By JEREMY SHEPHERD
Published: November 13, 2007
As a former flight attendant and now as president and founder of my company, PearlParadise.com,
I’m a lover of both the friendly skies and some of the world’s finest pearls.
I have always been fascinated with the Asian people and their culture, and speak
Japanese, the obscure Chuukese language of the South Pacific Micronesian Islanders
and Mandarin Chinese (well enough to negotiate with Chinese pearl farmers).
While my official duties as a flight attendant included tossing salty peanuts to
hungry passengers, my heart was with the Orient’s truly salty treasures, namely
pearls. I became fascinated with these gems after wandering into a Chinese pearl
market during a layover. I bought a strand of pearls for about $20. But when I returned
to the States, I found out they were worth more than 20 times what I paid.
I immediately cashed my next paycheck and returned to China on my own time, determined
to learn all I could about pearls. Over the next few years, I often managed to work
flights that were going to China. With the benefit of long three-day layovers, I
had the opportunity to hunt down some great pearls and to learn how to negotiate
with the Asian people.
And I also got to hone my entrepreneurial skills by selling the gems to crew members.
We would have “galley pearl parties,” and it was not unusual to sell several thousand
dollars worth of pearls if I worked a high crew-count flight, like a 747 or a DC-10.
I took personal checks, cash and credit cards. While I could not process the credit
cards immediately, I traveled with a machine that would allow me to process the
transactions when I was in my hotel room.
If you sit next to me on the plane now, you may become a customer after you ask,
"What is in that large bag you’re clinging to so tightly?"
That’s because traveling with jewels can be a little tricky. Checking bags is not
an option. The goal is to keep the bags in my sight. I keep one bag at my feet with
a strap wrapped around my leg. This bag weighs about 30 pounds, but it contains
the most valuable pearls among the thousands that I carry with me. I keep a larger
bag that weighs about 100 pounds and contains less expensive gems in an overhead
bin. The trick is to not arouse suspicion among the flight crew. I have pulled back
muscles trying to heave the bag into the bin without assistance.
On a flight from Taiwan back to the United States, I was lifting a bag of pearls
into the bin when it ripped at a seam. A few of the pearls jutted out of the hole,
and two ladies sitting behind me spotted them. They immediately asked me to open
my bag, and within a few minutes most of business class knew what I did for a living.
I did manage to make a few sales and gave out a lot of business cards.
Next up is my 14-year-old son. He hops flights with me now and has been to some
very remote pearl farming areas in China. He doesn’t sell pearls on flights yet.
He still leaves that up to Dad.
By Jeremy Shepherd