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Growth Market: The Pearl World is China's Oyster

Every late May, my street in Narberth, Pennsylvania, throws a yard sale and outside buffet dinner. Just about everybody knows I'm a jewelry journalist, so people always mosey on over at social events and request eyeball evaluations of their gems—usually diamonds but this year something new.

"You're Mr. Federman, aren't you?" asks a trim, attractive sandy-haired woman in her early thirties who looks both dressed to kill and to run ten miles afterwards. After I nod yes, she puts out a hand and says, "I'm Stacey Cohen. I live one street over on Chestnut Avenue." Without any transition, she asks me, "Do you know anything about Chinese pearls?" This is the kind of proud, prodding inquiry I get from home TV shoppers. After putting down my dinner plate, I admire her mixed, multicolored strands of Chinese freshwater pearls, her bracelet of the same, and her Tahitian pearl earrings.

"I know that most of the pearls you are wearing come from China," I answer. "Most people don't," she responds. "They think all pearls come from Japan. Boy, are they out of touch."

"Not for much longer," I quickly assure her. "It's next to impossible to go into a jewelry store these days and not see Chinese pearls." Then it hits me that I missed an important cue. So I add: "Of course, you're in front of the curve."

She thanks me, then says, "Tell me what you think about my pearls. You're a journalist and journalists are supposed to tell the truth."

"Well, Stacey, the truth is, your pearls are lovely. Where did you buy them?"

"Home shopping, jewelry stores, lots of places. Are all my pearls Chinese?"

"Most of them," I say confidently, "although I'm willing to bet your earrings are from Tahiti."

"What gives them away?" she wants to know. "The color, the luster. Nothing else looks like a Tahitian pearl."

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Dramatic strand of Chinese freshwater baroque shaped pearls
Pearl art: Dramatic strand of Chinese freshwater baroque shaped pearls from A&Z Pearls, (800) 732-7572.
Strand with alternating golden South Sea cultured pearls and pink Chinese freshwater pearls
Pearl multiculturalism: Strand with alternating golden South Sea cultured pearls and pink Chinese freshwater pearls from Freeman Gem Company, (213) 612-1212.
Chinese freshwater pearls
Colorful Chinese freshwater pearls in a lariat by Prince Dimitri for Assael International, (212) 819-0060.
Round Chinese freshwater pearls
Round Chinese freshwater pearls in pink, aubergine, and peach colors from King’s Ransom, (877) 331-2650.
“Starry Nights” collection by Jenny Perl
The quality and affordability of Chinese freshwater pearls has led to increased popularity with jewelry designers. These styles are from the “Starry Nights” collection by Jenny Perl, (301) 933-9500.
Chinese freshwater pearl strands
Fashionable twist: Chinese freshwater pearl strands in a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes from Shogun, (800) 458-8004.