Pearl project: Tweaking Tahitians

Known for begging women to reno their pearls stuck in a drawer, I'm taking my own medicine.

Above, the original clasp on a strand of fancy-coloured Tahitians (bought several years ago from Kojima Company); it was pretty but fiddly, a channeled box clasp (hidden by dome-set half pearl) that took multiple tries to attach. I decided to change the clasp the next time I needed restringing.

Like buttons on a coat, a new clasp can change the entire character of a necklace, and is especially good for making a plain or too-formal necklace a hipper, looser piece.

I wanted something other than a stock clasp, in the funky/organic mode. I filed this project in my mind until I found the right designer.

A year ago, I met Québec jeweler Céline Bouré of Kokass, with whom I share a mission: to nudge the gem from proper to divinely wearable. I loved her work.

Le Duc gave me my first Kokass piece, this pearl pendant, a metallic Chinese freshwater that glows wildly even in the dimmest light, set on a chain punctuated with silver handmade beads inlaid with 22k gold.

I also own own several bigger Kokass my dreams. Here I am at the show, trying on a circlé Tahitian necklace with big, swirly oxidized silver beads set with semi-precious stones. (These are not the ubiquitous craft beads of so many shows; Céline designs and makes each element.)

To never remove it would involve a $2,400 investment, and besides, why not work with your bought-and-paid-fors? But madonna, this was a bliss-inducing bauble!

Céline won the prestigious Perles de Tahiti prize, as well as an award from Van Cleef and Arpels, yet her work can be worn with the simplest clothes. The designs are loose, light and joyful, and she has an eye for interesting pearls, mixing South Seas, Tahitians and freshwaters.

Here's Céline in Tahitian keshis with her signature handwrought links. My Tahitians sit in front of her, begging for her hands. I like an artist with joie de vivre, and you can just see it! (Note: Céline is bilingual, should anyone wish to contact her in English. The website, Kokass par Céline Bouré, is in French.)

First meeting, mid-December

I visited her at the Salon des metiers, a large craft show at which she had a booth. (She is based in Québec City.) She also can consult via Skype.

We decided that the clasp would be worn at the side. My strand is slightly graduated, so I had to make that decision; if they matched in size it, wouldn't matter where the clasp was set.

She kept the pearls and e-mailed me a cellphone shot. This protects us from misrepresentation on either side, and, though I trusted her immediately, it's a wise precaution. (Any reputable jeweler will do this, and if not, run!)
After Christmas, Céline took her time thinking. She often awakes at night full of ideas and heads to her bench.

This moment, when I place my trust in the artist's talent, is my favourite, and also the scariest. I try to approach someone whose work I admire with respect and not many directives. A budget, yes– but not a long list of  specifications or tight deadlines.

Late January: Proposal

Céline sent a photo of a clasp she'd made and we had a phone meeting. The new clasp is a simple blackened silver spring ring flanked by two handmade beads with 22k accents and sparkly little blue topazes, an inexpensive stone that highlights the teal and aqua overtones of many of the pearls. She suggested using the half-pearl from the old clasp to make a charm (not shown), to add movement. (I thought, Why not? If I don't like it, it's easy to remove.) 

The cost, $145, includes restringing and taxes. 


Late January: Voilà!

The necklace arrived beautifully packaged, with the old clasp included, should I wish to use it one day. (Always get your original mount back unless you absolutely abhor it.) Céline's design transformed the necklace, now fresh and au courant. Here you see the clasp and charm, set into the strand:

And a quick snapshot of the necklace:

I've hoped to show how a new clasp can transform your necklace. That works best if you like the pearl size. If not, mix in some bigger or varying sizes, different pearl varieties, or other material. 

Once you find a jeweler (perhaps the gifted Ms. Bouré herself), the pearl world's your oyster!

Is coordination a relic?

First, thanks to everyone for your contributions to my "Wanted: Harder Reading" post! I have a list that will guide me for several years, varied, intriguing and motivating. I'm grateful and excited!

The New York Times Style section ran this photo recently; I've cropped it so you aren't influenced by the face.

I stared it it for the longest time. 
Reaction #1: "What? Did she reach into her closet blindfolded?" 
Reaction #2: "What am I not getting here?"
Reaction #3: "Is my reaction age-related?"

The answers:
1. No, her eyesight is just fine; this ensemble was chosen with as much deliberation as Michelle Obama's ballgown.
2. Damned if I know, and maybe someone will help me.
3. Probably. I came of shopping age in the last great American Era of Coordination, the early 1960s, when a girl's Villager skirt and sweater matched or she stayed home and watched American Bandstand. 

I remember my roommate Jodi, just back from an exchange year, saying, "It's so different in France; you see a girl wearing a red skirt and a green sweater!"  We were shocked.

While I've moved far from that age's hypercoordination and enjoy odd colour combos or pattern-mixing (mostly on others), that outfit is just... baffling. The preppy cotton blue-striped shirt, the sumptuous silk pants: neither refers to the other in hue, weight, sensibility. To my eye, the pieces fight when paired.

That striped/floral mashup is on Jenna Lyons, adored and honoured Creative Director of J. Crew; she chose it to wear to the line's spring launch. 

Lyons does occasionally wear quiet, complementary hues:

But she also wears this:

I find Lyons talented and striking–but can't get my head around that first ensemble. Women in my age bracket (I'm 64) fret about what we can wear well as we grow older. There seems a point where many of us lop off the audacious end of the coordination continuum.

Or maybe, if you started choosing your own clothes around the time Lyons, 44, was born, you never went that far. In the '60s, a woman in Jenna's first  outfit would have looked mad; we coordinated early and often, as shown in this '60s photo:

Was I imprinted? Today, I find certain mashups outside my comfort level. While I'd eagerly wear those green floral pants, I'd choose a shirt that picks up one of the colours. I'd wear the striped shirt with jeans or maybe with red cords- whoo-hoo, wild!

Coordination doesn't have to read like a '60s flashback; Advanced Style showed style icon Linda Rodin, in her sixties, coolly coordinated in black and turquoise.

I admire Rodin's chic from tip to toe, and more to the point, understand it. And she says she wears her strand of grey pearls "every day".

What's your coordination quotient? Your take on Jenna's ensemble?

Editing a wardrobe: Lessons from Kurosawa-san

I read this quote from Japanese filmmaker Akiro Kurosawa's autobiography, "Something Like An Autobiography"

"When you are shooting, of course, you film only what you believe is necessary. But very often you realize only after having shot it that you didn’t need it after all. You don’t need what you don’t need. Yet human nature wants to place value on things in direct proportion to the amount of labor that went into making them. In film editing, this natural inclination is the most dangerous of all attitudes. The art of the cinema has been called an art of time, but time used to no purpose cannot be called anything but wasted time."

And I thought, if visual presentation–that is, the way we dress ourselves– is an art, this wisdom applies too, to choosing what we buy and wear.

In film-making, the traps are effort and falling in love with your idea: who cares if it advances the story or not, it's such a cool shot! In choosing what to buy, the comparable trap is that the item is pleasing or even beautiful, especially if it's so on someone else.
I've freed myself from Converses, ruffles, short skirts, long cardis, ponchos, motos, boxy tops, pastels, all of which can look terrific on others. Better to admire a Philip Lim pale colourblocked menswear blazer on my girlfriend than to install it as a museum piece in my closet.

Yet another trap is learned fatigue. As Janice of "The Vivienne Files" says, "We tire of our clothes before they tire of us." If there is one habit I have tried to undo, it's that. 

I've worn the same bright, snuggly wool muffler nearly every cold day for five years. Recently, I found myself trolling for a new one. The whiny, demanding voice of boredom had crept in.  

I examined my consumer-programmed attitude. Had anyone ever said, "Don't you ever wear another muffler? No. Do I have other mufflers I can rotate in if needed? Yes. And mufflers eventually vanish from coat-checks or are left on buses. Never retire one, it will leave on its own! 

I bow before Kurosawa's wisdom: I don't need what I don't need.

Having discovered the good sense of the decades-old advice in "Simple Isn't Easy" by Amy Fine Collins and the late Olivia Goldsmith, I see that finding your look and refusing anything else feels like a rut only if you buy, literally, new-is-better propaganda.

So, first purchases of 2013 (and the only ones till the leaves are out) was this Eric Bompard extrafine cashmere shirt, simple, easy and on sale, for which I waited. 

I also bought three pairs of slim fine-wale cords from Land's End. They'll be right for our chilly spring and the colours, lavender, parchment and vermilion, take me out of winter black. At $17 a pair (sale price) and free shipping, good buy.

Jewelry is my Achilles' Heel, so I try to save for the occasional indulgence. Beauty can override need; as a creator of breathtaking images, Kruosawa would understand. There will always be room for a graceful pair of earrings.

But not a muffler. 

Wanted: Harder reading for 2013

How hard is your reading?  By 'hard', I mean reading that pushes you beyond merely pleasurable entertainment, works that make you pause to savour a sentence's sheer grace or provocative power.

Mine could be more challenging. I try to choose carefully; each weekend, I scan the New York Times Book Review, and check online reviews. Sometimes I search "best of" lists for the current or preceding years or dive into the late-life reading of a classic that I missed. But my research can fail. 

Praised in the Book Review, Amber Dermont's "The Starboard Sea" was so leadenly-plotted that I jumped ship. Other well-reviewed books which didn't satisfy included Chris Pavone's "The Expats", Frank Langella's "Dropped Names" (which I chose for good dish, but Langella is neither consummate chef nor charming maitre d'), and Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl", which was almost there.

I flogged my way through Edward St. Aubyn's three Patrick Melrose novels without pause: the delineation of pain was nearly unbearable, the writing a glittering Waterford tumbler... smashed on the floor. I bore "Alys, Always" by Harriet Lane  and "The Sense of an Ending" by the always-excellent Julian Barnes with more ease; both are idiosyncratic but stop short of St. Aubyn's unremitting abasement.

The rich, historic world of Amitav Ghosh's "River of Smoke" and "Sea of Poppies", followed by Katherine Boo's unsentimental "Behind the Beautiful Forevers", gave me my fix of India, past and present.

But last year, too many books felt insubstantial, and I have only so many reads left. When my mother was 95, I found her reading E.L. Doctorow's "The March" at her dining table because she couldn't hold the book. What an example!

My friend Michel is listening only to Beethoven these days; he says he's not wasting his time on inferior music. I'm importing his attitude to books (though not reading solely one author), declining junk food novels and pop-tart tell-alls. 

But I do want the page to turn; I shy from novels as tortuously inscrutable as "The Island of Second Sight" by Albert Vigoleis Thelen, now on Le Duc's side of the bed.

Any recommendations?

I'll tackle those after I finish Louise Erdich's "The Round House" and Alice Munro's "Dear Life", though most Munro stories will be re-reads. Anyone reading in French? Eric Dupont's "La fiancée américaine" is a must!

Are you happy with your level of reading? What's "hard" for you? Have your tastes changed?


Earrings and glasses: Pairs and possibilities

Reader LauraH asked, "As a fellow glasses-wearer and jewellery maven, do you have any advice about combining them with earrings?"

I wear glasses only for close work; they're not on my face all day. But as I thought about it, there are a few ideas swirling there in the background.

Let's deconstruct the elements and begin with glasses, which are an accessory stuck to your face. Imogen Lamport of Inside Out Style has written some useful posts on choosing glasses, like this one.

Adding earrings piles another visual element on that face. You'll be the judge of how busy you want to get, but if you (and I) aren't careful, we can pile on a lot, because you can come to think of your glasses as just part of you.

High-info frames

Lafont's "Borgia" is an intriguing frame I'd be tempted to own as a second or third pair. But there's a lot of visual information here, and if you pick the frame in red, hel-lo! But I have at least one glassy-lassie friend who would wear the heck out of these.

With them, I'd choose pearl studs, for example. I'd save to get them big, with gorgeous overtones, like this 12mm Kasumi pair from Kojima Company; price, $1,250. These are hardly retiring earrings but they do not fight with the frame's detail.

If you're a brave girl, you could ramp up the visual energy and wear something that goes toe to toe with the frame, like a pair of retro ruby and diamond earrings set in 14k, from Beladora. (Price, $1,450.) As you would expect, the clothes with this are architect-office quiet.

Medium-info frames

Kate Spade's Lucyann is the style I'm wearing currently. Though an anonymous commenter advised a change, they work for me, and I can wear several types of  earrings with them.

Most winter days I'll choose small diamond studs because the screw-backs hold securely as I whip hats or earmuffs off. I also wear a pair of John Hardy earrings similar to those below, from Beladora: the 18k/sterling mix blends with other metals easily (Price, $250).

 Lightweight metal frames

Metal frames, especially the light, spare type, add minimal information, but if you wear that frame with metal earrings, that's a lot of hard texture at your face. It will look alright, but it's a colder effect, as shown by this Vera Wang black titanium pair, which I like very much. They are graceful and clean but lack the warmth of the acrylics, especially those with laminated colour or tortoise-shell mottles. 

With them, I'd choose an earring that's more gem than metal, like Gabrielle Sanchez' amethyst globes, $1,250 at TwistOnline.) Nor would I confine the earring setting to a dark metal unless I wanted that goth-girl effect.

In a drop earring, Beth Orduna's lavender-grey drop hoops soften the metal and add the always-magical glow of pearl. (Price, $308 at TwistOnline.)

And, LauraH and others, how often do you update your frames? Do you choose for yourself or take an optician's advice? My friends Alice teases her husband: his aviators, over 30 years old, are now back in style.

But we don't want to wait out a turn of the retro wheel!

Wardrobe value, Part Two: The Three Questions

What am I thinking when I try something on? I ask myself Three Questions:

Question #1: The Fundamental
"What am I doing when I'm wearing this?

I imagine real-life scenarios, and they'd better flow freely.

Useful corollaries: Do I have at least three things that go with it? Will I need to buy new shoes? Is it a duplicate?

The reversable sari-silk stole at left made the cut; it goes with everything from jeans to a dress and rolls up to nothing in a bag. It's from a private sale held by Toronto's Kalabandar.
Question #2: Mood 
"How do I feel in this?" 

The answer will fall into to one of three categories:

A. Positive

Responses like confident, clever, capable, energetic, attractive, happy, "absolutely right", distinctive, quirky, wild, elegant, pretty, graceful, or a simile that reflects qualities you admire ("I feel like Audrey Hepburn") indicate a contender.

Two 2012 purchases, a v-neck sweater (Brora) and narrow, stretchy kick-pleated skirt (Lunn), felt absolutely right for me.

B. Coherent
The answer reflects the desire to transmit a consistent image that meets my or others' expectations

Those responses include appropriate, professional, like my employer/clients/students/family/ expect me to look– or a label: like a lawyer/sales manager/teacher/retiree. 

Years ago, I actually bought business wear with the words offends no one in mind! While there's nothing wrong with looking the part, to be happy rather than merely satisfied, I ought to respond with one or more words from the Positive list, too.

I'll reject anything that elicits tired, like my 24-year-old niece, or hot as Dita... but this is supposed to be for work.

C. Safe:

If I answer okay, or another lifeless word like good or nice, I'm  going to waste money, because I got something forgettable. My Texan nephew once saw me unpack a skirt like this and try it on; he said, "No. It's dead from the ass, both ways." 

Question #3: Fit
Does it fit?

Presumably, if you feel terrific in it, it fits. Still, I've had label lust and/or size vanity: Look, I can get into an 8! Who cares about that little gap at the chest, I'll just get a better bra.

If it needs more than a straightforward alteration, leave it. Forget "five or ten pounds from now".

Corollaries: Don't welcome a new colour into your wardrobe unless you realized that pale blue is now beautiful with your newly-grey hair, before you went shopping. Close your ears to the saleswomen saying, "No, really, you can wear salmon", if you haven't even a scarf that shade.

Though I budget, I don't think "I'd never pay more than $x for a pair of pants", for example. The point is value, not price. However, some clothes are overpriced and I won't serve as a walking billboard for any designer.

Several friends with whom I shopped last year remarked that Question #1, which they heard me asking myself, helped them, too. There must be other great questions out there. I look forward to hearing those from you!

Wardrobe value, Part One: 2012 Report Card

In January, I assess the stars and clunkers of the past year's wardrobe purchases. 2012 was unusual: First, I lost several treasured pieces of jewelry that I replaced. Second, I dropped two sizes, so there were tailor's bills and a few replacement pairs of pants that I normally wouldn't have to buy.

Maybe I'll earn an A if only because most of my 2012 budget was spent on "A"s: Alterations and Accessories.

Here's an atypical purchase: a jersey Doris Streich dress in a bold pattern, bought for a summer party. Such a departure for me!

Supremely comfortable, it was worn several times and I hope will be useful for upcoming occasions and hot-weather travel, if its needed alteration is successful. Still, it is "that dress" and proves the shorter shelf-life of pattern or print. 

The citron green "Emma" dress (by Muriel Dombret) was worn far more, quickly earning its price.


Above, two accessory purchases: a pair of sand Arche sandals (washable nubuck!) and a leaf-green Groom bag, a replacement for a worn-out one. The costliest single item was the reno of my fur coat.
After four years of diligent tracking, I could stop record-keeping, but will continue. Without that accounting, impulse-spending and excessive stockpiling creep in.

Do you record your purchases? What has returned exceptional value and what was merely "a good idea at the time"? 

Next Tuesday, Part Two: The Three Questions I ask before buying.

Carless at last!

It's long been a dream of mine to live again without a car. When I was single, thirty years ago, people tried to give (or lend) me cars; I always refused.

With family life came two sequential, nearly identical Volvo wagons. Le Duc babied that car for 17 years, and it ran–still runs–with stolid dependability, a Harrison Ford of a vehicle.

Long may you run

I liked its cheery cherry boxiness, tight turning radius, dog and child-accommodating bench seats. Privately, however, I bided my time. One day, I dreamed, we would go car-free.

I can't stand depreciating assets; I'm aggrieved when something costly erodes. It's not just a matter of burning fossil fuels, spewing emissions, all that environmental stuff– though I'm on board with that, too.

Cars generate stress for me. I don't enjoy driving, I don't like the expense, and who was the jerk who drove into our trunk and then took off, last month?

So, we did it. We had originally planned to sell the car when we moved to Montréal, but Le Duc wasn't ready. Then, one day he was; might have been one of those $110 fill-ups. A genial professor bought it within a few days of posting on Kijiji.

This decision is possible because of our transit-rich neighbourhood: two bus routes stop in front of our building; two subway lines are a three-minute bus ride or ten-minute walk. There are two Communauto car rentals a few blocks away, a longer-term car rental agency just down the street, a Bixi (rental bike) stand at the corner, and, if feeling flush, a cab stand across the street. Le Duc has a bike. About all we're missing is a helipad on the roof.

And, since the major expense categories for seniors are housing and transportation, reducing the transit cost by hundreds of dollars a month would free up money for other priorities.

People say, "Well, I'd do that too, but I need my car." Some who think they require one or multiple cars may find that with planning or re-orientation, they don't. (I've always chosen where I live with commuting time and transit options top of the list.)

We have friends in Toronto who went decades without a car, even with a child. Now in their sixties, they bought one. So, each person decides whether and when. We may find that we want a car; I won't say need. It won't be need; it will be for the ease, the convenience.

We'll see. We are learning as we go what's necessary and what's habit, in this stage of life.

And right now, two months into no car, I love it; Le Duc is still seeing. Cars are very deep with guys.

Pearls: Downton Abbey's '20s treasures

Happy New Year!

January 6 is the long-awaited North American return of "Downton Abbey", but thanks to a son's technical abilities, I raced through all of Season 3 over the holidays. Inspired and heart-wrenching season (that's all I'll say), with a bonus feature: fabulous pearlwatching in the Abbey and beyond!

The Countess of Grantham is costumed in pearls that would look perfect 90 years later, and it is she, as you would expect, who wears the largest, most luminous necklaces and earrings:

Lady Mary, Lady Edith and Aunt Rosamund typically wear ropes of smaller pearls, knotted or simply loose:

In the Roaring Twenties, these would have been natural pearls; culturing was in its infancy. A rope of small pearls such as Lady Mary wears above would still have been a serious piece of jewelry. Pearls from Scottish rivers–now nearly extinct–were prized. (Lady Sibyl, now married to Branson, is not costumed in pearls, to underscore her new status and far more modest married life.)

The pearls cast their timeless effect, lightning the women's faces and flattering evening and daywear. They retain their magic today, though we rarely dress for dinner in magnificent embroideries or attend a cricket match in ecru chiffon. 

2013 picks

To join the Abbey's beauties, I'd look for a versatile yet 'strong' piece that has something of the unusual about it, but also retains the glow and elegance of the gem.

Present day pearls exhibit a wider range of colour and shape than ever before, and you don't need a fortune to afford a stunning choice. Silver-blue baroque akoyas, natural colour in a generous 9mm-9.5mm size, are $522 for an 18-inch necklace, from Pearl Paradise.

A white, pink and grey freshwater 8.5-9mm strand from Winterston is on sale till January 20 (or while supplies last) for £215. The whites and pinks are natural, the grey is dyed.

This vintage garnet, pearl and diamond necklace was made thirty years later (ca. 1950) but is decidedly Cora Crawley, charming yet idiosyncratic. Price, $595 at Beladora II.

Ninety years after they cozied up to coronets, pearls have stepped beyond the aristocratic realm, beautiful as ever but infinitely more affordable. 

So, beginning Sunday evening, watch away and enjoy, including the parade of pearls!