Buying Cinnabar Jewelry at the Hongqiao Pearl Market in Beijing

On Day 2 of my recent trip to Beijing, I rose early from my comfortable bed at the Holiday Inn Temple of Heaven, urged on by my nine year old daughter who was worried that we would miss out on all the good stuff at the complimentary breakfast buffet if we didn’t arrive sufficiently early. After quick showers and a long breakfast (the breakfast buffet really was quite tasty and all the good stuff wasn’t gone!), my daughter and I got into a taxi and headed over to the Hongqiao Pearl Market.

Hongqiao Pearl Market Under Construction

The market is located right beside the beautiful Temple of Heaven, so it is quite convenient to do both of them in one day. However, we had already had several pleasant outings at the Temple of Heaven in the past, and today only shopping was on our agenda. We entered the Hongqiao Pearl Market through a side entrance as it appears to be undergoing some sort of construction facelift, leaving the front entrance not easily accessible, and went straight to the jewelry section. To do this, we had to march determinedly past the first floor vendors selling scarves and knickknacks and electronic equipment, evade the second floor vendors as they tried to sell us shoes, clothing, luggage and purses, and go right up to the third floor where all the jewelry is. This morning, our objective was jewelry made from carved cinnabar. Cinnabar jewelry has an interesting history; originally, it was made from a tree sap lacquer that was colored by the beautiful but toxic mineral cinnabar (otherwise known as mercury sulfide). The resulting red lacquer was painted onto an item in multiple coats, letting the item dry between each coat, and then the resulting layers of lacquer were carved by artisans in decorative patterns. Obviously it wasn’t known at the time that the mineral cinnabar was dangerous and any poisoning that resulted was probably low level enough never to be noticed. Today, Chinese cinnabar products contain no actual cinnabar—the classic red color associated with cinnabar is provided by a harmless red dye.

Cinnabar Bracelet

Cinnabar jewelry, our objective of the morning, comes in many forms. One of the most common is the cinnabar bangle bracelet. Carved with a variety of traditional Chinese designs, these bracelets come in various widths and sizes. Some aren’t even red—I encountered pure black cinnabar bracelets on this visit for the first time. There are also cinnabar bead necklaces, cinnabar pendant necklaces, and cinnabar earrings. My daughter and I managed to buy a good quantity of each type of cinnabar jewelry and came back to the hotel laden with loot. Our next objective would be cloisonné, but that could wait until after lunch!

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