Power Gifting: When a Learjet Would Be Redundant

Photograph by Peter Hince/Getty Images Close

Photograph by Peter Hince/Getty Images

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Photograph by Peter Hince/Getty Images

It's an annual gift-giving torment: how to find something for the person who has everything.

Capricia Marshall, an ambassador in residence at the Atlantic Council, knows that torment well. As former chief of protocol for the Obama administration, she had to find gifts for world leaders -- people with the coolest cars and jets, people with multiple homes without mortgages. People with standing armies.

What did she learn? In gift giving, it isn’t just the thought that counts -- research and luck help a lot. And you can't just throw money at the problem. These people can throw further.

One of her greatest challenges was former Chinese President Hu Jintao. Sifting through articles in a brainstorming session, Marshall read about Hu's passion for the ancient Chinese board game Go, in which stones are used to encircle the opponent. The gift: jade stones from Barack Obama's home state of Hawaii.

When David Cameron hosted the Obamas for a barbecue at 10 Downing Street in 2011, Marshall noticed that a grill from Chequers, the British prime minister's country house, had to be sent in for the affair. On their state visit to Washington the following year, the Camerons were given a high-end American-made grill.

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People struggling to buy gifts for the well-gifted often try to outgun the big-spending recipient -- a losing proposition, say those whose job descriptions include buying gifts. Instead, the pros try to bestow an experience or enhance a memory. And that doesn’t mean breaking the bank.

"You don't want to overspend, because you don't want it to appear you're trying too hard," says Aniko Gaal Schott, a former fashion executive and frequent Washington hostess.

You want to make a "personal connection," says Debbie Dingell, the wife of Michigan Democratic Rep. John Dingell. For President George W. Bush, it was a rare book she knew he wanted. To friends, she likes to give dried cherries or hot fudge made in her home state.

Food tops the list of many pro gifters. Amanda Downes, the social secretary at the British embassy in Washington, is a fan of perishables. A holiday dinner party gift might be honey from the ambassador's beehive, mince pies or small bags of lavender.

Food also has the benefit of disappearing. "We've all got too much stuff," Downes says. "Decluttering is very important."

Anything, says Alexandre Petrossian, president of operations of North America for the family-owned Petrossian caviar company, “that's not going to stick around.” Petrossian's Alverta special reserve caviar costs just over $200.

Spirits can also relieve the cheer pressure of giving, to all but the most avid wine collectors. Stick with "reds and classics," says James Cluer, master of wine for Qatar Airways. "People prefer red over white. It carries more prestige."

Adam C. Mahr, who's been selling gifts to Washington's elite for nearly 20 years from his Georgetown shop, A Mano, suggests avoiding the tree ornament, which can sit around unwrapped as re-gifting bait. For more conventional gifts, buy objects that people will appreciate but not necessarily buy for themselves: a French cheese knife set or coffee table book of fashion photography, both under $75.

When all else fails, says Mahr, "get something with their dog on it."

Stephanie Green is a reporter and photographer for Bloomberg News in Washington.

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