Self-confessed chocoholic Cai Xiao , 26, used to travel far afield from her Beijing home for her favourite fix. The search took her to Nanjing , Jiangsu province , last year, where celebrated French chocolatier Debauve & Gallais had its only presence on the mainland, at a sales counter in a swanky hotel. The prices were outrageous: 100 yuan to 180 yuan for a chocolate bar; 1,000 yuan for eight white chocolate golf balls; and 2,100 yuan for a box of truffles. Ms Cai spent 360 yuan for an 80-gram box of pistoles - coin-shaped dark chocolates bearing the name of Parisian aristocrat Marie Antoinette, a fan of their wares. The cocoa content was up to 99 per cent, indicative of the highest grade. 'You can't possibly find the true dark chocolate in any other place in China,' said Ms Cai. Her second trip to acquire the chocolate of choice for French kings Louis XVIII and Charles X and literary giants like Marcel Proust was a lot closer to home after the 207-year-old Parisian chocolatier set up a booth on the ground floor of Beijing's World Trade Centre in December. That time Ms Cai bought ecrin - a box of 24 assorted chocolates - for 1,200 yuan. On her third visit, she plunked down 2,200 yuan for incroyables - a box of 40 pieces of dark chocolate mixed with nougatine, roasted almond grains cooked in caramelised sugar. Napoleon was so infatuated with their bitter-sweet flavour that he once ordered 2,000 boxes, but production is now limited, with only 1,000 sold globally each year. 'Mine was No302,' Ms Cai said. 'I felt I belonged to a very special club and had a great sense of satisfaction.' Ms Cai offers a glimpse of the mainland's emerging middle-class, which is choosing to consume upmarket goods and cultivate expensive hobbies. Their shared consumption patterns are a key part of an evolving elite culture in the nominally communist country. Unlike their parents' generation, in which consumer choices are guided by practicality, the new middle-class urbanites are more concerned about the invisible values their purchases represent. 'A lot of prestige- and honour-buying is going on in China,' said Guo Liang , assistant professor of marketing at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. 'What to buy and not to buy is imbued with social meaning. Consumer goods become a kind of social currency that is transacted in middle-class life.' For the mainland's emerging middle-class urbanites, you are what you consume. They own their own home and car, travel abroad, and show an unabashed preference for top brands and luxury goods. Yang Qingshan , president of the China Brand Development and Strategy Association, said that about 13 per cent of the mainland's population, or 170 million people, bought top-tier brands. Ms Cai, a designer whose annual household income amounts to around 400,000 yuan, said she rarely hesitated when purchasing Debauve & Gallais chocolates. 'I simply cannot put supermarket chocolates into my mouth any more. They taste too sugary and awful,' she said. 'Their prices are a little staggering but, hey, I can allow myself a few hobbies and indulgences and that's what life is all about.' The mainland's newly rich are relaxed, fun-seeking and lapping up luxury goods fast. A recent report from US investment bank Goldman Sachs found the country is the world's third-largest consumer of luxury goods, accounting for 12 per cent of global sales, behind Japan's 41 per cent and 17 per cent for the US. The report predicted that the mainland would become the world second-largest purchaser of luxury goods by 2015, commanding 29 per cent of such sales. Debauve & Gallais director Bernard Poussin is one foreign investor who says he is 'totally confident' about the mainland's luxury market. 'Larger and larger social inequalities are generating a pyramidal market structure,' Mr Poussin said. 'At the top, elite members of society can afford the most expensive stuff, while the bottom ranks are anxious to copy their way of life.' The chocolatier is so confident its pricey chocolates will get gobbled up by rich Beijingers, even at 4,000 yuan a kilogram, that it upgraded its World Trade Centre sales booth into a boutique the end of May, and decided to open a second shop in Beijing's Financial Street - the capital's answer to Wall Street - in October. The family business, where techniques and recipes have been handed down through the generations, has opened six overseas shops so far, and Mr Poussin said the Beijing shops were in a key strategic position. 'China is the open door to Asian markets, our ambition is to become the reference point,' he said. Mr Poussin sees his chocolate as having everything to offer for an aspiring mainland urbanite who has just learned to work for the enjoyment of life, and is willing to pay a premium for it. Zhao Hong , general manager of Debauve & Gallais' Beijing operations, said the company's market was the rich and the successful few who understood and appreciated arts, culture and the finer things. 'Most of our customers are around 35 years old, work for foreign companies or own their own business,' she said. 'They're definitely the elite class of the country.' Its business strategy of instilling cultural elements into the marketing campaign is apparently working. Chic social events like chocolate salons are routinely hosted where chocolate history and French culture are discussed over the tasting of fine chocolates. Participants are usually members of Beijing's top clubs or people living in upmarket residential areas. 'We've got great feedback on our social activities,' Ms Zhao said. Ms Cai says she's addicted to Debauve & Gallais chocolates, and as a regular consumer of one of the most famous chocolates in the world, she feels she's not 'one of those common people'. 'There's probably an iceberg tip of the world's population that can buy and taste those chocolates and I'm one of them,' she said. 'I feel we're a special group, different from everyday, ordinary people.' Mr Poussin echoed her sentiments. 'Of course, only the elite can enjoy and will enjoy our products. Because of rarity and costs, these chocolates have always been reserved for the elite. These chocolates will never be mass product and will always be the privilege of a few.' Professor Guo said that in a country where increasing income disparities translated into stratified consumption patterns, consumption had increasingly become a mark of legitimate membership in - or exclusion from - certain social groups. 'Luxury goods can readily convert into markers of social status,' he said. 'They make middle-class urbanites able to feel effective as elite members of the society.'