Thursday, May 27, 2010

Naval gazing

I just bought a pair of jaunty white sailor pants by Ralph Lauren. No big deal, right? Wrong. For me, this is like buying a chiffon blouse for a spin class. Somewhere there's a blueberry with my name on it, a cup of espresso perched next to a rambunctious toddler.

There is white-pant-destroying karma in my life, which explains why I haven't owned a pair in at least 25 years.
But they looked so fresh, were a hard to find wide-legged cut and fit like custom tailoring.

I found them on the day our son Jules began his pr
ocess of enlisting in the Canadian Navy. Le Duc, laughing, pointed out my subconscious support.

Someone else will keep my boy's whites pristine.

I find men in uniform–especially sailors–unbearably handsome. Once, visiting New York during Fleet Week, I delayed my flight home three times just to admire the debonair US Navy and Coast Guard crews striding through Rockefeller Center in their dress whites.

The city looked like one panoramic Norman Parks photo; I could not leave.

As for me, it's a Tide stain stick and crossed fingers.

What do you do when faced with an item of inevitable fragility?
Buy it anyway and enjoy it while it lasts, or walk on by?

Update: I noticed a woman whose white pants were splattered all around the hem simply by proximity to the rainy streets. I returned mine and am hunting a café au lait pair.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Gifts for 20-somethings: We're so proud of you!

Note: "Gifts" was originally posted (briefly) on Tuesday due to a scheduling error. Sorry to those of you reading it twice!

A few ideas for graduation, wedding or birthday gifts as the season of young-adult occasions approaches.


I don't like to give money or its weasel relative, gift cards. Call me old-fashioned, but if I'm spending the best part of a Saturday sweltering through a convocation, I'm giving a real gift.

Here are some original but useful gifts, to please a spirited and adventurous young adult.
All prices are $100 or less.


Graduation, birthday, engagement

Pearls, first



Pearl and smoky quartz and knotted linen necklace: white pearls and rondelles of quartz fastened to espresso linen with sterling wire; a lighthearted, casual necklace, $46 from Etsy seller WillOaks Studio.




Your trekker will love the Freeloader Pro Solar Charger, with little solar panels (and a USB charger for cloudy days). Once he runs it for 7-9 hours in the sun, it powers any electrical device (laptop, mobile phone, e-reader, digital camera) for a good long time. Cool! Only about 6 x 8 inches, weighs 6 oz.; $80 from ThinkGeek.




Vintage black-and-gold button necklace, $70 from Esty seller randyberry. (But I would wear this myself!)



Y
oung men have esthetic sensibilities too. A well-made pocket knife a useful, beautiful masculine object; the blade can be engraved. The Lagouile Le Sapeur (Firefighter's Knife; a helmet replaces the traditional bee on the blade) is about $100, engraving extra, from Lagouile France.



Wedding or housewarming gifts


Just when you thought it was safe to go to the table.
Shark salt and pepper shakers in grey ceramic, $40 from Up to You.


I Am Not
a Paper Cup: I am, in fact, a perfectly lovely porcelain cup with a silicone lid. $32.95 for set of two from Amazon.com.



Hourglass: Black sand, handblown glass. Forty-five minutes of silent, meditative, softly-passing time.

Who need this? Well, who doesn't?

$55 from
Design Within Reach.


The great Samurai movies, "Sanjuro" and "Yokimbo" by Akira Kurosawa, for a rainy weekend. $56 for a two-film box set from Criterion.

Maybe add a bottle of sake.






Give some softness to snuggle under at the end of a long day. Garnet Hill's down throw comes in luscious hues, is machine washable and costs $98. (Also available in other sizes).


No one ever seems to have– or hang on to– enough glasses.

These La Rochere bee glasses, based on a set of Napoleon's, are from France's longest-operating glassworks. They are our favourites, because of their solid pedestal bottoms and embossed design. Six highball glasses are $50 from Target and Amazon.com; available in other sizes, too.

Congratulations to the next generation, and, now that I think of it, to this one. One of our dear friends will receive his Doctor of Jurisprudence degree this spring, well after his 50th birthday!



Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Saks, scarcity and spending

Stephanie Rosenbloom, writing in the New York Times' Business section (Thursday, May 19) notes that major chains "like Home Depot and Saks" posted earnings on Tuesday that suggested the beginnings of a rebound in categories hit hard by the recession, like home improvement and luxury goods.

The chairman of Saks, Stephen Sadova, said that Saks had shifted from "defense to offense", adding,
"A year and a half, two years ago, people were asking 'Is luxury dead?', 'Will people ever pay full price again?' What we've learned this last year, certainly this last quarter, is that they're paying full price, they're responding to the concept of scarcity, and they love brands."

The creation of perceived scarcity is a time-honoured persuasive device. But is anything sold be a major retailer truly scarce? Only if you buy into the idea that this season's It Bag will never grace the planet again. Merchants have a bag of tricks to crate the illusion of scarcity: time-limited sales and promotions, of with the silliest are the invitation-only shopping sites with their shopping carts that empty if you do not buy within minutes.

Twinning scarcity with
exclusivity is catnip to anyone who needs a shot of artificial esteem. Wait lists, pre-orders or offers to preferred customers, same thing. Display tactics such as putting only one of an item on the floor work spectacularly, and staff are trained to never let on there is backstock: it's the only one in your size!

I too am vulnerable to the illusion of scarcity, especially in these situations:



1. The rare, artisanal "find"
If I find something made by an artisan, am told it is one of a kind,
and, if there is a sweetener like a percentage of the profit donated to a cause I support, I'm a goner. That's how I ended up with a crate of pottery, or last week, a lovely but not strictly needed silk scarf made by an Indian women's cooperative.



2. I'm Here, It's Here
When traveling, especially at the end of the trip, I am afflicted with angst that I will likely not stroll this souk, troll this boutique again.

Hello Balinese bags, Monoprix bangles and aruveydic toothpaste crammed into drawers, where they surface years later. "They'll make great gifts", I sometimes rationalize, but then forget or they're not right for the person.



3. What You Resist, Persists

Am I the only one who has proclaimed a shopping moratorium only to blow it spectacularly?

Similar to the the Go-On-a-Diet-Gain-Weight phenomenon, this is a well-known psychological response to deprivation. We don't like it very much when deprivation is done
to us, and when we do it to ourselves, our little reptilian brain hisses, "Fix this now!"

"Couldn't help myself"? I can, and sometimes don't. In my case this means pearls.


Homeopathic consumption may help: instead of a dress, buy a lipstick. A friend of mine in AA says that when the urge to consume hits, they were advised to go to a thrift store with $20, no cards. (Part of the recovery process concerns making wise choices, but at the same time learning to enjoy pleasures not inherently harmful.)

But you are still spending, and if suckered by the scarcity lure, likely buying what you don't need. Retailers want you to spend habitually, so that $20 softens you up to keep going.

As for Saks, I understand the strategy; like many retailers, they're in survival mode. But I find it offensive to be manipulated by an illusion. The quote struck me as crass, with an undercurrent of contempt for the customer.

If the economy rebounds, with stores like theirs successfully stoking our luxury lust, I'll miss seeing the 'shop your closet' concept fade. But given last weeks' market volatility, maybe that wise idea has some legs.



Thursday, May 20, 2010

Small diamond delights

Small diamonds are charming in their discretion. Small diamond pieces do not say you do not own a big stone; they murmur, "I'll have another cup of tea, thank you" or "My, I am busy today, but not too busy to enjoy life."

Shown, a riding crop in diamond, platinum and gold, set with twenty-six Old European Cut diamonds measuring approximately 2 1/4 inches; price, $495 from Doyle & Doyle.

Small diamonds breathe. You can layer them with your real or costume pieces. Wear them to work, to the market, to the school meeting; they will not look vulgar. The diamonds happen to be set in a piece, rather than being the piece.

I would rather have an interesting design set with small stones than a rock on a piece of pipe, any day. Well, most days.

For your consideration, a selection of small diamond pieces for varying tastes and price points.


Vintage mid-century diamond pendant in 14k, with a tiny seed pearl at the top and five old-cut diamonds set in gold openwork. About one and three-quarter inches long, interesting enough to hold its own or chic layered with a chain. Price, $395 from Beladora II.


Chaumet "Etoile" ring. Fourteen small diamonds (.42ct, G colour, VVS) set into the stars. Size 7, $1,950 from Evelyn Kay. For a classic piece of Paris, worth passing up a stack of costume rings.


How hip do you want those diamonds? House of Waris Flame Ring, 1.05cts of black diamonds set in blackened brass. Price, $2,400 from Barney's.


Alex Sepkus' designs remind me of Klimt paintings.

His 18k and diamond earrings (.27cts tw, set as six diamonds in each earring) are $750, far less than on his site, at Empire Diamond.



Calm diamonds: Yayoi Forest's Lucky Seven diamond ring with seven pavé diamonds in a three-quarter inch disc, in 14k gold, $560 from Catbird.


Andrea Fohrmans' Brooke luminous, passe-partout necklace, a 1 3/4 inch pendant of rose-cut diamonds set in pink gold on a 16" chain. Price, $1,900 from Twist.

Sethi Couture 18k white gold paisley lace earrings with 1.24ct white and burnt orange diamonds, $3,050 from Fragments.






Pins and brooches are back, at the edge of jewel-maven's sights. Daphne Guinness likes to pin a parade of five or six down the front of a dress.

Because they are sitting out the mass-fash moment, you can pick up some exquisite pins and brooches at great prices just now. Then everyone will want one like yours.

Begin with one like this vintage Mauboussin fluted ruby and diamond clip brooch, in 14k yellow and pink gold, $795 from Empire Diamond.

Perfect for me, but alas, now sold.

A small (1 inch by 7/8 inch) rose-cut diamond pin is probably French, and would add a grace note to a jacket or sweater neckline. $175 on sale from Ruby Lane seller Jewelry Liquidations by Amy.




On your wrist


This Mark Davis bangle is vintage refurbished Bakelite sprinkled with pink sapphires and diamonds set in 18k gold. Subtle, quirky and the kind of thing no one will know is so precious until your wrist catches the light, and... $1,990 from Twist.


A delicate 2.3mm 14k pink gold bangle with channel-set diamonds (.55 ct tw) mixes with anything you own. Price, $1,399 from OroLatina.

When dealing with online vendors, speak to them. They can provide additional photos and more detail about the condition, if you are buying vintage.

Even though the diamonds are small, ask if they know the colour and clarity. Information on cutting grade is hardest to get. Well-cut little pointers will sparkle from across a room. Some pieces may not come with this information, so ask for the return policy in writing.

Then, choose your small treasure and enjoy every day!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Seaside scent: Brittany in a bottle

Long gone is the Mother's Day gift of what essayist Robert Fulghum called the Gummy Lump.

When I came to brunch, the table was dressed with an enormous bouquet of lilacs, but the scent I'd like you to meet (if you have not already) is not from our garden, but from the seaside in Brittany, scene of magical family holidays: Côte d' Amour by L'Artisan Parfumeur.


L' Artisan describe it as "a beautiful escape on the French Atlantic coast". Perfume Blogger The Scented Saladmander (Marie-Helene Wagner) says,"Wearing this scent in the city immediately evokes farniente (the "sweetness of doing nothing") at a Parisien terrace café over lunch break, baking in the sun."

Bearing both the Ecocert and Cosmebio lables, the fragrance is entirely without synthetics, 100& natural and organic.

What does it smell like?

Sea water and driftwood, sun on pebbles, the salt marshes of Guérande, rosewood. pine and cypress, gorse, rose, heather– and the indescribable sensation of sand on skin at the ocean. A technical feat in an all-natural perfume! And best of all, though a summer splash fragrance, it has significant staying power.

Côte d'Amour is not just a 'sea scent', it is a North Atlantic sea scent particular to the Côte d'Armor–the Celtic name for Brittany– hence the pun in the name.


Where to find it

Readers in Toronto can find it at Noor, the refined parfumerie tucked into the Four Season's Cumberland Avenue side steps east of Avenue Road.

You may order it by mail through
L'Artisan Parfumeur's web site.

If you want to sample it and are not near a L'Artisan boutique or counter, you can order decanted samples, from 1ml to 5ml, from The Perfumed Court. International shipping available, and just try to stop at one sample.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Going twice: More on buying jewelry at auction

Part Two of a two-part series.

More tips on buying at an auction, a fun and often rewarding way to collect jewelry.

Look closely.


This is important if buying a signed piece. Some items are "marriages", a new stone placed in a Cartier mount, for examp
le.

Profession
al jewelers usually arrange for a private viewing of important pieces, and use the house's microscopes. You will not have access, so bring a jeweler's loupe.

In the early days, I missed seeing a scratch on the table facet of ring's centre stone. It was successfully unset and polished later– at my expense. Pieces are sold "as is", so it is your responsibility to make any repairs.

If you're shopping for a major purchase, hire a jeweler or appraiser to come with you as a consultant. My friend Jean's mother bought a 2ct Tiffany diamond this way, for a terrific price. Naturally a jeweler is happier to help if you have an interest in something he or she does not sell, such as antique cameos. Ask an appraiser for a referral; may jewelers are also appraisers.


Know the local market.

For example, I've never bid on fine jade in my city, because our large Asian population is mad for it, and their ardour jacks the prices sky high. (In my dreams, I attend an auction in a tiny remote town where no one fancies jade.)

But emeralds, for some reason, are the opposite, which is how Le Duc once happened to buy a small emerald pin. "No one was bidding", he said, "I just had to!"

Sometimes at previews you will see certain pieces absolutely mobbed. If I'm interested, I'll note that. Don't be scared off– wait and see what happens when the paddles go up– but generally, these items are fought over.

Attend auctions only when hosted by reputable, established firms with a bricks-and-mortar presence.

Beware of "government auctions" or fake estate sales, where the auction is held on the grounds of an estate. Traveling auctioneers set up, renting the house from a real estate company for the event. They often advertise the goods as "from the estate of...".

Don't disqualify an auction just because it's held at a hotel, art gallery or museum. If in doubt, check with your better Business Bureau or equivalent. Visit the preview, inspect the goods, do your research and register for a paddle.

Read the rules; check the amount of the buyer's premium, a surcharge on your bid. At fine jewelery auctions, this is typically 25-35%. The hammer price is what you bid, the actual price is hammer plus premium and any applicable taxes.

Check guarantees. The auction house should guarantee:

a. The accuracy of the description. Beware of ungraded stones or vague descriptors such as "genuine diamond".

b. The authenticity of any signed piece.
A forgery is a copy made for deceptive purposes, and represented as authentic. If the house is not sure about the authenticity, the catalog will state "attributed to..." or "in the style of...".

Some designs from major artists were produced by associates; the listing should read, for example, "from the studio of...". Pieces made by the artist (which will be more valuable) should carry a description such as "Signed by Rene Lalique" rather than "Lalique ring". (Shown, Rene Lalique ring.)

If, when you take the piece for appraisal, your find that description is inaccurate, you can dispute the sale, but it must have been attributed in the listing, not just verbally by the nice woman who took it out of the case.


Set a budget, and exercise control.

You don't necessarily need deep pockets. This smart Fred enamel and 18k monogrammed ring sold for $175 last fall (plus buyer's premium and taxes).

But then there's an acquaintance who wanted a diamond, and at auction was captivated with an antique pink, something she had never considered before. She is still paying for it, without regret, but with the weight of that debt.

On the rare occasion when I bid, I usually don't win, and 90% of the things I've let go, can barely remember.
But I'm always glad to attend a top-notch auction and encourage you to go too.

Regardless of our means, we can admire pieces like this Belle Epoque ruby, diamond and pearl pin.

One day, your eye will f
all on something at a boutique, church sale, or the auction– and you're ready for your good luck. It will be a bargain, or at least a price you can live with, and you'll make the choice that's right for you.


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Going once: How to buy jewelry at auction

This is Part One of a two-part post.

Jewelry auctions are an ideal way to learn about value and, if the moment is right, to acquire special pieces. (Shown, ruby, diamond and 18k ear studs, $750*.)

Christine found her jaw-dropping charm bracelet at an auction, and I've been been an occasional buyer over the years. They were smart choices. So, how did we do it?

Appraiser Jake Biddington (real name?) has a friend who was an equity fund manager. He details his method here, a canny approach.

A few points to add to Jake's:

If you're a competitive person, auctions bring that quality to the fore. Learn to separate your ego or competitive drive from the bidding process. You don't want to "win them all" unless you have money to burn.

I met a man who boasted that he never lost at auction; he was privately regarded as a sucker.
Remember, you are not winning, you're buying.


How shills work

Unscrupulous practices can be at play. Shills (fake bidders) are not uncommon.

For those who don't know this scam, here's how it works: Al, Bob, Chris and Dan all place their high-end watches in an auction. Bidding begins for Al's watch. Bob, Chris and Dan (and possibly a few other shills) will bid, driving the price up. As soon as you bid, the shills drop out. Later, in their hotel suite, the proceeds are shared.

In the US, shills are illegal in some states, but many states don't regulate auctions or auctioneers at all. Bad guys simply recruit new faces or use phone bidding, so it's hard to be sure.

The way to shill-proof yourself? Know comparables– recent prices on similar objects.

Auction houses post prices for recent sales on their web sites. (If you have registered to bid, major auction houses will send these post-auction.) There are also specialized databases available by subscription.

Go on the first day, note what you like in the catalog, and do some research. Seeing the items in person is essential, because you should check the condition.

Don't assume that because a bracelet, for example, is listed in an auction, it will be cheaper than the same item sold by a shop. I have seen, for example, a mint-condition current Cartier bracelet sold at higher price than the identical bracelet at a jeweler's.

Some jewelers place their merchandise in an auction because they know that a skilled auctioneer and an energized crowd can result in a higher selling price than in their shop.

Estimates: Who's zoomin' who?

The catalog will list an estimate in a price range, for example, $1500-$2000, but be careful. Some houses deliberately lowball their estimates to attract interest. So you think "Wow, that's a terrific price", and as the bidding goes up over the estimate, you think, "They must know something I don't", and you keep bidding.

Sh
own, left, part of a Tiffany silver tea and coffee set, ca. 1865-1878. Estimate: $4,000-$6,000; sold for $11,000. I know very little about silver but thought the estimate was definitely low.

When the price zooms way above the estimate, either the buyers think the piece was undervalued, someone has a customer in mind who will pay more, or, in the case of a glamorous blonde who set her shoulders and held her paddle aloft till she had her strand of black opal beads, there is a bidder who is going to get her candy, no matter what.

Spotting good buys

I've seen many outstanding values at all price points.

Be sure to look at the 'second ' jewel auctions, sometimes called boutique or arcade" auctions. The house will separate the higher and lower-end goods into two separate events (often on the same day). The latter is a trove of reasonably-priced treasures mixed in with some godawful stuff. (Shown, 16mm pearl and 18k earrings by Llyn Strelau, $700.)

You will pay a premium for known and desired brands. Learn to look further afield, depending on your eye, not a name.

These gold and diamond Cartier C earclips sold for $950 last fall in a local Toronto auction, a good price.

This giardinetto brooch, with carved emerald leaves, ruby and sapphire branches and pavé diamond stems sold for $1,600.

I'd have to inspect the piece more closely to be sure, but this looks like an excellent value.


*All pieces shown are from past sales of the Toronto auction house Dupuis; prices given are hammer price in Canadian dollars (which at writing is at par with the US dollar.) In addition to the hammer price, buyers pay a premium of 25% (20% above $20,000) and applicable taxes.

Part Two, "Going Twice...", on Tuesday of next week, continues with more suggestions and examples.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Linen love

Linen is like buttermilk, women love it or hate it. I'm a lover.

The prissy-dresser's rap on linen is "Oh, but it wrinkles." Yes; that's characteristic of the fiber. If a woman believes that wrinkling is evil, she'll disdain linen's cool. This relaxed, natural quality is its charm, and no fiber serves a hot-weather habitat better. (Shown, linen safari jacket from MaxMara Spring '10 collection.)

There
is a point where linen demands a wash-and-iron, just like your jeans when they bag. The problem with a downmarket linen is not crumple, it's boring design and sloppy tailoring. A badly-sewn linen shirt won't look soignée no matter how rigorously pressed.

Where to find it

I'm showing linen you can wash (with one exception). Talbots make linen pants you have to dry clean, and I've seen their linen dresses lined with poly.
What is the point to this madness?

Look for a bit of ease in pants, from relaxed to wide leg, with enough length to brush the top of the foot. These shown are from Marks and Spencer, £22.

Machine washable stretch linen (linen, rayon and lycra spandex) wide-leg pants by J. Jill, in two neutrals, price, $89.

Available in Misses, Petite, Women's and Tall (I love you all). I am guessing these will wrinkle less, if you care.





This Eileen Fisher shaped jacket shows the desired attitude: ease, but with some shape. Price, $198.

Sidebar: EF, hoping to court younger customers, is starting to shape its clothing more by adding darts and detail. Yes!


It's shown layered over a scoopneck tank, with sequins at the neckline, which comes in white, black or (shown) branch, price, $138. Love it. it's EF and I love it... a first.

Good linen is worth the investment, because low-quality linen is like wearing a paper bag, stiff and scratchy. But if you look, you can find good linen at decent prices.


I like the pretty vee and not-too-short sleeve on T
albot's Irish linen ruffled blouse; price, $59.50 (They say dry clean only, an example of their fabric-care psychosis.)


Linen knits: Cool and collected

Linen worn with the average interlock t-shirt top looks tacky, and cotton knit is nasty in steamy heat. If you prefer cotton knit, look for high-quality Egyptian in extremely fine gauge.

Linen jersey, however, is a perfect complement to woven linen.

EF make a linen jersey tee with a graceful scoopneck, price, $118. Hardly a cheapie, but the look is
entirely different than cotton interlock, and so much cooler in all senses of the word– so, worth it. In an array of neutrals and colours, some on sale.


Sandro's ma
riniere linen-knit t-shirt is another example of the chic of linen knit (s/o in all but Medium on Net-a-porter), price, $165.








J. Crew are a source for interesting linen; they often mix it with other fabrics. A linen cardi with silk pockets: simple, smart, summery. Price, $88.

They advise dry cleaning;
I have hand and machine (delicate cycle in a mesh bag) washed their linen knits successfully.


I found this Talbot's linen gauze top in the Outlet section for $14.99! I'd buy some beads or sequins and embellish the sleeve hems just for fun. If you're too busy mixing those margaritas, just pile on necklaces!

Talbot's say dry clean but I'd wash by hand or on delicate cycle, hang to dry. Available in Misses, Petites and some Woman Petites sizes.


Flax make an extensive line of linen, priced between $65-$135 on average. Flax can look matronly or marvelous. There are good pieces in this line. They wash like a dream, wear very well, and the size range is inclusive, from XS through 3G (for Generous).

The loose, cropped Flood pant or full-length Fundamental Pant and Long Slacks are travel lifesavers anywhere hot and humid; handwash, hang to dry, no pressing needed. Shown, Pullover Shirt and Flattering Floods, from the Flax site.
You can often pick up pieces on sale on eBay.

Local Toronto designer Alexia von Beck has a shopful of outstanding linen pieces right now. Her boutique (1228 Yonge at Summerhill) carries skirts, simple pants, several styles of smart blouses and even linen coats in both summer hues and neutrals. If you can't get there, consider sewing a floaty handkerchief linen skirt or having it made. Shown, Simplicity 4595.


How to wear it: lighten up

My Parisienne GF Huguette once praised me for "having your lin
en wrinkled just right." I had no idea! I just put it on and usually wear it more than once before washing.

She me
ant that stiff-pressed linen is uptight and violates its essential nature. She would approve of the wrinkle factor on this Eric Bompard linen tunic, €85.

American catalog or store photos show linen absolutely wrinkle free, which has loaded the weird image of linen looking tight and expressionless as a lifted face into women's minds.

Moving my favourite pieces to the front of my closet, I feel the promise of summer sunshine coming off them, and smile.