss aspects with at least three clients at one time. And her smarts included hiring, knowledgeable, experienced salespeople who quickly were able to access the client’s desires.

In the business since 1989, and well before she came to Beijing, as a young child her uncle read the various newspapers and “got to know about the pearl business in Beijing,” she told me. “He said foreigners like pearls. So we came to the big city to try to sell.,” said in accented but well pronounced English. At first, only a few foreigners wandered into this huge complex. But soon many local people became her major customers.

“When I started to do business, I did many pearl parties in different homes. After I would bring handful of pearls to their homes where they had invited many friends.” Perhaps this was the first of the Tupper Ware Beijing house parties to take place! Soon she became known as the “pearl lady”.

“I was always honest to them and gave them best quality at reasonable prices,” she stated with her charming smile. Of course, after that, they’d come back, tell their friends and soon the tourists flocked to her market store.

I wanted to see baroque pearls. However, at a quick glance at Mrs. LingLing, wearing a large hanging mother of pearl pendant that I found so unusual and so enticing that I felt I must have it. So even though it was a new piece and her first day of showing it, she allowed me to try on this large mobi pearl with a smattering of diamonds on a white gold chain. So the bargaining began as we laughed and continued to go through the entire process until we agreed on a price.

Ke sat quietly but wide eyed and jaw dropping at this procedure in a chair where he starred in amazement at the vitrines of stunning wonders from the sea and watched with fascination the quick handed restringer. Poor thing, he wanted so much to ask about this procedure but with the intro that he couldn’t speak the language, he wasn’t able to utter a word. We had a laugh afterwards but he congratulated me on my bargaining skills, picked up at less sophisticated markets about the world.

A strand of pearls for my daughter was chosen and re strung in what seemed like a nano second but was about 10 minutes and I had my precious pendant from the “Pearl Lady’s” neck.

Deal done, we were on our way, but not so fast. Suddenly in the middle of the floor was the only free standing modern circular stall. A huge picture of a small pink gold ring had caught my eye and although I did see the stand on the way in, then my interest was only pearls. That was then but now I just had to see that design close up. Besides, what I had saved, my budget allowed for more looking.

Discovering Sharon’s Store, which was nearby has a fine tale. Sharon’s other very much larger space, is just steps away. Both locals and tourist are constant customers as I heard, French, Italian, German and a Slavic language.

Sharon Tong, the owner of Sharon’s Store, (#4201,4305) was only 20 years old when she opened in 1998 but already pearls were in her DNA. The Tong family has devoted 50 years to the industry and are pioneers in farming cultured pearls. The Tong family has worked to continuously improve the culturing methods, to process thick and lustrous pearl nacre. They own 10 huge pearl farms in the south seas of China and all the pearls at Sharon’s Store are straight from their own farms.

“Our competitors can only sell what they have bought, usually from pearl suppliers like us. Many of our customers are jewelry designers and foreign store owners who have been with us for years. Suppliers like us have built a business on quality and have a long history and experience in the pearling industry. The direct delivery from farm also reduces the price”, I’m told. I would have been surprised if there weren’t any quietly understood statements about their nearby competitors.

Illustrious clients include Laura Bush, Madeleine Albright, Condaliza Rice and Hilary Clinton. And as she says,” it’s a long personal journey of persistence, innovations and discovery” that has positioned the Sharon’s Store name to the forefront of the pearl and gold jewelry industry.

Arriving back at my still not checked-in hotel room, about 5PM, lo and behold there was the young saleswoman and her friends waiting for me. Since I wasn’t registered at any hotel at that point but perhaps had my name as incoming, these young women had probably called or gone to many of the four and five star hotels and fate made them wait in the historically lovely lobby of the old but renovated Beijing Hotel, when they spotted me checking in.But that’s not the end of the tale. I gave in and purchased a small rin, giving them my credit card. Hence, an entirely new chapter took place. Not looking too closely except to seeing the final amount, which I thought was in dollars, was by error made out in the Chinese currency, which is approximately 6.5 to the dollars. This would have been a give away to me. But since the amount was written as agreed on at the bottom of the bill, I never thought of it as anything other than dollars. I was so impressed with their locating me to alter this major error since our luggage from the last stop was still in the van and we hadn’t even checked into the hotel.

The error was soon corrected. And to my surprise, they handed me a bag, with a velvet box containing a lovely keshi pearl and turquoise neckpiece for my trouble. What trouble? I loved what I bought, they were justified in obtaining the corrected amount.

This was the essence, I found in Beijing. It may be an ever growing wealthy city, always travel jarred, smog filled city of about 31 million people. But what I discovered instead of being arrogant, they were polite, caring, professional and so with my now new treasure trove of pearls and ring (and declared at customs just to put things in the right order), I will always remember the fun at The Pearl Market and the pleasant, knowledgeable,caring people of Beijing.

4F HongQiao Market, Chongwen Dist. 10061 Beijing China