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GLOBAL BEAUTY CHINA

ABOVE: A sign welcoming visitors to a pearl farm in Suzhou, China. LEFT: A net pulled in by fisherwoman Sandy Wang. FAR LEFT: Canals in Shanghai

THE RITUAL

Major CRUSH

Adrienne Jordan discovers the source of a smoother, brighter complexion at the bottom of China’s Lake Taihu

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talian explorer Marco Polo once called Suzhou, in China’s Yangtze River Delta, the “Venice of the East.” On a recent visit, I discover why: The 2,500-year-old city on the shore of Lake Taihu has copious canals and is dotted with stone bridges and classical gardens. Like Polo, I’ve come here on an exploratory journey. But I want to bring back more than stories; I’m in search of pearl powder, one of Asia’s coveted health and beauty secrets. The first known reference to pearl powder comes from the Garuda Purana, a 1,000-yearold Hindu text that praises the substance for its 58

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ability to aid digestion and soothe mental ailments. Here in China, pearl powder has been used for at least 1,000 years in the area near Zhuhai, a southern coastal city with a famous statue of a fisher girl holding a giant pearl believed to offer protection from natural disasters. In the 19th century, Empress Dowager Cixi reportedly kept her skin bright and youthful by adding the powder to her tea and rubbing it directly onto her skin. And today, Chinese women often buy small packets of the ingredient at jewelry stores and mix it into their favorite lotions and creams to add exfoliating, brightening benefits. The powder typically comes from discolored

or misshapen freshwater pearls that aren’t up to jewelry standards, and at the Wei Tang Zhen Cultivating Farm in Suzhou, I get to see these treasures firsthand. Sandy Wang, a gregarious 40-year-old fisherwoman, invites me to join her as she collects farm-grown pearls. We board a flat-bottomed wooden boat and head to the middle of calm Lake Taihu, where scattered plastic buoys on the surface mark the location of oyster nets. I watch as she expertly pulls in one of the thick, muddy brown nets, which hold about five or six oysters. These oysters are an astonishing 10 inches across, and I marvel at how different they look from the small morsels I love to eat raw and fried.

CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: ANEK/GETTY IMAGES, GETTY IMAGES, ADRIENNE JORDAN, CHINA PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES, ADRIENNE JORDAN (2)

ABOVE: The best Chinese pearls are used for jewelry. LEFT: Wang sorts pearls from Lake Taihu


GLOBAL BEAUTY CHINA

Wang slides her knife into one and pops it open to reveal the shell’s sparkling rainbow-colored interior and folds of pinkish meat surrounding multiple pearls, varying in size. Wang explains that the gems form inside oysters when the animal detects a foreign particle, like a parasite. The mollusk tries to seal off the intruder by depositing a mixture of calcium carbonate and a protein-rich substance called conchiolin that hardens into a lustrous coating. Cultivated pearls, like the ones in Lake Taihu, are the result of human assistance: The farmers “seed” each oyster with eight to 10 pieces of other oysters, triggering the defensive response and initiating the formation of a pearl around each piece. The ones we collect took four to five years to form. Wang smiles at my look of wonder as she gets to work, expertly opening oysters and sorting the smooth and creamy iridescent spheres worthy of jewelry from the lumpy, discolored pearls that will be ground into powder. I help her place dozens of specimens in little bags before we return to the dock. After unloading our bounty, we walk across the street to the China Pearls and Jewellery City, a freshwater-pearl market. Most vendors here display necklaces, bracelets, and earrings, but we also find tiny packets of pearl powder for sale. Wang opens one and rubs the contents between her fingers before spreading it onto her face. “Feel how soft it is,” she says as I follow her lead. The finely milled granules have a uniform shape that makes them a super-gentle exfoliator. You can mix the pure grains with water or other products, as Chinese women do, but the ingredient is also available in luxury creams, cleansers, and masks, like those from American companies such as Tatcha and Själ (see “Shining Examples,” below). Many Asian women also believe that ingesting the powder and applying it on their skin gives them the luminescent glow of a pearl—and they may be onto something. One study found that topical application improves skin hydration and inhibits the activation of tyrosinase (an enzyme that regulates the formation of skin pigment), which explains the ingredient’s presence in Avon’s antiaging cream and Lancôme’s illuminating and moisturizing primer. And, just as ancient Hindu texts reported, pearl powder does indeed have benefits when taken orally; research shows that it’s a good source of calcium, a nutrient that supports hair and skin health. I discover my favorite use for the powder in Shanghai, a 30-minute train ride from Suzhou. There, I indulge in an Oriental Pearl Spa Treatment at The RitzCarlton Shanghai, Pudong. The 90-minute process includes a full-body exfoliation with an indigenous pearl powder scrub, plus a body wrap, facial, and back and scalp massage. I leave with skin as smooth as the local treasure, feeling every inch an empress. 

SHINING EXAMPLES Lotions, potions—and one pill!—featuring pearl powder 4

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5 1. TATCHA The Silk Cream, $120. 2. DRAGON HERBS Pearl Dietary Supplement, $32. 3. SJÄL Pearl Enzyme Exfoliating Mask, $165. 4. LANCÔME La Base Pro Hydra Glow Illuminating Makeup Primer, $40. 5. AVON Anew Ultimate Supreme Advanced Performance Crème, $50. For information on where to buy, see Shopping Directory.

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STILL LIFES: COURTESY OF THE COMPANIES. PHOTOGRAPHS, FROM TOP: ROB SMITH/GETTY IMAGES, MAOGG/GETTY IMAGES, ADRIENNE JORDAN, CHINA PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES, ADRIENNE JORDAN

FROM TOP: Fishing nets on Lake Taihu; pearl powder is typically made from specimens that aren’t up to jewelry standards; signs pointing to Wei Tang Zhen Cultivating Farm; discarded shells at a pearl farm in China; powder for sale in Suzhou

Marie claire pearl farming in china  
Marie claire pearl farming in china  
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