Real people: Black lightens up for summer

After a cool start, June has been an exuberance of fine weather, and on one evening, the necessary mix of sun and shower lit a rainbow over our building. Le Duc (in the hat) chatted with T. as the sky shimmered through the full spectrum.

When we visit the market in summer, the black coats and jeans have vanished, reminding me of a verse of Joni Mitchell's in "Morning Morgantown":
"Ladies in their rainbow fashions,
Coloured stop and go lights flashin',
We'll wink at total strangers passin'
In morning Morgantown."

Oh, there's still black, but as a print, on a shift...


...or on a graphic sundress:


...or a striped scarf:


And if wearing neutrals, women added a wink such as red-ribboned espadrilles:



All around me, I noticed that they used printed canvas totes to add interest to neutrals...


...and carried summer-bright bags, citron, fuchsia, white.


 One of the best accessories, though, was on a bike:


I could not find the pattern for whatever you call that, but if you crochet, here's a free bike u-lock cosy pattern from Toronto's The Knit Café, a winsome gift idea.

In a quote that's gone viral, French writer and Instagram-goddess Sophie Fontanel advised that to dress well, read well and widely, visit museums, surf the net; absorb anything but magazines. (See this Vogue interview, in which she also expresses displeasure with certain Parisienne-chic tropes.)

What she's saying is, build your eye—whether you draw inspiration from Iris or Inès—and wear what you dig.

We can also continue to learn, even after his death, from Bill Cunningham's affectionate photographs of persons of all ages, in all manner of dress. Always amused and engaged, he parsed, as my mother said, "what they are wearing",  but never prescriptively; he encouraged us to find our individual expressions.

So when I'm shopping the market and neighbourhood for Québec strawberries and saucisson, I'm also charmed by Montréalers and visitors alike as they embrace the short, sweet summer—and at times, one another:


Vacation notice

This is the last post for two months; toodles, poodles, till September. I wish you a double dip of seasonal pleasures, and look forward to hearing all about your adventures, very soon.


Minimalism and adornment: A reconcilation

I recently read "Everything that Remains: A Memoir by The Minimalists" and occasionally drop by  the author, Joshua Fields Millburn, and Ryan Nicodemus' site. Now, a film, "Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things" spreads the pared-down proposition.

The day after the film's screening, I sat at work surrounded by sapphires and tourmalines, and  wondered, Is jewelry necessary?

The attraction to adornment isn't shared by everyone, but by enough people to support a complex global industry. The baubles also serve other needs: for status, for the marking of ritual occasions, and if you're a believer, to impart the healing essences of various minerals. (Not my thing.)

When Minimalists advise getting rid of "trash and trinkets", I understand their perspective, but doubt I would divest my jewellery and feel better for it. Many minimalist exemplars are men, and I wonder if, because of gender bias, they might be less familiar with the pleasure of jewellery; sure, they have their watches, but relatively few wear earrings. Women cluster four deep around a jeweler's booth at a good art or craft show, while 90% of men sail by.

The Minimalist movement asks an essential question; as Vicki Robin and the late Joe Dominguez wrote a generation earlier in "Your Money or Your Life": Is striving mainly to get more stuff a fair exchange for the precious, limited time you have here? And once you fill the trophy case, then what? Millman quotes Chuck Palahniuk in "The Fight Club": "The things you own end up owning you".

I've felt that way about many possessions, from napkin rings to exercise bikes, but regarding jewellery, I feel like a steward of art.

I also feel connected to loved ones; when I wear a piece my mother wore too, in a way she is with me. The other night I dreamed of her. She was reading in a wing-backed chair I'd forgotten we had, and wearing this clip; I awoke savouring the recovered memory.


Am I going to continue collecting jewelry? Yes, in a judicious, limited way, or at least that's my intention. 

Would I suggest that others do so? Only if the intrinsic beauty of a piece adds to your enjoyment of life, provides an aesthetic or sentimental burnish, and is within your or the giver's means.

As Sara Teasdale wrote in "Barter",
"Life has loveliness to sell
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
Children's faces looking up,
Holding wonder like a cup."

Though in succeeding stanzas Teasdale says we pay for these things by bartering "many an hour of strife"— hence the title—the best things in life are free, but they also require that we stop doing, and pause to appreciate them. 

Jewelry is art which inhabits our everyday lives, becoming almost a part of our bodies.   

That bracelet!
I don't need to own jewelry to be moved by its beauty. When I see friends in their signature pieces— Christine in her vintage jeweled charm bracelet, Marla in her vibrant boulder opal ring—it brings me the same frisson I feel in front of a magical painting.

Brooch, Cai Xuan

My friend Beth and I recently spent an hour at Galerie Noel Guyomarc'h admiring their Taiwanese jewellery exhibit: ethereal acrylic pieces by Cai Xuan, formed like sea anenomes, were among our favourites. The prices for many brooches and necklaces were not prohibitive—similar to a good pair of shoes—but we did not feel acquisitive.

I did, however, feel that art/beauty frisson and its attendant rush of want when we paused to look at a selection of sterling and gem-set cuffs by Matthieu Cheminée.
Photo: Matthieu Cheminée

What does jewellery do for you? And if we couldn't give you, for example, a cuff bracelet, what is your enjoyable addition to life, minimalist or not?






 

Pearls: Last call for a chic bargain!

A short post as June reaches its solstice splendour, and because I've set up the Passage for readers who use Bloglovin:
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Pearl Paradise offer 20-25% off on white South Seas, and 10% off any pearls, till the end of the month. I have no affiliation with them or any other vendor; I'm posting only for the love of pearls!

Whether it's an opera-length triple strand like Mrs. Prada's or a pair of glowy South Sea dangles like Ms. Mirren's, pearls add character to any wardrobe.


I love how Prada's pearls leaven the strict high collar and v-neck.


 Helen Mirren in woman-sized pearls that show off her strong features.

Fancy an ultra-long rope? Alas, it sold out on this sale, but hmm, perhaps if you asked nicely? (The model is Advanced Style's Ari Seth Cohen's grandmother.)


If it's time to upgrade or take your first pearlescent plunge, Pearl Paradise's free shipping and return (if you live in the US) sweeten the deal, and their full return policy ensures you'll have ample time to make a smart decision.

Gemstones: A Girl's Best Friend shows up in a new joint

The most memorable diamond I've ever seen was worn by Parveen, an Iranian woman who sat across from me at a dinner party; it was not large, perhaps barely a half-carat, but I had to ask about it, because the stone showed astonishing brilliance while at the same time shot glints of colour, and displayed both effects not just under overheard halogen, but in the dimmest corner. You could see that discreet size from across the room.

These three qualities are very difficult to cut into one stone so that all are evident. Cutters also think about maximizing the size of the finished product, so it's usually a tradeoff. Her diamond was rare, utter perfection.

Niwaka rings

Her partner had chosen the ring in Japan, at the renowned house Niwaka of Kyoto. I was not surprised: Japan has long been an avid diamond market and the Japanese aesthetic tends toward smaller stones of exceptional quality. 

Readers who appreciate diamonds know about the 4Cs, and also that for ages, diamond prices were regulated by a cartel. In the last twenty or so years, De Beer's dominion has waned, but pressure to keep prices up continues; no one in the industry wants to turn gem-grade diamonds into commodities.

Buyers are averse to "blood" or "conflict" diamonds, and vendors scramble to offer acceptable product. I recently cautioned a blogger who entered an affiliation with well-known Internet brand "because of their ethics" to be careful. Any "certified fair trade" diamonds sourced from Africa should be viewed with skepticism; the vaunted Kimberly Accord process has been proven flawed.

In a short Salon article, "The myth of conflict-free diamonds", Katie McDonough summarizes the complexities and links to a full report in Foreign Policy (registration required to read). McDonough's last word is "buy synthetic", but it isn't mine, because of how badly even the costliest CZs wear in a ring or bracelet—but for earrings, sims offer a carefree alternative.

You have two options for wearing the gem with a clean conscience: buy Canadian such as Canadamark, or choose the new lab-grown diamonds, like those from the Diamond Foundry. Canadian diamonds are mined in Nunavit, in the conventional way, but Diamond Foundry (and at least eight competitors) make them in labs.

Diamond Foundry, one of CNBC's Top 50 Disruptors of 2016, call their stones "real diamonds" because the earth's process is replicated in their plasma reactors. They are neither CZ nor moissanite (whose sellers often attach the term "lab-created" to their ads, too). You can read about the process here.

That's only part of the picture; cut is king. Diamond Foundry's home page refers to "living legends of the diamond industry" as creators of their cuts, and stewards. Who knows who actually cuts your diamond, but it isn't essential. See the stone, see if it sings like Parveen's.

Prices for DF loose diamonds run around 20-25% lower than those listed by well-known online vendors, and less compared to high-end branded diamonds, though I have compared only a few popular cuts and sizes.  

The DF site features some enticing, innovative design by artisans who create pieces set with the diamond of your choice, from tiny to titanic. The styles are alluring compared to the usual fussy baubles and manufactured crap product featured by online diamond jewellers.

April Higashi on Diamond Foundry
If you chose the elegant silver and 18k yellow gold bracelet by April Higashi, you'd pay $US 1, 650 for the setting, then select the diamond you want for an additional fee. I will take a .5ct G VS1 for $1, 377 and la-di-da.

I would love to order a DF stone and take it to the diamond merchants where I work for their assessment, but it would be costly because of nonrefundable customs fees and the hit I'd take on currency exchange for the return. But my knickers are in a twist to get the scoop; if you own a Diamond Foundry stone or if you're a jeweller working with the product, please comment with your take. You can also see DF diamonds at selected stores, presently only in California, but I expect the network to grow.

Meanwhile, industry blogs and press are playing it close to the spangled vest, using descriptors like "atomically identical to their earth-forged counterparts", and emphasizing the benefits of a worry-free twinkler. No one is asking, "But wait, are these diamonds good value? Will the price drop like the iPod's? In ten years, will we indeed have diamonds on the soles of our shoes?"

If I had my sample DF stone (this round 1.03 ct. G colour VS2 clarity, Very Good cut) I would ask Isaac the diamondaire to assess Diamond Foundry's quality and price, $US 5, 290 compared to Blue Nile's similar stone for about $1, 000 more). I would ask, Will lab-created diamonds hold their value? Would it be wiser to drop another grand on the mined diamond, or to take the discount now?

And while at it, I'd order an assortment of cuts, colours and sizes of both types to see if he could sort the mined and lab stones accurately. Or is it indeed, as DF's website says, "a diamond is a diamond is a diamond"?

The lab-grown feature would have to be disclosed if you sell the diamond—but, since they are so new, would they be even desirable on the resale market? I can't find anyone's opinion on record, but I'm sure the dealers are talking about it.

The appreciation of a one-carat or less, good to very grade diamond isn't significant, so don't buy one mainly as an investment, and remember that in time, diamonds show wear, which affects value.

Big blue record-setter
Investment diamonds do exist; they are finest-quality large stones, and if you really want to go for it, of fancy colour. Last May, Christie's sold the Oppenhemier Blue shown above to a private collector for over $57M, setting the world record for most expensive jewel sold at auction.

We knew of a Florida company whose marketed big, fine coloured diamonds to clients who wanted highly liquid assets that could be carried easily; you figure out who that proposition attracts. An investor can even buy PinkCoin, a kind of deluxe Bitcoin backed by coloured diamonds.

A middle road is the purchase of secondhand diamonds, from a reputable vendor. Yes, who knows where and how the stones were mined, back then? Like dating a person with some history, you just have to choose to accept what you get now.  Honest dealers will disclose the provenance if they know it. (Not always so at auctions; read my two-part post, if shopping those.)  

At Beladora, Nancy Revy and her team will give you the straight goods, provide an opportunity for you to try on your piece, and help you make a decision if you can't pick. Here are two standouts from each end of the price range.
Stepping out!
First, a 2ct step-cut E ring (and the E colour really shows in this cut, because the light doesn't bounce around as it would in a brilliant) surrounded by baguettes. The ring is not one for my lifestyle or budget, but I had to show you. (Price, $24, 500; comes with GIA certification.)
Deco posh pinky
I would, though, wear an Art Deco (ca. 1920) platinum-set diamond pinky ring, tomorrow. The total weight is only .50ct, and the small diamonds, because of the cutting style back then, will not be as brilliant as modern ones, but I prefer a piece that echoes the charm of the era. The price is $2, 400.

As Marilyn Monroe sang, "Square-cut or pear shape, those rocks don't lose their shape." Here is a look at mine (ring, not shape, you minx!)

Victorian heirloom 
This is a Victorian (ca. 1910) cluster ring of diamonds surrounded by onyx, old mine cuts that flash fire over a hundred years later. I hope the piece will be worn (not too soon) by some wonderful young woman in our family, perhaps not yet born, in her time during the hundred years to come.














"The True Cost" of fast fashion

I recently watched the documentary "The True Cost", available on Netflix.

Though I have read much about the environmental and social costs of the apparel industry, especially "fast fashion"—the cheap, trendy and continually-refreshed global brands—the impact of visuals was more compelling. After the oil and gas industry, apparel is the most polluting industry.

I tried to assuage twinges of guilt: Wait, I thought, I don't want more, and I don't buy cheap, fast fashion. Well OK, except for a few Forever21 canvas tote bags. Dang, those are cute.

But though a closet check shows a good percentage of locally-made or fair-trade pieces, I can improve.

My sentiment is similar to Susan Burpee's post, "In Praise of Slow Fashion", on her blog, High Heels in the Wilderness. I sense a groundswell.

Like Susan, I searched for lists of the best ethical and fair-trade brands, though the terms are often fuzzily-defined. When I saw H&M on Marie Claire magazine's list, I wondered: in the film, their PR person could not look her interviewer in the eye and avoided a factual answer when asked what the Swedish chain (the largest of the fast-fashion merchants) pay the Asian garment workers hired via independent suppliers.


Lillikoi Basic Boatneck
Some respected ethical brands (Stella MacCartney, Edun—and ooh I like these denim trousers!) are out of my budget, and others require shipping, which shifts the pain to another environmental sore spot. A recent BBC News article reports that such retailers' return rates (when they offer free shipping and returns) average over 63%, and the biggest repeat returners are young women, ordering multiples in various sizes, to check fit.

I look first for locally and Canadian-made; some favourites include Lisette L (trousers), Lilikoi (cotton and bamboo tees and dresses), La Canadienne (shoes and boots), Vèronique Miljkovitch (chic tops and dresses) and Betina Lou (sportswear).

I'm learning more about buying jeans, thanks to Ethical Consumer's site, which publishes a scorecard for some brands. (Sidebar: Just because a pair of jeans costs $250 does not mean that's an ethical choice.) 
People Tree Zandra Rhodes top
The film has been praised, but also called "vague liberal agitprop".  While I watched, I heard nothing vague from designers and manufacturers like Safia Minney of People Tree, who create alternative business models which they explain precisely, nothing vague from the Cambodian workers and organizers who put their lives on the line to protest making forty or fifty cents per hour for goods sold for hundreds of dollars.

Economist Richard Wolff commented succinctly about the macro-economic issues of late-stage capitalism, though did not provide solutions.

When I started buying my own clothes in US, during the mid-'60s, it was taken for granted that what one bought there was made there. My small town's best shops, which catered to wealthy summer residents, sold some luxury imports: British woolens and the rare, very special French or Italian dress, but also sportswear made from fabric milled in the Carolinas, Ohio, and New York. Now, the world comes to our malls and streets, flooding them with cheap, abundant fashion that promotes a rapid spend-divest-spend cycle.

As Suzy Menkes said after the 2013 Bangladesh factory disaster, "It's not just manufacturers...it's about the consumer. We need to realize it's morally wrong to buy a bikini for the same price as a cappucino."

Many young adults are have rejected the habit I picked up as I blew my summer job's cheques on something new for a dance, a change of season or even just because I had worn the thing too many times.

Oh, that's embarrassing to admit! And that attitude is the shopper's crack: feels good at first, but then it's hell to kick.

Achilles' Heel par excellence
Assisted by retirement, I buy less than at any other stage, and plan to wear that into the ground—but still have to be careful about reflexively wanting more, especially when the weather turns cold. I get like a squirrel with acorns, but with sweaters. I recently spent a delightful sunny morning in Montréal with a visiting reader, LauraH, who, like me, employs cashmere against our frigid winters. Laura mentioned she had a few pieces that didn't get worn last winter, and I concurred.

She said, "That's the sign I have enough", and her wisdom will stay with me next time I'm tempted by "just one more" of those luscious knits.

How attentive are you to the production behind your clothes and accessories? Does it matter? What do you do, or hope to do?



Grief and new partners

A year ago, a longtime friend lost his wife, Jenny, to a brain cancer that killed her in two months. When Jenny died, he was adrift in the rambling house she had filled with her paintings and sculpture. An ebullient woman with a hooting, wild laugh, Jenny brought two young sons to their twenty-year marriage; Dave thrived in the vibrancy of family life. By last Christmas, he had a new girlfriend, Martina, news he announced during our holiday phone chat.

"Women grieve, men replace", another friend had once tartly commented, but by this spring the romance had withered. When I asked what happened, he said, "She wanted me to call her every evening to talk about her day, my day." Martina, widowed too, but ten years earlier, was eager for connection.

I listened beyond his bald words: Dave was not ready for the dailiness of coupled life, to be "us". "I think I used her to get out of grieving", he said, and told me that last week he'd taken a solo road trip. Overcome by the empty seat next to him, he pulled to the shoulder and cried.

A growing number of friends are now like Dave; what was once the province of my mother's bridge group is upon us. The bereaved cope with with waves of lurching sadness, the hallucinatory sense that the partner is just out of sight, and their friends' notions of support.

To be a friend to a widow is to witness the past, to tend their beloved's memory. Dave likes to talk about the small details, about how he handled the interior cleaning, she did the exterior, because she hated dusting and vacuuming. "Jenny's still looking after the garden", Dave told me, "because I use her pension cheques to pay the landscaping service."

And in time, being that friend may mean welcoming someone else. A new companion of the widow or widower is under the microscope, that's for sure, and friends' assessments are more severe after a death than a divorce. Unlike an ex, the decedent is remembered with all luminous qualities intact, even magnified: no one could roast a chicken like him, and the way he told a story!

The newcomer who steps into the clique is brave, but given a chance, will in time be seen for his or her merits. (One friend says she will never again date a recent widower, having been told by one  man's protective pal that she "sure wasn't our Gretchen". "I couldn't agree more", she replied.)

Occasionally the opposite happens; the prospective partner is hailed with enthusiasm usually reserved for a free pair of courtside seats. Relieved friends can joke again, the chair at the table is filled.  Sometimes, a fervent wish for the widow's renewed happiness makes them overlook warning signs. When Grace introduced her new boyfriend, Cam, it took awhile for her friends to admit that he was a scarily heavy drinker; when Grace brought it up, they initially told her no, it wasn't out of hand.  But one weekend when Grace and Cam were guests at a cottage, he passed out, and everyone had to face facts.

I ran into another old friend in a shop last time I was in Toronto. I recognized him immediately, but who was that brunette? He said, "This my new partner, Sarah." She extended her hand. I must have paused a second too long, thinking of his marvelous wife, who had died a couple of years ago.

He smiled sympathetically, and said, "La vie continue."








Status goods: Looking for love?

My friend Leslie sent this parody the other day:

The Diva's Prayer

Armani
Which Art in Neiman's
Hallowed be thy shoes
Thy Prada come
Thy shopping done
On Rodeo
As it is in Paris
Give us this day, our Visa Gold
And forgive us our balance
As we forgive those who charge us interest
Lead us not into Penny's
And deliver us from Sears
For thine is the Chanel, the Gaultier and the Versace
For Dolce and Gabbana
Amex

Shortly after,  I read an article published on The School of Life's site, "On Consumption and Status Anxiety".  The article positions buyers of branded status goods as those who "invest in luxuries because we want people to be nice to us", and adds, "it isn't luxury goods we want as much as the kindness they are a conduit to."

The uncredited writer says, "It is the result of hundreds of thousands of people who feel pressured by the fear of the coldness of others to add an extraordinary amount to their bare selves in order to signal that they too may lay a claim to love".

I'm not sure you reap kindness, let alone love, by buying a crocodile-skin Birkin, but you will receive deference, admiration or envy from persons who share similar values, and contempt from those appalled by ostentation. You may attract a type of friendship that people who have made and then lost money realize was phony.

While the display of status items reflects a desire to be noticed, to be seen as special, I believe there are many other reasons why someone acquires such goods:

1. Conformity: If everyone in your office wears bespoke suits, you may feel it wise to be one of the group.

Fendi "Peekabo" bag

2. Beauty: The author seems unaware that the fine materials and craftsmanship of a Fendi Peekaboo bag deliver an aesthetic experience not replicated by a Nine West. (For this reason primarily—the tone-deafness to the sensual pleasure of many luxury goods—I am willing to bet the writer is a male who has very limited experience with them, even at the "just looking" level.)

3. Peak Pleasure: Ask the guy driving his red Lambo, top down on a sunny afternoon, if he isn't having a pretty good day, or at least a better day than in your beater. And let me tell you about the ten minutes I spent wearing a vintage Cartier diamond and ruby necklace (in a shop), quite the thrill! A supremely fine object 5-alarms the brain's pleasure center.   

4. Reward: When friends who can afford such things have shown me a luxury purchase, they often note that their trophy marks an achievement: the first big deal, the partnership, the book prize. Our friend Éric had a big strike, so prudently bought a piece of property, but also some spiffy Italian clothes.

5. Signal of Economic Power: When my 1%-er acquaintance John steps off the private jet, he is signaling to his cohort that he's in their league. For the same reason, he has not walked to the back of a commercial flight in decades. I doubt that he is looking for love, but he is looking for power, and the jet or first class cabin conveys that he commands significant resources.

6. Displacement: Status goods, instead of a strategy to evoke the niceness of others, can be proxies. This was the case for Joanne, who, after a breakup, bought a set of Valextra luggage roughly equal to the price of a car, and got her eyes done. She knew that, saying, "If he doesn't love me, I'm going to love myself."


School of Life has a distinct anti-capitalist bias; I applaud their efforts to question complex issues such as how to address the widening gap between what a few have and many do not. But they are throwing out the Bonpoint-clad baby with the bathwater in this post.

A number of top-ranked MBA programs now offer a specialization in Luxury Brand Management, and I doubt they view that niche as "existence to a trauma".  When nearly all of us can, we want better, whether fingerling potatoes or Moncler jacket. Oprah, reminiscing about her first big TV gig, said she immediately treated herself to fluffy, matching bath towels.

Reed bag for Kohl's
Sometimes a luxury brand crashes, because there is intense competition for those fat wallets. Reed Krakoff, who made luxury clothing and accessories, initially courted that glossy consumer, and now designs a line for Kohl's, Reed, which features items like this Atlantique satchel for about $82.

Louboutin "Trepi" sandal
Is entire tony tier overpriced, as the author asserts? Some goods are; do you think these Louboutin sandals justify the $1, 145 tag? A good test for whether we are getting stuck in the Venus Flytrap of status is to ask, "If a person, including me, had no idea who made this, would it still be worth the price?" (For more about this subject, see my two-part post on snobs.)

The article ignores the savvy of those status brands who ensure their quality is consistently exemplary, and shrewdly create lower-cost entry-level items—perfume and makeup are typical. But I don't think a woman hopes to recapture the unconditional love of infancy when she buys a bottle of Jour de Hermès.

The writer ends the piece with a jarringly illogical conclusion, referring to "acquiring a high-powered job" in the same breath as getting a Chanel bag or a Ferrari.

You can't buy that job (unless you count an investment in your education as 'buying'), or hordes of women would max their Visas immediately.