Sourcing Pearls: Balancing Innovation with Tried-and-true

As a China business consultant, I had the privilege of partnering with Pearl Shine on an exciting sourcing adventure for freshwater pearls. Stepping out of my comfort zone in the manufacturing industry, I wholeheartedly embraced the captivating world of jewelry, fully aware of the challenges that lay ahead. From exploring local jewelry shops in Leeds to immersing myself in the knowledge tucked away in libraries, and eventually setting foot in the mesmerizing city of Zhuji, the undisputed capital of freshwater pearls, I embarked on a whirlwind journey of inspiration and personal growth. Along the way, I forged valuable connections and unearthed a true gem—a remarkable farmer nestled in the untamed beauty of northern China. It was an honor to play a pivotal role in elevating Pearl Shine, assisting them in carving their own unique path as a shining exemplar of sustainable pearl jewelry.

Immersed in the wealth of knowledge: Learning Curve towards Sourcing Pearls

When I began my search for suppliers on Alibaba, I was confronted with a vast amount of terminology specific to the pearl industry. Recognizing the importance of understanding these terms and specifications, I immersed myself in learning to ensure I could identify the right suppliers. 

My approach was straightforward yet effective. I identified top sellers in various categories and connected with them through WeChat. I then delved into their social media posts, meticulously noting the key terminology and specifications they used to describe their pearls. Furthermore, I needed to find their English equivalents, prompting me to conduct extensive online research. I familiarized myself with the distinctions between saltwater pearls, freshwater pearls, high-quality artificial pearls. And I carefully studied Akoya Pearls, South Sea Pearls, Tahitian Pearls, and Freshwater Pearls. Within each pearl type, I explored subcategories, such as Seedless Freshwater Pearls and Nucleated Freshwater Pearls under the category of Freshwater Pearls, including the renowned Edison pearls.

Additionally, I examined different pearl styles based on their shapes, including Baroque pearls and round pearls.

To deepen my knowledge, I dedicated several days at the Leeds City Library, which housed a treasure trove of jewelry books. I found particular inspiration in Italian design styles. It is interesting to find, regardless of the universal evaluation like luster, size, smoothness, and shape, the concept of match held special significance as it pertained to the compatibility of pearls in creating unique designs.

Exploring Local and Online Jewelry Shops for Market Research

visiting local market for sourcing pearls

In December, I visited several jewelry shops. In a department store, a wide range of products is offered, such as clothes, shoes, and various other items. Surprisingly, they also had pearls available at fair prices, despite their lower quality, lack of lustre, and irregular shapes, indicating that baroque pearls have a market among average-income consumers. On the other hand, dedicated jewelry shops and jewelry repair stores offered pearls of superior quality, although they were priced higher. It’s worth noting that these specialized stores had limited stock on display, with their showcases primarily featuring watches, diamonds, gold, and other assorted pieces. Contrasting the calmness of offline stores, online shops thrived with their bustling prosperity.

Initial Contacts with Online Suppliers

With my plans already set for a trip to China during the Spring Festival in February, I wasted no time in initiating discussions with potential suppliers through platforms like Alibaba, 1688, and even exploring exhibitors at the Canton Fair. It didn’t take long for me to discover that Yiwu was the hub for BeiZhu, high-quality imitations of freshwater pearls, while Zhuji was renowned for its genuine pearl offerings. Eager to establish direct connections, I reached out to several sellers who claimed to be pearl farmers, aiming for face-to-face meetings. However, the most valuable source of supplier information came unexpectedly from my colleague in the Ningxiang government. Through his sister, who happened to be married to a resident of Zhuji, I was fortunate enough to secure a local contact who promised to introduce me to a network of suppliers in the area.

A Journey through Zhuji's Prosperous Market

Step Choose the Perfect Pearl Suppliers

Zhuji, a thriving city known for its flourishing pearl industry, offers a wide array of pearl varieties. Sellers flock to this destination to acquire saltwater pearls, as they enjoy high demand within mainland China. Contrasting preferences to the UK, Chinese women prefer pearls that are radiant and perfectly round.

At the heart of Zhuji lies the Pearl City Shopping Mall, housing a staggering number of 1,400 shops (as of 2022). This bustling marketplace serves as a comprehensive chain industry, catering to various needs ranging from finished jewelry for tourists and wholesale trade to pearl beads, jewelry boxes, pearl hole penetrating services, and pearl authenticity verification and certification services. Livestreamers can be seen traversing the halls, energetically promoting pearl jewelry to online buyers. The business thrives, as these influencers face no pressure when it comes to stock availability. They swiftly broadcast and package orders immediately after online audiences place their requests.

Additionally, numerous online livestream companies have established rental properties in close proximity to the mall, offering pearls in diverse styles. The friend I visited happens to be a prominent seller who employs local students to portray the image of a farmer’s son. They tirelessly work from morning until late at night, selling their products with great fervor.

He expressed his concerns within the industry. Firstly, he highlighted the issue of some sellers using radiation treatment on freshwater pearls to make them resemble saltwater pearls. These treated pearls appear identical on the surface, making it difficult for external buyers to distinguish their authenticity. The demand within China’s domestic market has driven sellers to engage in this deceptive practice. Additionally, the intense competition has deprived sellers of a comfortable lifestyle. Competitors work tirelessly day and night to meet the high demand, and late-night restaurants have become the beneficiaries, catering to these hardworking sellers. While the profitability may be enticing, he expressed his dissatisfaction with the unsustainable nature of this lifestyle.

Unearthing a Remarkable Farmer in Northern China

I spent a week in Zhuji, gathering all the necessary business cards from various stakeholders in the industry, including pearl bead suppliers, silver and golden pendant manufacturers, as well as processing tool providers and processing services. During a conversation with a seller one evening, I was enlightened about the importance of exploring other parts of China. While Zhuji is highly commercialized, if I desired to have direct control over the quality and ensure a seamless purchasing process, I would need to start from the source.

Proofread: It is no easy task, as is often the case in China. When a profitable industry emerges, greed can overshadow other considerations. As the pearl industry prospered, farmers sought to maximize their sales, losing sight of the bigger picture of environmental protection. They introduced excessive nutrients into the pools to cultivate more pearls, resulting in severe water pollution. The discarded mussel shells also emitted unpleasant odors into the air. In recent years, the government has been urging local farmers to cease operations due to environmental concerns. I reached out to several farmers in Hunan and Hubei provinces, and they all confirmed that they are no longer involved in the business.

Until I extensively searched local social media platforms, I stumbled upon a genuine farmer. I could tell she was authentic as her posts mainly revolved around her family life, with only one video showcasing the pearls she was opening. This aligns with my understanding that most farmers have limited knowledge of digital marketing. In contrast, skilled traders adept in digital marketing tactics may present themselves as farmers through carefully crafted videos. This explains why, despite contacting several farmers on Alibaba, they were unable to meet me when I arrived in Zhuji.

I embarked on a journey to Anhui and had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Jiang, a passionate pearl farmer with a rich history in his craft. Mr. Jiang’s remarkable journey in pearl cultivation began in 1969, and by 1971, he was already selling his prized creations at the prestigious Shanghai Arts & Crafts Import/Export Company. Throughout the years, he has dedicated himself to the art of aquaculture, continuously refining his skills and perfecting his techniques.

During our discussion, I shared my observations from Zhuji and the challenges I faced in distinguishing genuine sellers from Alibaba’s vast marketplace. Mr. Jiang showed great respect for my knowledge and interest in various types of pearls, evaluation methods, and the current state of the industry. He expressed his delight in meeting someone who understands the value of true pearls—pearls that require years of careful cultivation and nurturing. Sadly, he mentioned that many sellers in the market prioritize superficially shiny pearls, lacking the knowledge to differentiate between authentic and fake ones.

As I discovered new insights, my unwavering commitment to promoting sustainable business practices remains steadfast. Through our YouTube channel, we shared valuable knowledge on distinguishing real pearls, gaining popularity among our viewers. 

Simultaneously, our original intention to sell various types of pearls led us to chart a new course for our business—a sustainable and meaningful journey. We decided to focus on offering personalized and innovative designs using natural oyster and mussel shells. Our endeavor embraces eco-friendliness, as we provide plastic-free shells for personal and home decor products. By doing so, we aim to contribute to a more sustainable future and promote conscious consumption.

Pearl Business to Shell Decoration Business

Meanwhile, Pearl Shine made the strategic decision to shift its focus from finished products to the design of pearl beads within the market. This shift allows us to leverage our expertise in creating exquisite pearl bead designs that can be used in various applications. We strive to become a trusted supplier of exceptional pearl beads, empowering designers to bring their unique visions to life.

From Sourcing Pearls Journey to a Sourcing Plateform

Inspired by our pearls sourcing  journey, we have made the decision to expand our horizons and connect with suppliers from various industries who share our commitment to sustainable practices. We have built Supplier Linkup that serves as a bridge between businesses striving for sustainability.

We invite companies that align with sustainable principles to list their businesses on our website. By doing so, they can gain visibility and connect with like-minded partners, fostering a network dedicated to sustainable practices and ethical business operations.

Whether your company focuses on eco-friendly products, renewable energy, responsible sourcing, or any other aspect of sustainability, we welcome you to join our Supplier Linkup. Together, let us make a positive impact on the world by promoting and practicing sustainable business principles.

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