Collectible walnuts are one of the few traditional luxuries that appeal to both sexes.
Unlike their edible peers, collectible walnuts have deeply veined, hard shells that produce a clear sound when clacked or squeezed. Possession of a fine pair is considered a symbol of status, as the nuts were a favorite amusement of Qing dynasty nobles.
The most prized walnuts come from wild trees in northern China and are said to resemble lion's heads (shizitou), hearts (jixin) or officer hats (guanmao).
Lion's head nuts are the most common in the market. The shells look like a lion's face, with wide, drooping edges, a sharp but blunt top and a tight, square bottom. An average pair commonly costs between 500 and 2,000 yuan: a perfect pair can cost much, much more.
Heart-shaped walnuts are native to Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area. They have rough veins and are much harder than other kinds of collectible walnuts. They typically cost less than lion's head pairs, starting from 200 hundred yuan and growing more expensive with their size.
Officer's hat walnuts have a big and thin edge. They are wider than they are high when viewed from the front and tend to have an irregular surface and veins.
The number of wild trees producing these nuts has declined in recent years, driving up the price. A perfect pair can cost 10,000 yuan.
Collectible walnuts are said to have a medicinal value. The bumpy edges and irregular shape make them a tool for massaging acupoints in the palms. Squeezing and rolling a pair of walnuts is believed to retard aging and prevent heart disease.
Beijing has many markets that deal in rare walnuts, but experience is essential if you want to avoid being cheated.
A collector surnamed Zhang said each pair of walnuts has to be judged on its hardness, size, shape and color. A single, well-shaped walnut with a deep orange hue is not valuable unless it has a match. The closer the match, the more valuable the pair, he said.