Where to find the coolest buys
Last spring, tour operator Cox & Kings organized a two-week itinerary in India for 15 women pals celebrating a 60th birthday. The trip was, according to one in the group, "shopping galore." They bought dhuri rugs in Madurai. They picked up jewelry in Chinai. And then they landed in Kochi (nee Cochin), an historic port city on the Malabar coast that also happens to offer an astounding array of colonial antiques. The women bought brass bowls and bronze statuettes. One, who was remodeling her house, snatched up tropical hardwood doors, gateways, columns, and furniture.
"The tour guide was flabbergasted," said one. "She'd never seen a group buy so much."
Of course, you don't have to travel farther than your local mall or Target Superstore to find global goods. And computer mice handle the traveling for Web shoppers, who are projected to spend $115 billion online this year. But according to the International Trade Administration's Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, Americans traveling overseas take their shopping seriously. Indeed, more than twice as many hit the stores than visit a cultural heritage sight or a museum. These shoppers seem to understand that the mall and the Web are unsatisfying substitutes for not only finding the right item, but finding it in the right place.
"The best purchases have a good story behind them," says Suzy Gershman, author behind the "Born to Shop" guidebook series, "not only about the item itself, but what you went through to get it, how many cups of tea you drank, who you met along the way."
We've rounded up 10 luxury goods (everything from pottery to precious metals) and identified the ideal place in the world to find each—a place with a tradition of expertise, quality, and innovation (not to mention a pretty fun place to do business). To do so, we consulted a range of authorities, including shopping gurus, tour operators, and item-specific experts. Their responses produced a mix of expected and unexpected results. It's no surprise, for example, that Geneva is ground zero for fine watches or that Florence's leather artisans produce handbags as soft as silk. But who knew that Sao Paulo, Brazil has suddenly emerged as a locus of designer clothes? Or that you can pick up an oil reproduction of any masterpiece painting in Saigon?
Yet just because you've found the right place doesn't mean that the challenges are over. You might even feel a little more put out. Consider a bespoke suit from London's Savile Row, whose fastidious tailors have outfitted the likes of Winston Churchill and David Beckham since the 19th century. According to James Sherwood, author of "The London Cut: Savile Row Bespoke Tailoring," each suit consumes an average of 52 man hours and requires you to be measured, fitted, and consulted at least thrice. Tailors in Vietnam, on the other hand, can knock out a custom suit in one working day.
But quality always trumps convenience, avows Sherwood. "Comparing those suits is like comparing an original Raphael Madonna with a chalk drawing on the flagstones outside the Ufizzi Gallery," he sniffs.
A well-stocked district doesn't always guarantee a good deal, either. Silom Row in Bangkok, for example, has been teeming with gems since Thailand began to aggressively buy stones from the mines of Burma, Sri Lanka, and Madagascar, according to Richard W. Wise, a Massachusetts jeweler and author of "Secrets of the Gem Trade." Yet Wise admits that bargains here can be few and far between: "I'd love to say go to Bangkok because the gems are cheaper, but the truth is that there are just more of them."
When it's time to buy, say experts, even the most well-informed buyer doesn't always have an advantage. For example, it certainly pays to know about knot counts and thread materials before haggling with the hundreds of rug sellers among the 4,000-odd stalls of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. But even John B. Gregorian, who comes from a family of carpet sellers and recently authored "Oriental Rugs of the Silk Route: Culture, Process & Selection," concedes that it isn't always easy to determine a carpet's quality.
"At some point," he says, "you have to treat it like a painting: you buy it because you love it."