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String Theory
Q: I want to surprise my fiancée with a traditional pearl necklace. Where can I shop so I don't get ripped off?

A: One can get very long-winded when talking about saltwater pearls. Unlike diamonds, pearls have no international grading system, but Devin Macnow (executive director of the Cultured Pearl Information Center) tells me there are five factors that affect the value. The most important thing is luster: You should be able to see your reflection in each pearl, and it shouldn't be white or chalky. Next in importance is surface: Since pearls are naturally made, there will be some slight imperfections, but you should look for pearls that don't have bumps, cracks, chips, or spots (especially near the drill hole). The rounder the shape, the more valuable the pearl. Color is a personal preference, but the pearls you buy should complement your fiancée's complexion (if she's fair, you should go for whitish pearls with a hint of rose; if she's dark, creamier tones). Size is the final factor (the larger the pearls, the more expensive the necklace): Most pearls sold today are between 6 and 1/2 and 7 and 1/2 millimeters, but whatever the size, all the pearls in a necklace should be carefully matched.

If you buy from a small shop, be sure to get an independent certified appraisal in writing with a complete description of the pearls (you might try the International Gemmological Institute; 212-753-7100). Expect to pay about $1,000 to $1,500 for a good-quality saltwater-pearl necklace; a cheaper option is to buy freshwater pearls. Unlike with saltwater oysters, which produce a single pearl (with luck), tissue-grafting techniques are used on freshwater mollusks so they can produce 20, 30, or more pearls at a time, which costs significantly less.

Mikimoto (730 Fifth Avenue, near 57th Street; 212-664-1800) is the first name that comes to mind. When Kokichi Mikimoto introduced the cultured pearl in 1893, he changed the pearl market forever, and in his namesake store you'll see why. A sixteen-inch necklace of five-millimeter pearls is around $1,500; an eighteen-inch one of nine-millimeter pearls is around $17,500, while a necklace of the shop's very finest would range from $2,590 to $99,000.

OR TRY: Other jewelry stores to check out would be Tiffany & Co., Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, H. Stern, and Fortunoff. Though you may be paying extra for their prestigious names, you can relax about quality. Surprisingly, the city's major department stores are a less costly alternative. Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman, Lord & Taylor, Macy's, and Saks Fifth Avenue all carry Japanese saltwater pearls, often at prices 20 percent cheaper than many of the jewelry stores.

All Shook Up
Q: I've been eager to invest in a vintage martini shaker for celebrating the millennium in style. Do you know any shops that sell them?

A: Ever since Stephen Visakay's book Vintage Bar Ware appeared in 1997, Art Deco-ish shakers, jiggers, and the rest have become hot, with prices to match. Once a flea-market staple, shakers from the twenties and thirties are now almost impossible to find. Here are a couple of stores, though, that are likely to have a selection on hand.

Deco Deluxe (993 Lexington Avenue, near 72nd Street; 212-472-7222), Sandi Berman's classy store filled with the unexpected, like Art Deco mirrored vanities, silvery armoires, and wood-and-nickel stand-up bars, has a fab collection of vintage bar accessories from the glory days of the martini. Shakers come in all the most collectible shapes -- zeppelins, milk cans, penguins, bells -- and Berman has vermouth pourers, silver-plated jiggers of every description, and dozens of swizzle sticks. Less kitschy is a handsome Norman Bel Geddes Manhattan set that includes a shaker, a tray, and glasses. Prices can now top $4,000. Mood Indigo (181 Prince Street; 212-254-1176) is a mecca for the chic with a taste for retro, especially housewares from the thirties, forties, and fifties. Diane Petipas's tidy shop is best known for its Fiestaware and its seemingly endless supply of campy salt and pepper shakers, but four years ago, Petipas got carried away and bought 500 vintage cocktail shakers. About half are glass, the kind with recipes for martinis and Manhattans printed right on the side (great for the memory-impaired); others are the highly prized red and cobalt-blue shakers with chrome tops.Depression Modern (150 Sullivan Street; 212-982-5699) is an ever-changing emporium of modernism, dependent upon what owner Michael Smith brings back from his buying forays around the country. But vintage barware is one of Smith's staples: Chrome-topped glass shakers, jiggers, and cocktail and martini glasses are always around.

Growth Market
Q: I've just bought an apartment that has a tiny garden in back. Is there a store in Manhattan that sells bulbs, shrubs, plants, and tools?

A: You are not the only urban gardener. City dwellers who want to get a little dirt under their nails can find what they need both up- and downtown.

Dimitri Nurseries (1992 Second Avenue, near 102nd Street; 212-876-3996) has the look, smell, and feel of a country store but doesn't require a trip out of the city. Dimitri Gatanas's grandfather started the business in the early sixties, and the nursery now occupies 15,000 square feet of land with three greenhouses. Owners of posh townhouses on 64th Street as well as renters in the Village are lured uptown by Dimitri's vast selection of greenery -- and his reasonable prices. There's a concentration of trees and shrubs that survive on our mean streets, like the ginkgo and the Bradford pear. Dimitri has hundreds of bulbs and perennials for planting this fall, seeds and seedlings galore in the spring.

Chelsea Garden Store (207 Ninth Avenue, near 22nd Street; 212-741-6052) and Chelsea Garden Center (321 Bowery; 212-777-4500) are the city's other full-service nurseries. The Ninth Avenue location is now devoted to indoor gardening; the company's new Bowery space is the place for tools, soil, seeds, bulbs, fertilizer, shrubs, and anything else a garden or gardener might need. The staff, an enthusiastic bunch, wax poetic over adorable yellow-pear-tomato seedlings they carried last June, their beautiful Spear & Jackson spades, darling new clippers, and marvelous Ames short-handled tools so perfect for tiny backyards.

OR TRY: SoHo's Grass Roots Garden (131 Spring Street; 212-226-2662) is a tropical Eden, a jungle of unusual plants -- but also tools and seeds. Smith & Hawken (394 West Broadway; 212-925-0687) tools are legendary, and in the company's SoHo outpost you'll find all the essentials hidden among the clogs, Japanese farmer's pants, and topiaries.

Wheel Life
Q: I'd like to give my granddaughter a bicycle for her 4th birthday. What kind should I get for her, and where should I go to buy a kid's bike?

A: Cycling pros tell me that you should avoid toy stores and opt instead for a neighborhood bike shop. And don't plan on surprising your granddaughter; take her along to make sure the bike is the right size and fit. Here are a few things to check for: a sturdy frame and steel ball bearings (identified by their adjustable nuts), padding on the tube bar and the handlebar stem, air tires, heavy-gauge-steel training wheels, and (for safety) that it's been assembled by a mechanic. Your granddaughter will probably need a sixteen-inch-wheeler, and you should buy a one-speed, foot-brake standard model. Avoid mountain bikes or any others with hand brakes (little ones don't have the strength). You want to be able to raise the seat height and change the slant of the handlebars as the child grows. Expect to pay between $85 and $149.

Here's a list of reliable neighborhood stores that always have a good selection of kids' bikes in stock, and the brand names they carry:

Bicycle Renaissance (430 Columbus Avenue, near 81st Street; 212-724-2350): Trek, Zephyr, and Specialized in twenty-inch-wheelers.
Toga Bike Shop (110 West End Avenue, at 64th Street; 212-799-9625): Fisher, GT, Specialized, and Ross.
Metro Bicycle (1311 Lexington Avenue, at 88th Street; 212-427-4450): Ross, Cignal, Raleigh, Trek, Dyno, Fisher, and Specialized.
Larry & Jeff's Bicycles Plus (1400 Third Avenue, near 79th Street, 212-794-2929; and 1690 Second Avenue, near 87th Street, 212-722-2201): Ross, Raleigh, Schwinn.
Sid's Bike Shop (235 East 34th Street; 212-213-8360): Schwinn, GT, and Dyno.
14th Street Bicycles (332 East 14th Street; 212-228-4344): Ross, Cignal, GT, Raleigh, and Trek.
Bicycle Habitat (244 Lafayette Street; 212-431-3315): Trek and Specialized.
Frank's Bicycle Shop (553 Grand Street; 212-533-6332): Schwinn, Raleigh, and Ross.
Gotham Bikes (112 West Broadway; 212-732-2453): Cignal, Schwinn, Dyno, and GT.
R & A Cycles (105 Fifth Avenue, at Park Place, Brooklyn; 718-636-5242): Trek, Royce Union, and Schwinn.
Larry's Cycle Shop (1854 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-377-3600): Giant, Ross, Raleigh, and Schwinn.

Private Eyes
Q: I'm really into birding, but the binoculars I've been using are just not sharp enough. Where should I go for a new pair, and what brand should I buy?

A: Norman Stotz of the New York City Audubon Society says that you should choose binoculars that are "comfortable on the eye and in the hand." Since comfort will be different for everyone, it's important to try them out rather than to buy from a catalogue or over the Internet. Stotz prefers 8x/40 or 10x/40 binoculars and claims you shouldn't go for more than ten-times magnification for birding; beyond twelve-times, the magnification amplifies the slightest shaking in your hand.

Clairmont-Nichols Opticians (1016 First Avenue, near 56th Street; 212-758-2346), where David Letterman goes for his binoculars, would be tops on my list. A family-run business that's been around since 1885 and known for its specs, Clairmont also carries a superior assortment of high-quality optical instruments by all the coveted names -- Zeiss, Leica, Swarovski, Steiner, and Nikon. The four resident opticians are experts, yet they're patient and soft-sell and will encourage you to take numerous binoculars out on the sidewalk to give them a try.

Spectra Audio Research (903 Madison Avenue, near 73rd Street; 212-744-2255) is another customer-friendly source. Though it's known for state-of-the-art surveillance equipment and night-vision devices, owner Michael Goodrich (who's something of a binoculars expert) always has high-quality birding glasses on hand. He considers the Swarovski one of the best around for clear, bright viewing of the finest bird feathering. But Goodrich also likes the Bausch & Lomb 8x/40 and an Olympus 10x/50.


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