Bead Adventures

"Get hooked up with beads,
and you're bound to have lots of adventures!"

Robin Atkins, bead artist

Think about trying to buy beads in a far away land, where you don’t know the language or your way around. In 10 years, from 1988 to 1998, I made 13 trips abroad in search of beautiful beads and everything I could learn about bead making, bead history, and beadwork. Someday, I plan to write a book about all these adventures, well illustrated with the photographs I took along the way. In the meantime, here is an account of a hard learned lesson in China.

Novice Bead Buyer Makes BIG Mistake!

My four week bead buying trip to China in 1991 was full of adventures, but the one I remember most vividly took place in Boshan (in Shandong province), a town famous for glass production for over 700 years. Through contacts in Beijing, I had learned the Director’s name and phone number for the largest and oldest “art glass” factory in Boshan. However, when my interpreter called in advance to arrange my visit, we were refused permission because the area was closed to foreigners.

Never be daunted by “No” is my advice to bead buyers abroad. Just keep asking questions. In this case, I soon learned that if I went to Boshan and applied to the Foreign Trade Office, I might be able to get them to escort me to the factory.

Interpreter, Jinghong. Photos by Robin Atkins, bead artist.Because I figured nobody there would speak English, I asked my interpreter (a college student named Jinghong, with an excellent command of English, who through our experiences together became a lifetime friend) to go with me. We got on the night train (hard sleeper – adventures for another story) from Beijing to Boshan full of mixed apprehensions and high hopes. We arrived sleepily at dawn and soon located the only hotel where foreigners were allowed to stay (expensive, but nice).

Next, Jinghong tracked down the phone number for the Foreign Trade Office and arranged for someone to meet with us. It took about an hour of talking and showing him photos, samples, and bead ads in several issues of “Ornament” magazine to convince him I was serious. After a second interview with his superior, they finally agreed to take us to the factory.

It was larger than I expected, a whole complex of buildings with about 2,600 workers. In addition to decorative glassware, this factory is famous for its inside glass painting (detailed scenes painted inside small jars, bottles or beads), and also produces medical glass supplies. Their “display room” was a wonderland to my eyes, showcasing some of the most exquisite glassware I’ll ever see, including some finely detailed inside painted blown glass beads and large folding screens with beaded panels.

Banquet at bead factory in Boshan, China, honoring Robin Atkins, bead artistAt the end of the day’s preliminary talks, the factory director invited me to a banquet given in my honor, the first foreigner to visit his factory. It was quite a feast, with many exotic dishes and toasts to business and friendship. During the banquet, I was asked to choose a Chinese name. After thinking a moment and consultation with Jinghong, I picked “An Niao,” which translates roughly as “Peaceful Bird.” I felt so proud of my new name and so thrilled to be in that wonderful place.

Two days later we returned to the factory (again escorted by officials from the Office of Foreign Trade) for a tour of the inside glass painting department, more talking, and another banquet. I learned that this factory had suspended glass bead production about 10 years earlier, but still had remaining inventory. They also seemed willing and interested to retrain workers if the demand from foreign buyers were high enough.

Beads made in Boshan, China. Photos by Robin Atkins, bead artist.Finally, after the second banquet, they brought me samples of beads from storage. They were 8-12mm round, lampworked glass beads in many of the same colors of glass I’d seen in glass rings used to embellish the lids of imported sewing baskets in my Grandmother’s time. My favorite color was a deep rose, semi-transparent, with small bubbles in the glass. I also liked the opaque orange and translucent opal white. I learned that most glass colors were developed to simulate popular stones such as coral and rose quartz. They also had a few very unusual large hollow beads, about 2 inches in diameter, in a caramelized yellow color, that I wanted more than anything else. Later I learned that they were samples of blown glass beads made at the factory many years earlier for trade to Tibet. Tibetan women, who did not have the means to buy amber beads to wear in their hair, substituted these glass imitations.

Beads made in Boshan, China for trade to Tibet. Photos by Robin Atkins, bead artist.Can you imagine me sitting in the Director’s office with about 20 different strands of beautiful beads in my lap, well fed and a tad tipsy from the banquet and toasts? Can you see the bead lust pouring out of me? Can you fathom how much I desired to crate up every bead they had in their storeroom and ship them all home without passing go or collecting $200? Can you picture me nearly drooling all over the samples in my hands? All the while, I was remembering what I heard in Beijing, that beads were worthless to the Chinese, thinking I could have them for pennies!

Every time I asked the price, the Director would ask me how many I wanted to buy. I would reply, “Maybe all of them; but it depends on the price.” Or, he would ask me about beads in the USA; how many bead shops, what kind of business was it? Of course, I wanted the factory to resume production of beads and imagined myself as the trader who would bring them to America. So I painted a slightly exaggerated picture of bead lust in America. I explained about collectors and how they spent many dollars buying African trade beads. I flattered the factory, saying I was certain American bead collectors would love (and pay good prices for) these beautiful beads from Boshan.

The next day, was our third trip to the factory. We were given a tour through the production area where they made glass flowers and glass flower arrangements, and through an area where they made test tubes used in medicine. We were allowed to watch the master inside glass painter, the only one in the department allowed to create his own designs. The morning tour was followed by yet another banquet. Then finally it was time to do business.

Back in the Director’s office, I was handed a price list for the beads. To my great shock, they wanted $40 per strand for most of the beads; $45 or $50 per strand for the ones which they had seen appealed the most to me. My face fell. I’ve never been good at hiding my feelings. Expecting in the neighborhood of $1 per strand at the very most, I was totally shocked. Mentally converting dollars to yuan, I realized the amount they quoted might well earn the factory more money than it made in a full year’s production by all 2,600 of its workers. I tried to explain that the prices they quoted were way too high; even higher than the retail prices my customers back home would be willing to pay. I said that I wanted to buy them for $1 or $2 per strand.

That was the end of it. Jinghong and I were whisked out of there in 5 minutes flat. We were unceremoniously dumped back at our hotel with no sign of the flattery and international friendship expressed during the banquet an hour earlier. It was over; and I was about as miserable as I’ve ever been.

In hindsight, I know what happened. In my eagerness to “prove” that there was a market in the USA and in my uncontrolled fondness for the beads, I had given them a false impression. Add the popular opinion in China that Americans are very rich; add the fact that the Foreign Trade officials would need their cut as well, and you have a formula for disaster! In hindsight, I learned that during the banquets and preliminary discussions, I should have found a way to let them know how much I would be willing to pay per strand. For example, I could have said, “These beads are very beautiful and might sell for as much as $5 or $10 per strand in America. If I could buy them for $1 or $2 per strand, it would be profitable for me.” The way it actually happened, they were forced to guess how much I would pay; and they guessed way wrong. Once they gave me their prices, they could not lower them drastically without “loosing face,” not only in front of me, but also in front of the officials of the Foreign Trade Office.

The lesson I learned in this adventure, was about the importance of investigating foreign customs of trade and business, before trying to conduct such a deal. It would have been a totally different bead adventure, had I known to give them the price I expected to pay, informally, during the early “courtship” phase.

However, remember what I said earlier about not being daunted by the word “no?” I wasn’t going to give up the only chance I’d ever get to buy those beads. That evening, not able to sleep, I got up and drafted a letter to the Director of the factory, apologizing for disappointing him. I offered to buy 2 strands of each of the colors and all the samples of the Tibetan beads at the prices quoted to me, saying I would return to the USA with them and show them to other shop owners. If together we could find a way to market the beads at the price dictated by the cost, we would buy more in the future. Jinghong, the next morning, revised and copied my letter into Chinese. We called the “Foreign Trade Office” and asked them to please deliver the letter to the factory.

We waited for a reply for two seemingly endless days, at which time a secretary from the factory and a couple of underlings from the Foreign Trade Office came to our hotel to negotiate the deal. At Jinghong’s suggestion, I bought cigarettes, snacks and liquor for them. They wanted more American dollars; they wanted me to buy not two, but a dozen strands of each color at the quoted prices. We dickered as much as I dared, and finally agreed that I would buy 6 of each at a few dollars less than the originally quoted amounts per strand. So in the end, I had my precious beads to take home (though at a horribly inflated price by Chinese standards), a fascinating adventure, and one of the most useful lessons of my bead buying career.

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