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Around the World: The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Treasure Hunting Abroad

Jennifer Merin on

For many travelers, foreign adventure entails acquisition. Hunting for treasures and bringing home bounty is thrilling, whether it’s the result of a carefully planned safari through famous local emporia or from following an opportunity-inspired impulse.

Jewelry certainly counts as big game on the traveler’s trophy list. Wearing it makes you feel good, it’s beautiful, and it stimulates good conversation and fun storytelling. Good buys come with bragging rights, after all! And, it retains value, can be bought at discounted prices or tax-free, it doesn’t weigh much and it packs easy for the trip home.

When you’re shopping for jewelry, think of the wide world as your treasure trove with a vast selection of fine shops. The trick is to match your destinations with your desired gems.

Cities in which diamonds, jade and pearls are traded offer the richest selections of these gems, at the best prices. You’ll find that Amsterdam and Antwerp are Mecca for diamond hunters. Hong Kong is like a greenhouse for jade. And, Tokyo, which has traditionally been full of luster for those who lust after pearls, has actually been surpassed by Beijing as the world‘s most prominent pearl purveyor. .

But, whenever you set off to these cities or others in search of gems, take a wise and very wary approach to purchases. Sad to say, there are many faux stones out there, and unfortunately scamming sellers are so proficient at fakery, they can fool even sophisticated shoppers.

That high quality jewelry always has a high ticket is to be expected, but how do you protect yourself from that unexpected scam.?

For starters, if you don’t know much about gemstones and their valuation, before buy any expensive loose stones or set jewelry, familiarize yourself with the indications of authenticity and the qualities that determine pricing.

When it comes to diamonds, the fundamentals are easy and straight forward, and most reliable purveyors in Amsterdam and Antwerp will help you to understand them. Even so, you’d be better off knowing as much as possible about them in advanceof visiting a shop..

Diamonds are judged by the ‘Four Cs’: cut (more facets, better brilliance), clarity (fewer inner flaws, greater brilliance), color (least color, most brilliance) and carat weight (prices and the bling factor rise exponentially with size). You should learn how to look like a pro when you’re looking through a jeweler’s loop (magnifying glass) to examine a stone for facets and flaws.

Jade is more difficult to judge, and you’re actually considering two different minerals. Jadeite, the more valuable, occurs in various greens, white, lavender, yellows, oranges, reds and black. But, the finest quality jadeite is Imperial Jade, an evenly colored, translucent, brilliant emerald green. Jadeite doesn’t break or chip easily and can take a medium to high polish. Nephrite, the less expensive jade, is more plentiful but found in fewer colors. It’s often mottled and gray-green in color and is softer than jadeite, so cannot take a high polish and can break or scratch easily.

If you’ve a penchant for jade sculpted antiquities, you’re quest is actually for high quality nephrite. Jadeite wasn’t available to Chinese carvers until the 1700s.

Determining jade’s value is extremely difficult. By objective standards, price depends on color uniformity and intensity, and on translucency. Green jadeite is most popular and considered most valuable, but sometimes the other colors are simply irresistible. Highly polished jadeite cabochon or other uncarved pieces are desirable for set jewelry, but finely carved stone can be enthralling. So, frequently the bottom line on the value of jade is subjective. You buy the piece that ’speaks’ to you, at the best price you can negotiate.

Negotiating is commonplace in Hong Kong’s jade market and at shops that sell jade jewelry and carvings. Before you negotiate, study the piece closely for devaluing factors, especially cracks and other visible flaws. Additionally, beware color-intensified nephrite that‘s passed off as jadeite, and dyed quartz that’s sold as either jadeite or nephrite. Jade’s surface has a slightly waxy appearance that’s missing from quartz, so try to ascertain whether a thin coat of wax has been applied to the piece.

Pearls, too, can be -- and often are -- enhanced. In fact, most real pearls are actually ‘cultured’ by the insertion of a small stone or plastic nucleus into an oyster to stimulate the formation of the complete pearl.

The culturing process is extremely sophisticated. You can see exhibits explaining it at many big pearl shops in both Beijing and Tokyo, and you can actually see Mikimoto’s production at Pearl Island, a short train ride from Tokyo, where there is also fascinating museum.

The culturing process allows producers to create pearls of various sizes, shapes and shades, using either saline or fresh water. In general, salt water cultivation produces round pearls, while fresh water cultivation yields irregularly shaped pearls in a greater variety of hues.

Both are ‘natural’ to the extent that cultivated pearls develop in oysters and are of the same substance as those that are truly natural and occur without human intervention.

That said, truly natural pearls are quite rare and much more expensive than the cultured variety--although, truth be told, few people can tell them apart. Both have high luster, uneven surfaces and vary in hue--and their value is similarly judged by size (larger, more expensive), shape (perfect sphere, priciest), skin (fewer blemishes, greater value), luster (surface glow) and, when they’re strung, the matching of color, size and shape.

Fresh water pearls occur naturally in a greater variety of colors, including white, ivory, pink, peach and coral. You’ll also see them in a rainbow of intense colors, but these are synthetically dyed and, while they may match a favorite outfit, are generally considered less valuable than the natural colors.

When purchasing high ticket pearls, extreme caution is advised. Make sure you’re getting exactly what you’re paying for. In Japan, some shops sell pearls produced in China, but claim them as ’Japanese pearls.’ There’s not much difference, really -- except in price. Your best bet is to buy from a shop that’s known for quality (Mikimoto is certainly among these) or recommended by an experienced friend or certified by the tourist board.

When buying any expensive jewelry, always ask for a certificate of authenticity that specified the size, color and place of origin of the gemstones, whether you buy them loose or set.

And, a last bit of advice: Plan to declare you purchases when you go through customs upon your returnto the US. Know before you buy approximately how much more you’ll have to pay before you can wear your new treasures at home.


Copyright 2019 Jennifer Merin


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