How to Buy Pearls in Beijing

All the baubles of Beijing could be strung together and wrapped around the Earth 10 times over—or so it seems with Beijing's abundance of pearl vendors. It's mind-boggling to imagine how many oysters it would take to produce all those natural (and cultured) pearls. But, of course, not all are real: some are fake.

The attentive clerks in most shops are eager to prove their products' quality. Be wary of salespeople who don't demonstrate, with an eager and detailed pitch, why one strand is superior to another. Keep in mind the following tips as you judge whether that gorgeous strand is destined to be mere costume jewelry or the next family heirloom.

Color: Natural pearls have an even hue; dyed pearls vary in coloration.

Good Luster: Pick only the shiniest apples in the bunch. Pearls should have a healthy glow.

Shape: The strand should be able to roll smoothly across a flat surface without wobbling.

Blemishes: We hate them on our faces and we hate them on our pearls.

Size: Smaller pearls are obviously less expensive than larger ones, but don't get trapped into paying more for larger poor-quality pearls just because they're heftier.

The cost of pearls varies widely. A quality strand will generally run around US$50 to $200, but it's possible to buy good-looking but lower-quality pearls much more cheaply. As with any purchase, choose those pearls you adore most, and only pay as much as you think they warrant. After all, most women could always use an extra strand of good-looking fakes. Also, if you plan on making multiple purchases and you have time to return to the same shop, go ahead and establish a "friendship" with one key clerk. Each time you return, perhaps bringing someone else along, the price will miraculously drop.

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