A Paradise of Pearls
By Kellie Peters
Ocean Scene Magazine – Premiere Issue – 2005
I have to confess; I’m jaded. Maybe it’s too much reality television. The idea that a normal person, growing up in Anytown, USA, largely self-taught, could become a multimillionaire within a matter of a few years was a myth. Between the extremes on television – Hiltons, Trumps, or their antithesis, as presented by Jerry Springer – the American dream had morphed from owning one’s own successful business to becoming an overnight celebrity by appearing weekly on one of the too numerous “reality” shows. And even that reality is distorted by endless editing, packaging, and the unforgettable fact that even your visits to the loo are now on camera. A disillusioned idealist, my faith in the American dream was seriously frayed.
Until I spoke with Jeremy Shepherd.
Shepherd is the real deal. He’s young; he’ll turn 32 this coming October. Born on a United States army base in Germany, he grew up in Woodland, Washington, which is about half an hour north of Vancouver, Washington. He is largely self-educated, his Master’s degree isn’t Ivy League, and his parents didn’t pay for it. In fact, they didn’t pay for any of his education because there just wasn’t much money when Jeremy was growing up. When young Jeremy wanted anything, he had to scrape the money together. Today, this self-made success is doing a lot more raking it in than scraping.
Unlike early American entrepreneurs, 99.99 percent of Shepherd’s commerce happens in cyberspace. In 2005, that’s nothing out of the ordinary. Billions of dollars in sales happen via the Internet every day of the year. Commerce on eBay, Craig’s List or your own Site is just business as usual. Opportunities abound to purchase anything from used women’s pantyhose to cars. You’ll find things you can’t even imagine (and things you wouldn’t even want to) for sale somewhere on the Internet. But it is one thing to sell Aunt Lucy’s pearls online for $50, and quite another to sell $5 million in pearls – and do it in one year. In 2004, Shepherd’s Santa Monica based business Pearl Paradise (PearlParadise.com), did just that. To create a company that is doing so well literally out of thin air, you have to be something of a maverick. “Well, actually, my background is a little bit strange,” says Shepherd, “Believe it or not, when I started this business, I was a full time flight attendant for Northwest Airlines.”
He became a flight attendant because he’s known since he was very young that he wanted to travel.
He found out before he started kindergarten that he had a talent for learning languages. His older brother was in school and studying Spanish; Shepherd found his books, and began to learn Spanish on his own. One year, when he was in upper level Spanish, a new student, David Argüello, arrived from Nicaragua. They put Argüello into Shepherd’s Spanish class and the two of them became best of friends. “I became fluent in Spanish that year. Around that same time, I started studying Japanese. Not in school, because the school didn’t have any courses in Japanese.”
All of his Japanese studies were done at home on his own, and because he became so dedicated to his studies, his mother agreed to allow Shepherd to go to Japan to study if he could pass the admissions exam. He was so enthralled with the Japanese culture that he took up a paper round and worked weekends to save the money he needed to make the dream a reality. “I made $2 an hour – can you believe that? Everything I made went into savings.”
After studying for a few years, he was able to take the equivalency exams, and according to a Japanese professor in the United States, he’d completed the equivalent of four years of high school, or two years of college level Japanese. Shepherd was accepted to a Japanese high school and he went. He finished high school in Japan, and lived for a year in Mexico . He moved back home to Washington, fell in love with a woman from Micronesia, and got married. His mother-in-law, who spoke only Chuuk, a Micronesian dialect, moved in with the couple the day before they got married. Soon, Shepherd was fluent in yet another language.
During this time, he had begun working as a flight attendant for Northwest Airlines. He became part of a flight crew that was based out of Detroit and flew to China on a regular basis. His marriage ended and he threw himself into work. One day, while on a layover in Beijing, Shepherd decided to visit the Hongqiao Pearl Market to buy a strand of pearls for a woman he’d started dating. “Everyone knew about this specific market. All the flight crews went there to buy pearls.”
Upon returning home and presenting his gift, she had the necklace appraised for her home owner’s insurance. The pearls that Shepherd had paid about $25 for were worth $600 here in the US. “That’s how the idea formed about starting a pearl business.” He began looking for jewelers to sell his pearls because he knew where to buy them and he traveled to China regularly, but was constantly turned down. People had their suppliers and were not interested in new ones. “I really could not get many people to even talk about my pearls, and the stores that were willing to carry them. Well, let’s just say it was not worth it. They’d sell one or two pieces per month, so it was not working for me.”
One of Shepherd’s friends suggested that he try to sell them on the Internet. This was about ten years ago, before the popularity of eBay, and Amazon.com had begun hosting auctions. “They were what eBay is now, except in a smaller sense. So I bought a computer, figured out how to post an auction, and they sold.”
Shepherd immediately flew to China. He cashed his entire paycheck and maxed out all of his credit cards to buy as many pearls as he could. He brought them back to the States and began posting the items on Amazon.com.
“They started selling like crazy! So I went from selling pearls out of a flight bag, to selling pearls to stores, to selling pearls exclusively online. It wasn’t until a few years later that I designed a Website.”
Shepherd was working for Northwest, his pearl business was growing, and he was commuting between Santa Monica and Detroit. Most people would have been overwhelmed with both jobs, or at least content with the cash flow from the combination of the two incomes, and would have left it at that; not Shepherd. He decided to get his bachelor degree in business, and went on to get his master’s degree in international marketing. He also received two certificates from the GIA (Gemological Institute of America), and attended the Berlitz Language Academy where he learned to speak Mandarin Chinese. “Most of my business is done with pearl farmers in China and Japan, and pearl farmers rarely speak English.” His natural curiosity and determination to excel in business, led him to investigate where the pearls that wound up in the Hongqiao market were coming from. Using company listings and tax records he found Chinese pearl farms and pearl factories and contacted them directly. Then he had to go there.
“To get to the main akoya pearling areas of China is an incredibly arduous trip. You either must fly to Shanghai or Hong Kong and from there fly to a smaller city on Hainan Island, which is in South China. Then from there you must take a boat back to the Mainland to the pearling areas, and the boat can take about four hours. During some times of the year, around early March, it can be so rough you cannot even stand up.” Shepherd travels there about once every month, making a circuit through Kobe, Japan, onto South China, stopping finally in Hong Kong before making his way back to the US. South China is very close to the Tropic of Cancer making summer oppressively hot and humid, so it isn’t exactly a vacation paradise.
Shepherd not only operates PearlParadise.com, but also pearl-guide.com, where he regularly posts the most up-to-date information. One visit to Pearl Paradise and you realize the money you are going to save is incredible.
The reason that they are able to offer such reasonable prices for such gorgeous pearls is that the middlemen have been completely eliminated by Shepherd doing the work himself. The reason we are able to do what we do is because I actually go to the pearl farms myself. I do not go to trade shows. I do not deal with agents in China or traders in Japan. I only, only deal with pearl farmers. And not just any pearl farmers, I only deal with pearl farms that own their own processing facilities.” Contrary to the myth, it isn’t a grain of sand that gets inside an oyster and forms a pearl, or according to Shepherd, there would be pearls all over the place. Usually, it is a parasite that gets inside the oyster and oyster, in protecting itself, creates a sac around it. That sac forms the nacre, the substance of the pearl, and it grows layer after layer to create an exquisite gem.
Unlike most precious gems, once the pearl has been cleansed properly, it is perfect exactly the way it is. You do not need to cut the pearl as you do a diamond.
As of last September, for the first time, Pearl Paradise found a location on terra plana rather than in cyberspace. They have opened a showroom, and will take prospective clients by appointment only, one at a time. This way, either Shepherd himself, or one of his expert staff will answer all your questions, let you try on the pearls to find the perfect match for your skin tone, and they do not even mind if you do not buy a thing. With this individual attention I wondered if they only took appointments with “qualified” buyers of celebrities. Shepherd laughed, “We do not screen customers whatsoever. They call to schedule an appointment and have them visit – no matter whom they are or what they want to purchase. Our showroom is a service for our local customers, and yes, celebrities who want to examine our pearls in person. Our real business in on the Internet and this is where our success lies.”
This commitment to his clients and his passion for pearls has built quite an empire for Shepherd. The net sales from Pearl Paradise have more than doubled nearly every year. “In 2002, our sales were about $250,000. They jumped to $3 million in 2003, to $5 million in 2004, and we are hoping to hit the $10 million mark this year.”
So, for those of us wondering how it’s done, Shepherd’s formula for success has been simple throughout his life. When you have an intense desire to learn something new, commit to it completely. Follow that path as far as it can go. Extend kindness to others along the way. Maybe buy them a strand of pearls. You never know where it might lead.