An Advisory: To my male readers, I hereby issue fair warning: the following is an unequivocally girly blog post. Read at your own risk.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get down to the important stuff: pearls.
This past week, I was fortunate enough to take a short business trip to Beijing. (I know; boo hoo for me, right?) It really was a work trip, so I didn’t have much time to explore Beijing’s touristy side. But there was one spot I knew I had to make it to, even if it meant facing off with Beijing’s infamous rush hour traffic to get there: Hongqiao Market (a.k.a: the Pearl Market).
As a pearl enthusiast, I’ve been hankering to pay Hongqiao a visit since my move to China. Having now made the trip, I can officially endorse it; if you share my fashion icons–women like Jackie Kennedy, Grace Kelly, and the incomparable Audrey Hepburn–you’ll want to make a stop there, too. But enough blanket advertising–onto the armchair-travelogue-style review!
I barely made it to Hongqiao the first day I attempted to. My last business meeting finished around 4:50, setting me up to try to traverse the city at the same time as every other Beijing-er. The first cab I flagged flat refused to take me, saying the trip would take too long at rush hour. When at last I successfully scored a taxi, the result was a 45-minute drive that dropped me at Hongqiao with only an hour to spare before their 7:00PM closing time.
With so little time at the market, I sprinted straight for the fourth floor. If there’s one thing you need to know about tackling Hongqiao, it’s this: finding what you need is all about being on the right level. Floor One provides every Chinese-style tchotchke your heart could desire. Floor Two supplies the inevitable brand-name-knock-off purses. Floor Three is where the cheaper pearl vendors set up shop. Floors Four and Five are reserved for the serious pearl sellers.
Again, since I was without excessive time, I made a bee-line for Ling Ling’s, a proper storefront tucked into a quiet corner. That quietness alone might’ve been enough to draw me to the shop, since the rest of Hongqiao boasts all the enthusiastic hawking you could want of an Asian market.
But the real reason I chose Ling Ling’s was the shop’s high recommendation on Pearl-Guide.com, a forum for, you guessed it, the pearl obsessed. Specifically, Ling Ling’s praises were sung by Jeremy Shepherd, the founder and CEO of Pearl Paradise, an online jewelry store specializing in pearls. I knew his recommendation would be a solid one.
Feeling confident that I could get real pearls at a fair price from Ling Ling’s, I plunged straight into my shopping list. After all, I was not only on a mission to pick up something special for myself, but for my best friend, as well. (After all, it was the least I could do after she came to visit me in China!)
The sheer number of pearls in Ling Ling’s was staggering. Some were already strung into necklaces, or set into earrings, pendants, and rings. But beyond this were literal bags and drawers of pearls, carefully itemized by color, size, roundness, and surface cleanness. Pearls were also matched in loose strands, piled up in trays beneath and behind the counter, ready to be selected and strung as necklaces. I tried to snap a few photos, but my feeble attempts don’t capture the scale and quantity of Ling Ling’s offerings.
Here, I have to give a shout-out to my best friend for preparing me a list in advance; without it, I would’ve been totally lost trying to narrow down my purchasing list.
After two visits, I wound up with:
- Four long baroque-style strands, each roughly 46″ long
- Five pairs of beautifully round studs, 7-7.5mm, in black, white, and pink
- One black freshwater pearl pendant
- One set of button freshwater pearls, peachy-pink with a slight turquoise orient
- A high-quality 6.5-7mm white freshwater pearl strand and matching earrings, with luster so sharp I can see little me’s reflected back
- Two extra necklace clasps
- One large (9mm) set of gorgeous white freshwater pearls (for me)
- One HUGE (11mm) set of freshwater pearls whose color (pink-gray-pewter-mauve?) is so unique, neither my words nor my camera can capture it (also, shamefully, for me)
I’m sure that somewhere in Hongqiao, a better bargain than Ling Ling’s can be found. But I walked away from the shop with a two thumbs up experience. Sure, I loved Ling Ling’s selection and the young saleswoman I worked with, Jane (her English name was the only one she gave me), was fantastic and professional. Best of all, however, was the sense that despite prices climbing into the 100s USD, both Jane and I left the bargaining, wheeling, and dealing satisfied.
I am not at all a natural bargainer. Some people love the challenge; it makes me feel pushy, greedy. The only time I’ve ever enjoyed bargaining was in Bangkok, and that’s because (in my very limited) experience, the Thais are so kind and polite, they can make any experience feel relaxing.
Yet Jane was a practically pleasant bargaining partner. She gave a little on prices when I asked, but was also willing to say, “No. This is a good price already.” When I fell in love with a strand of 9mm freshwater pearls with divine luster and surface area cleanness (not easy to come by at that size), I tried to get the price down into something within my range. A little haggling and she gave me her absolute best price. I had to utter those dreaded words–tài guì le–too expensive. She nodded and put the pearls away. The message was clear: The real price was too much for me to be willing to shell out, and she didn’t need my money enough to lower the pearls’ value below what it really was.
It was a fair and honest transaction and in both the deals that were made, and those that weren’t, we could walk away content. That’s not true of every sales interaction, whether haggling is involved or not.
My post-excursion research also confirmed my success. According to Pearl Paradise, the retail value for a pair of earrings slightly smaller and less unusually hued than my pink-gray-pewter-mauve pair would be 970USD (Pearl Paradise charges 195USD for the pair). I waltzed out of Ling Ling’s owning them at approximately 125USD.
My friend’s classic white strand and earrings set from Ling Ling’s came in at 94USD, give or take. A conservative estimate of their retail value is 900USD for the set (the Pearl Paradise price would be 232USD).
Yep. Not too shabby in terms of deals.
But perhaps the coolest part of the experience–and the most philosophically enlightening–was watching my pearl purchases become wearable jewelry. While I shopped, my pearl strands were deftly, elegantly strung and knotted into the final strands my friend would wear. Spots for drilling were carefully marked on each pearl destined to become an earring; I watched Jane meticulously study every pearl to find just the right place for the earring post so that matched pearls would be shown to their best effect.
Yet what really inspired self-reflection was watching Jane select matching pearls for stud sets. Long after my patience had drained empty for my own purchase, Jane was pulling particularly beautiful pearls from among the options, then testing potential match against potential match, rejecting and refining, adding candidates and creating new possible pairings. I was in awe. When I admired her painstaking care, she summed it up succinctly:
“With pearls you must have patience.”
Her absolute care, her willingness to invest time, threw my lack thereof into sharp relief. How often do I want to wrench things into place immediately, even before it’s time, just to satisfy that urge to be done?
I love to write; I whine about editing my work (though I recognize it as a necessary evil), because I struggle to have the patience to wade through my own words. I want instant inspiration for story ideas; I chaff when it takes time to court the Muse. I want this watercolor project to be done NOW; I labor to sit still for each brushstroke necessary to create life on blank canvas.
But now I have beautiful Beijing pearls as a reminder that matched pearls are just one of many pursuits requiring patience. Maybe next time I feel like rushing head-long through a project, I’ll recall that pearls aren’t the only work of art for which time is a critical part of cultivation.