Buying jewellery: Is it really "handmade"?

Just back from our largest artisanal craft show, the Salon des métiers d'art de Montréal, and though I didn't buy anything, one thing stood out like a 10-carat diamond: the increasingly broad interpretation of the term "handmade".

I could get into technical weeds here, no fun for either of us, and besides, I'm not a jeweller— so I'll use an analogy. There are various ways a piece of jewellery can be made, something like making a bakery cake.

Level 1: Mass-produced
This is like commercial cake that's sold at Costco, so a cake bought Montréal is identical to the one in Ft. Myers, and thousands are pumped out.

For jewellery, all components of the piece's production are made by machine, and in some cases, assembled robotically.

Advantages: Each piece is exactly like the rest of the run. The producer realizes economies of scale and may pass this on to the consumer.
Disadvantages: Because the production is often by the hundreds or thousands, some of its character is eroded. Settings tend to be lightweight to maximize profit, and fine details are far less often used, but 3D printing does allow for some dazzling effects.

Example: 14k bar necklace,

Level 2: Hand-assembled from mass-produced elements
The piece is like the commercial cake above, supplied to a neighbourhood bakery by a commissary and then is hand-decorated by writing "Happy Birthday Mitzi" on it.

Advantages: The craftsperson can shop for the elements that personalizes the piece or reflects her brand's look. Though the elements may be mass-produced, the designer can combine them in novel ways.
Disadvantages: Still looks anodyne unless the craftsperson has unusual sources or collects unique, often vintage elements; a good example of such elements is the work of Grainne Morton, like these mismatched earrings:
This is the level you'll see at many craft shows, where you might notice the same feather charm or arrow on several sellers' items. Jewellery at this level can be expensive; price is not a reliable indicator of how it was made.

Some jewellers order "blanks", mass-manufactured ring settings, in which they set stones. At a craft show I heard one vendor say, "We set this by hand", as if that was really somethin'.

Level Three: Hand-cast jewellery
That's the cake baked on the premises, either displayed in the case, or available by order. You won't find that cake anywhere else unless someone copies it.

The jewellery equivalent is a piece created from elements made by the artisan. She may make these in quantity, but they exist nowhere else, or, if it is a more generic element like a seashell,  she has cast her own version.

How does she do it? Here's a good, short description of the lost-wax casting process from the zine, Make. (Machine casting is increasingly common and found in both Levels One and Two.) Hand-casting is a demanding process with nerve-wracking moments. There will be a higher price when the hand-cast piece is custom-made.

A cast piece may be delicate or organic, geometric or baroque; the style does not reveal the process. The designer/jeweller may use many other specialists such as setters and polishers to produce the finished piece.

Example: Polly Wales cast 18k yellow gold, sapphire and diamond Lily Pad shield ring:
Advantages: A kind of "best of both worlds" that allows for the designer to execute her vision, but is not as labour-intensive as Level Four. Most jewellery sold as artisanal today is made this way.
Disadvantages: Quality is dependant on the many hands involved. If a mold is used many times, its details can become coarser.

This is the level most often represented as "handmade", but jewellery made by CAD/CAM modelling, metal-printing, wax models and casting should be, according to many jewellers, more accurately described as "hand-finished", as should jewellery assembled with machine-made elements that are then treated (pierced, engraved, hammered, etc.) by the jeweller.

Level Four: Handmade, also called "hand-wrought", "hand-fabricated" or "hand-forged"
The cake is individually made using the baker's intensive skills, for example, using cherries soaked in her proprietary infusion, or icing it with a ganache she has developed and makes from scratch every time.

Advantage: The piece is made by hand from start to finish, using metal-smithing techniques like hammering, tempering and rolling, which alter the molecular structure to make the metal stronger, denser and more resistant to bending. That's a real benefit for something you will wear every day or want to keep for many decades.

Disadvantage: A less-skilled bench jeweller might produce shoddy work. If a piece includes stones, it may be handed to a setter, so both stages need to be done expertly.

I've just visited a craft show where I saw at least a eight young women producing nearly identical tiny 'stick' type earrings. Though handmade, there is neither refined design nor advanced workmanship in these. Why are they everywhere?

Example of an organic hand-forged piece: Dita Allsopp pink tourmaline and sterling silver cuff ring:
But hand-forged does not have to look "earthy"; diamond dangle earrings by Victor Canera are delicate beauties that feature hand-engraving:

Most salespersons do not intentionally lie, and there are blurred boundaries. For example, only a handful of jewellers will hand-fabricate the chain from which a pendant hangs, but might make the pendant entirely by hand.

How do you know?

When you inspect a handmade piece, you will not see mold marks or rough spots that post-casting polishing could not reach, such as the underside of settings.  If there are several of the same items on display, look for tiny variations from one piece to the next.

Ask how the piece was made. It is not essential that a jeweller make a handmade piece entirely herself. Some of the best-known prestige jewellers have not done any bench work since their school days, but they are stellar designers who know how to enlist the talents of the jewellery trade.

Vintage jewellery is far more likely to be handmade, and that is part of its allure. I've often written that "they don't make them like this anymore", another reason to at least visit antique and vintage jewellers and auctions in person or online. (Shown, Edwardian opal and diamond brooch, ca. 1905, from Beladora.)

My last word for 2016: Delightful handmade jewellery can be found for the price of mass-produced, if you explore the work of independent artisans and the world of luscious—but not precious—stones and pearls. (There, I ended the year with "pearls"!)

Time for the Christmas break! I hope you, too, will enjoy the festivities, warmth and friendship of the season. 

The Passage re-opens on Tuesday, January 3, 2017.

When designers depart, why should we care?

In a late-July article in the New York Times, Vanessa Friedman reported that Peter Copping, who recently left Oscar de la Renta after not even two years, was the eighth designer to engage in such a quickie divorce from a major house. My first thought was,"Who cares?"; my ladies-lunch ensemble is usually jeans and a tee.

But then, I thought, Coherence.

Time was when Chanel was where you counted on bouclé and braid, Pucci's signature was a swirling, audacious colourway, and even prêt-a-porter designers like Holly Harp delivered an identifiable aesthetic. Clients were loyal: Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy, Catherine Deneuve in Yves St. Laurent.

When the alpha dogs rotate by the year, the house looses its focus, but more significant for average consumers is that our entry-level designers, so "influenced" by the big names, are cut adrift, their North Star dimmed. The racks end up crammed with trousers cropped at odd lengths and limp, long sweaters that make women look egg-shaped.

Few department store labels show coherence, save exceptions like Eileen Fisher's relaxed rectangles, and in the loftiest reaches, Phoebe Philo's disciplined luxury at Céline.

You might think, "Not my problem; I just want a camel v-neck I can wash." But one day, you might be in a bind like my friend Jill, who enlisted me to shop for a dress for her daughter's informal daytime wedding this weekend.

Jill, 64, doesn't enjoy shopping (which may be why she left it to the week before?); she's happiest in her garden in swimsuit and wellies. She ruled out sleeveless, dislikes prints, and has problem feet which require flats.

At the department store, those criteria disqualified 85% of everything. Jill was utterly unmoved by the four dresses she tried: "What if I just wear my black palazzo pants and a top?" Daughter on phone: "NO". After an hour and a half, we gave up.

On the drive home, we noticed the 60% off sale sign at the George Rech boutique, and I asked her to make one last stop. Triumph! Here's her dress, a sapphire silk which matches her blue eyes exactly!

She said it would not be a one-occasion numbershe'll wear it to a New Year's Eve fundraiser party, and pack it for an upcoming trip to Napa Valley to celebrate a brother-in-law's 70th.

She will wear it with a thin white gold bangle and sparkly "diamond" hoops borrowed from her daughter. I also mused about a pair of cuffs, which could be (in our dreams) these pearl beauties from Beladora:

For shoes, she already owns heels for a brief photo session and ordered Badgely Mischka jeweled flats for the restaurant reception:
Jill also considered this silk dress in soft red, on double markdown, but thought the blue was better for her peach skin tone.

Rech, characterized by a clean-lined but feminine style, good fabrics, and that little extra detail, offered coherent, chic and well-priced (given the sale) choices. (Womens' sizes will find similar at Marina Rinaldi.) Coherence reduces time and prevents the error of choosing 'the best of the bunch' from among a dizzying array, even though nothing is really great.

Next time that I'm the friend riding along, I'll suggest we go to one or two boutiques who provide a certain perspective, and skip the department store sea of dresses.

It's not so much that individual designers should stay put, I realized, as that their brands need an identity, so women know where to head. All those style books say "figure out what's you and what's not"; designers should follow that principle for their clothes.

Uneven aging: The Organ Recital

 Margie from Toronto left a comment (excerpt quoted here) in my last post on Uneven Aging: 
"I think the toughest thing for me is dealing with those who do "wallow" - some friends almost seem to see it as a competition - who can be in the most pain - who is taking the most meds - who has the most doctors' appointments! I come from the Stoic end of things - "don't complain - just deal" so, while I try to be sympathetic, in some cases I find that I'm really limiting my time with certain individuals just because of this issue. Any tips on dealing with this part of the equation?"

My initial response to this pertinent question:

"... it is very easy for people to collude. You see it also in the workplace that develops a culture of whining about what's not right. People lose, or seriously impair, their sense of agency. Illness evokes vulnerability, and those feeling shaky can take a certain support from "everybody's going through it". But they can become unaware that continual complaints wear others, and also their own spirit, down. 

Take the breaks you need. If you have a practice that opens your heart so that you can summon compassion in the times you are with those friends, do that. But also, permit yourself breaks and the distance, it's better than sitting there feeling fed up. More to come very soon, thanks so much for the question."

Here's the 'more to come':

The essential step is to deal with yourself before dealing with him or her. 

1. What feelings arise when you are in those conversations? 

Impatience? Boredom? Frustration? Sadness?

If you ignore your emotional responses to such conversation, they build up until you walk out, blow up, or make a sarcastic remark. Try to discriminate between a feeling—genuine emotions— and judgment (
"I feel they are self-absorbed.") or analysis ("Not one of these people knows what it's like to be really sick.")

If  we get stuck in judgment, it's far harder to access compassion. 

2. What would you prefer?

Can you hang in for a bit of medical storytelling but not the entire saga? Or perhaps you are like me with hockey, anything after ten seconds is too much. 

Ask for what you would prefer, in positive language: "I can hang in with the surgical details for another few minutes, but then could we talk about Olga's new apartment?" Saying what you do want is more constructive than saying what you don't.

Why do they go on and on?

At some level most persons know that such conversations suck the life out of an exchange, but they may go ahead anyway. 

Five factors that may be in play:

1. We have created an high-disclosure culture. Programs like The Doctors and Dr. Oz mine health issues, treatment, and endless personal stories— the more graphic the better. Before lunch you can see a stranger's uvula and watch a cardiac catheterization. Provided with these examples, some broadcast matters once kept private.

2. If a person finds a circle who enjoy the topic, that's what they'll talk about. Bridge players can dissect bidding for an entire evening, fishers will parse every catch: you get people with a mutual interest or together, look out.  'Organ recitals' are a way of bonding: we are on this road together. That's powerful when you're scared, and diminished capacity is scary.

The ailment chat is also related to life stage. The job, sports or mom talk is replaced by hernia repairs and knee surgery. When the median age edges past fifty, you'll have to decide if you want to jump in with your blood pressure problem. 

Some persons are more health-focussed than others, but for everyone, aging moves physical concerns up the list. 

3. Behind every complaint is a boast. In this case the boast may be, Hey, I made it through. Hey, I'm still here. The complaint/boast is a fascinating duality, look at it next time you complain.

What to do?

Sometimes, you have the energy to listen and witness friends' experiences. You did this for friends' job losses, for the kids who wanted to talk about broken hearts; heck, I even listened to two hours of an upholsterer's financial problems. 

Other times, you may simply have other needs, for example, for fun, stimulation, learning, or mutuality. (No, it is not just about your gall bladder, Joe). 
When it's an utter drag, you could ask for a change of topic, or, if the rest of the group is hanging on every word, go in the other room and do the dishes, as I did when a woman at an all-woman's dinner party launched into a menopause history longer than a Russian novel.

If you are a stoic, able to bear a great deal on your own, celebrate that quality; realize it is not everyone's bent. When you feel your patience eroding, step back for as long as you need. If your retreat becomes habitual, 
it will be clear you that aren't engaged in those conversations.  

My mom and her friend Mrs. Dean spoke nearly every week for over fifty years. When they were older, Mom would ask, "Naomi, how are you?" and the response was, "Terrific, if you don't ask for details." This was their sole acknowledgement of the infirmities of aging, and their mutual agreement to not dwell on them. 

Probably two women after your own heart, Margie!

Friends: Silver, gold and the second time around

Remember the campfire round,
"Make new friends, but keep the old
one is silver and the other gold"?

I've been in touch over the past months with my best friend from junior high through his school, Susan. (This makes about five close Susanfriends, was there name drought in 1948?)

Neither of us remembers the reason why we lost touch after high school, probably simple geography. I left for university and never really returned; she married at nineteen and moved to Florida. There was no e-mail then, and students didn't make long-distance phone calls to chat.

Though Susan did not attend our 50th class reunion last summer, we became friends on Facebook and then exchanged detailed letters explaining the last half-century.

We are discussing not only sentimental highlights, but events that we didn't understand, or attend to in those years. We see in one another more than traces of our younger personalities.

She defined vivacity: a cheerleader whose red skirt flew out as she spun, who always knew she wanted to be a nurse, though she had a professional-level voice. I was a serious student impatient for a broader world, and saw top grades as an exit strategy.

Her parents were more permissive than mine: she could have a steady boyfriend, her curfew was later, and in our senior year, every once in awhile her mother served us a weak highball. I was envious of her engagement; my mother was not, pointing out that motherhood at nineteen would close certain doors.

But before our lives diverged, neither of us bought a swimsuit, accepted a babysitting gig, or signed up for a student club without consulting the other. We debriefed tests together and plotted to overthrow Ed and Wilbur, two geniuses gunning for top honours. Susan and I seemed to need each other so much then.

One of the factors in our renewed friendship is that we remember one another's parents, though my memory of her father is mainly of a man who came to dinner resigned to bearing the giggles and inanities of two pre-teens over his pot roast. In our teen years, we were allowed trays in the living room, merciful relief for everyone.

I knew the boy she married, an athletic, easy-going fellow we called "cute". They had three children, then divorced after  a dozen years together. Once they were school age, Susan went back to school and became a nurse, fulfilling her dream.

She married him again last week, after a thirty-some year break and other intervening marriages for both. The relationship revived about three years ago, after Steve was widowed. During the ceremony, he said, "I loved you from the first moment I saw you, I always have, and I always will."

A daughter-in-law officiated; her husband texted his siblings, "Today, Becky marries Mom and Dad at my house!"

The cake:

If love is lovelier the second time around, so is our friendship. Sometimes we'd argue until one of us stomped out, repossessed Nancy Drew books in hand; our mothers would phone one another to try to figure out why we were irate one day, inseparable the next. (I refused to attend summer camp because Susan wasn't going.) Now, I think we took out the storms of adolescence on one another.

Coincidentally, one of my friends here told me of calling her best friend in high school, after decades of silence, and talking for two hours. The US election seemed to kick up the desire to affirm old ties of community and contribution.

Have you reconnected with a friend from far in your past? How did it go? Or perhaps you are thinking of doing so now.

I am an immigrant

The pearl earring giveaway is cancelled; the pair I received from the vendor who offered them (no one I have ever mentioned here) were not acceptable, and were immediately returned.

I came to Canada in early 1971 with a shiny M.A., a $3, 000 loan from my parents, and a deep aversion to the Viet Nam war. About to finally join the full-time workforce, I knew that a high percentage of every tax dollar I paid would contribute to the war. I had impression that Canada was good place to spend a few years and gain some work experience, and the small Northern Ontario city where I first moved was only about 90 miles from my home.

Nearly 46 years later, I remain. This summer, I was part of an oral history project about immigration, sponsored by the Canadian Immigration Museum in Halifax, N.S. On a sunny June morning I put on a little makeup and went downtown for my video interview.

Application photo 1971

It's odd to recount your life on camera; I kept seeing faces from that first city: Tony, the kind and brilliant social-service executive, himself an immigrant from Holland; my colleague, Hervé, who told me he absolutely hated Americans (he eventually liked me); my family, who were either entirely supportive (Dad), or sure I would return any month (Mom).

Immigrating to Canada as an American was a cakewalk versus the situation of, say a Somalian or Syrian. I had the language, a job lead, and a couple of Canadian history courses in my pocket. I blended in, even with my Midwestern accent. But I still had to learn the different system of government, cultural norms, and the present concerns of the province and nation.

I came with a girlfriend, Christine, who was a teacher, but would have to re-qualify for a Canadian license, which as I recall now was about a year's course, during which time she would not be able to work. Christine could, however, enter for six months as a visitor. While there, she mounted a determined campaign to secure a marriage proposal from a man she truly did want, but that didn't work and when her clock ran out she returned to Akron, Ohio.

I stayed, at first for the work, then for love—love of both a man and, gradually, a country. The love of the country proved more constant, though just like love of a man, we have sometimes had our differences.

At the policy level, the complex issue of immigration includes considerations of sovereignty, economics, security and international relations. But I was asked, last summer, to speak about the experience.

My adaptation memories remain vivid: wanting to fit in, desperate to contribute as soon as possible. Longing for conversations not to begin with, "Why did you come here?" Trying to read who would be hostile if I spoke about my reason. (I had a family member serving in Viet Nam who was more empathic than some of my interrogators.)

Last weekend, I was in one of those little jumbly shops on Plaza St-Hubert, replacing my puffer coat. (Sidebar: it turns out moths just love fur trim with a down chaser.) I had a convivial exchange with the owner, one of the classic Montréal schmatte-trade men. "Every woman asks me for the one that takes off 20 lbs.", he said, "but... this is down." While I tugged on various models (this time, without fur), he asked, "Where did your people come from?"

His parents came from Hungary. But now we are here, along with so many others, including both sets of my daughter-in-law's grandparents, who arrived with little more than suitcases, started small businesses, and lived to see their children achieve notable careers. For the vast majority, the sequence is survival, then a series of halting, slow steps toward security; a much smaller segment achieve prosperity and even great wealth.

His question is one I will ask anyone who flatly opposes immigration: "Where did your people come from?" Everyone's family has someone with a suitcase, perhaps with children in tow, uncertain and hopeful, even if you have to go back many generations. (As a First Peoples friend of mine says when he hears Canadians carp, "Does this mean you're going home now?")

And in the case of refugees, the newcomers must deal with harrowing loss. My ex-husband's maternal grandparents awoke in Dublin to find their coffins on the porch with a note giving them eight hours to leave; they did, but his grandmother lost the baby she was carrying.

Not all stories are successes. A young Rwandan refugee whom my daughter-in-law helped sponsor got in with a bad crowd and was murdered last summer. If immigration were indisputably beneficial, there would not be such debate and dissent in every host country.

I do not want to diminish the essential issues of whom and how many a country admits, and the effect of immigration on citizens. But in North America, when a rigid and fear-driven nationalism gains ground, the assertion that most problems are caused because those people are here is increasingly unchallenged.

On a frigid February afternoon in 1971, I walked out of a government office with a country's promise that if I behaved responsibly, I was in—not yet a citizen but allowed to do the important things: work, get healthcare, canoe and go to Rush concerts. Friends came over for cake and coffee, even a glum Christine.

It was not that I didn't want to be an American (I have remained a citizen), it was that I sought a harbour from a tragic, futile war. Little did I know I would come to revere not just the harbour, but the entire ocean. 

Uneven aging: Navigating disabilities

I live with a partner who became disabled in middle age, as have friends and neighbours.

Le Duc is hearing-impaired. He says this is a particularly difficult disability, because people (including me) grow frustrated easily and sometimes imply he's tuning out of a conversation on purpose. He can't tolerate loud restaurants or raucous parties. Movies must have subtitles, and theatre or concerts are out, even from the first row. Though he wears high-tech hearing aids, they only help so much.

As we age, it's likely one partner will be afflicted by either the standard-issue disabilities like impaired hearing or vision, but also less-visible problems, such as mental health issues.

One day you notice something's not the same, or there may be a gradual accumulation of events that suggest symptoms. (Sometimes the afflicted person raises the matter; that's courageous.)

When you broach the topic, the first thing you'll notice is denial. No, I can see fine, I'm just tired. I don't need a hand, the bus is lurching. My mother says I've always been forgetful. The healthier partner must take the first step of tough love: a calm observation of facts. And if the afflicted partner wonders, Where is this going? that recitation of evidence can sound like the first step to relationship breakdown.

When a couple has adult children, they can help by providing more evidence, but, and I can't stress this enough, the evidence must be coupled with the reassurance that there are supportive devices and accommodations. If not, such stark and disruptive loss is too much to bear.  For Le Duc, we knew what would help—hearing aids—and eventually he accepted them.

There are assists for all disabilities, but they rarely return full function. So, after denial comes grieving for the time when the partner didn't need anything—and both partners grieve. The grief of the afflicted partner is especially keen: the awareness that she is always going to have a pacemaker, that she needs medication or therapy (perhaps not covered by insurance), or that this might be as good as it gets, sends even the most resilient person into a spin.

In some cases, disability results from an acute illness. Rachel survived late-stage cancer, but has lingering effects from treatment. For a year after she was cleared, she felt flat and disembodied.  When people told her how lucky she was, she agreed politely but didn't share their elation. Only friends who had lived though similar ordeals knew that getting your life back does not mean you get the same life back.

What do you do, when you have a partner who was hale and is now halt, who was vital and is now brought low? What if you were cheerfully planning adventures that must now be postponed? It's facile to say, Well, you deal with it.

The able partner is now in a metaphoric sack race, tied to the disabled partner, becoming his or her ears, eyes or limbs, as best we can.

When disability happens after years together, we enter the situation handicapped ourselves, lulled by decades of a beloved bounding out of bed, portaging a canoe, or singing all twenty verses of an obscure English folk ballad. Now we must redistribute daily chores, make sure assistance is discreetly available, and create a social life that evokes enjoyment rather than frustration. We decline some invitations, and participate with enthusiasm in those that suit Le Duc's needs; I sometimes go alone.

Parents of disabled children have immeasurable wisdom to offer; they've been at it longer, figuring out how to make the best life possible for the child they love. And if they have any energy left, they are busy advocating for better care, more resources, for research to cure these conditions.

These parents say one thing repeatedly: give the person credit for managing rather than remembering the way things were. The disabled partner is bound to be blue sometimes, so the other has to stay reasonably centred herself. As the mother of a 37 year old quadraplegic told me recently, "I tell her, the best 'assistive device' she has is between her ears." 

Her remark reminded me of Betty, a work colleague who got around in a wheelchair. A group of girlfriends would take her drinking after work on Fridays; we found a pub with good, wide doors on the bathroom stalls. One evening, toward the end of our enthusiastic Happy Hour par-tay, we hit the loo before heading out. We got her jeans down and were easing her onto the toilet, but dropped her at the crucial moment. Betty whooped as we wiped our shoes. "You guys", she said, "are in way worse shape than I am!"

The door swung open and a strange woman looked at us, helpless with laughter, and said, "Having fun, ladies?"

We were.

Three steps to picking perfect pearls

Note: I planned a pearl earring draw this week, but have not yet received them from the vendor. That post will be up when they arrive. 

Black Friday, Cyber Monday and other pre-holiday sales have unleashed a torrent of pearl promotions, and a number of (always-welcome) e-mails from readers eyeing these. My suggestions might interest you, too. Note: Pieces shown today may have recently sold; prices are in US dollars.

I advise everyone to go through three steps.

1. Know your (or the recipient's) "pearlsonality".

From ladyperson Ardith (white near-rounds) to surfer-chick Suzanna (single Tahitian on a leather cord), getting the vibe right precedes everything else. If they're not the wearer's style, they will languish in a drawer, weeping little lonely-pearl tears.

The biggest mistake: Buying too-formal pearls. Think of your smart-casual clothes, like a sweater and trousers, and if the pearls can't be worn with that, keep looking.

Because reputable vendors typically have 30-day full-refund policies, you have leeway. If buying for yourself, take advantage of sales; if it's a Christmas gift, you may have to give it a touch early to be in the full-refund window. (No one would mind, do you think?)

2. Set your budget by the maximum price or a range.

The corollary: Get good value from that budget, even the double-digit one.

You will generally do better with pearl-specialist vendors than those who carry a wide range of jewellery, and of course if you want a prestige label you'll pay a premium.  One woman wrote to ask what I thought of Gump's (gorgeous pearls, high prices but watch for sales and markdowns); regular readers know I lean toward other vendors unless price is no object.

A man who did not ask my opinion went to Tiffany's Fifth Avenue store, bought his sweetheart a conservative, expensive necklace (too small for her if you ask me), then sat back to reap his praise. From her reaction, I could tell that she too found them small; she's from Hong Kong and knows her pearls. His budget drove the size, and he had to have that blue box, so the gift ended up less than satisfying.

The well-known online vendors (Pearl Paradise, Pearls of Joy, Pure Pearls, and others) offer pearls at good—and sometimes sensational—prices, and some feature unusual varieties like blue akoyas, the CFW "Edison" or fancy-colour Tahitians. Kojima Company is my favourite source for unique, idiosyncratic pearls; in theirs, I'm used to being asked "Where did you get those?" (I have no affiliation with any vendor.)

The craft and art shows that spring up like poinsettias around the holiday season provide choice, but not necessarily good value. Often they are staffed by persons who know very little about pearls; if one more friendly vendor tells me her pearls are "natural", I will whack her behind with a cedar bough.

Such shows are the place to buy, for example, attractive handmade pearl and silver earrings, but not a strand of fine pearls, unless an exceptional jeweller like Québec City's Celine Bouré of Kokass is in the house.

It's useful to know a little about pearls; for example, a black pearl that's anything other than Tahitian will be dyed; a 'chocolate' pearl is always dyed or bleached (natural-colour chocolates are rare as hen's teeth); and if you prefer rounds, graduated strands cost less than matched size.

Saltwater pearls cost more than freshwater, but a top grade Chinese freshwater can outglow a dull Tahitian, so don't buy based solely on origin.

Pearl grading is not standardized, so "AAA grade" is the seller's opinion. Pearl specialists are very willing to talk to you about the quality between their AA and AAA grades, and want you to be happy.

So you would think, that's it: figure out the pearl type and then get the best quality for your budget. Not so fast, sister.

The last step is the difference between okay and oooohhhh,

3. Open to the magic; buy from the heart as well as the piggybank.

Remember that hat you bought on a trip to London, the one that gives you Greta Garbo cheekbones? Or that grey-green-what-colour-is-it sweater you found in a secondhand store that is nothing like anything you own, but perfect?

Pearls are organic and mysterious, open to their charisma.

At this third step, all kinds of things have happened:
- "To hell with the budget!"

One woman, buying for herself, moved up several hundred dollars when she found a luscious necklace that murmured "mine".

Shown: Necklace of wire-wrapped South Sea banded drops, a mammoth 23mm x 18.5mm Chinese flame ball centre pearl and a blue sapphire accent bead: now that's some joy! Price, $702 at Kojima Company (sale on now, 18% less!)

I have at times advised someone to either wait and save till the budget matches their vision—or spend the entire budget on one or two stunning pearls.

Roxanne, shopping for her sister's retirement gift, realized her $100 budget would not cover a fine pair of earrings, but would accommodate a single jaw-dropper, like this Rikitea Island black pearl pendant, about $55 from DruzyDesign. (This is Carolyn Ehret's eBay store, a haven for pearl lovers.) Sister already has the gold chain, so a spectacular pearl pendant gives new life to her collection.

Open your eyes to the entire world of pearls.

A man who thought pearls were always round and white found a lavender strand to enchant his brunette partner.  (He told me, "I never knew pearls like this existed.") Shown, 30-inch 11.5mm oval to near-round lavender pearl necklace, Regular price, $1, 080 at Kojima Company, but that sale knocks a good chunk off.

And finally, consider fresh, current styles. While I'd never turn down a string of Mikimoto's finest, I also love funky, casual pearls done with a light-hearted hand.

Ginette asked for something "casual, current and under $75". I spent a couple of hours trolling Etsy, determined to find a few choices. With small businesses, you may not have the full-refund 30-day option, so check their policy before ordering.

Hip rubber necklace with scattered freshwater pearls to wrap or wear long, from FrankIdeas, about $70 (plus shipping and applicable tax or duties); this comes in several colours. She could also wear it wrapped around the wrist.

Also well within budget is a juicy pink moonstone stretch bracelet with a 14mm baroque FW pearl dangle charm (detachable), about $55 from IMaccessory. (The smaller bracelet is sold separately.)

IMaccessory also make other versions of this piece, and accept custom orders.

If you're buying a gift, order soon so you can return or exchange if necessary. It's worth the hunt; you'll have so much pleasure from that pearl.

Jewellery: Pulling classics into current

When I glance at arms and hands, I see many such 'classics': the rolling ring (Cartier or a copy), the diamond (or cz) tennis bracelet, the Van Cleef (or not) Alhambra clovers, and enough Pandora bracelets to circle the world.

Such designs have earned a place in showcases and hearts, but their longevity can make them look dated. There's a way to have your classic and look current: mix the much-seen with something more unusual. (All prices in $US unless noted.)

Punching up Pandora

Pandora or similar charm bracelets are busy pieces, so I would tweak them with clean, geometric design, and if it wouldn't break hearts, swap out the more jeune-fille charms like the little girl or teddy bear.

The trick is avoiding more filigree and ornamentation, but also steering clear of too-stark design that results in a clash. Look for just enough detail.

Budget zhuzh: Jane Diaz' "diamond" pendant; gold-plated brass on a black silk cord. Price, $88.

A Modernist Bernard Chaudron bronze and enamel pendant has the fluidity and texture for the nuggety charms, and you are not going to find this in a mall window! Price, $CDN 130 from Samantha Howard. 

 Balance for bangles

Many women's arms tell stories of milestones and memories via their bangles. Above, the ring shown on the bangle hand gets lost; I would replace it with a bold stone of texture and depth.

A 46-carat ring of green pryhenite stands up to the stack. This example is from EdwardOwl; price, about $290.

For those who thrilled by colour, Murano glass rings are marvelous buys. I especially like this sleek slice of blues with gold leaf—and the price: about $35! From MysteryofVenice.

Rolling, revised
At least twice a week I see a woman in a rolling ring, and always admire it.  Though modern, its design contrasts wonderfully with Victorian or Edwardian pieces, and the juxtaposition warms up the design's iconic cool.

I'd wear it with a Late Victorian (ca. 1880) silver and rose gold bracelet; price $1, 200 from Isadoras Antique Jewelry.

Another way to wear a classic modern ring: add unusual Edwardian earrings, but that might be a bigger spend. Warned you, now here they are: moonstones and diamonds set in silver and gold; price, $2, 775.

 Tennis: Play mixed doubles
The tennis or line bracelet of diamonds or simulants has not flagged since Chris Evert was Chrissie. But on a grown woman, they look more modern combined with a second, less generic bracelet.

If you're up for a cheeky twist, try this Hermès penguin bangle, about $450:

A woman in my building pairs a formidable one with Swarovski's Stardust double bracelet; price, $79. I like the edge of hers in grey, but it also comes in eighteen colours!

Some styles time out

When I think of taking on Yurman-type cable bracelets, floating heart pendants, or 1980s gold 'power' necklaces, my wrists go weak. They had their moment, but, like '70s padded-shoulder jackets, there is no plausible companion piece that extends their lifespan. Perhaps they could be worn ironically by a girl with very short bangs and a leather kilt.

If you have good materials, repurpose them in a new design.

Reader Kirsten Giving recently showed me a graceful piece made by Montréal jeweller Janis Kerman, using a client's material. Ideal way to recycle gold, and neither the petal pearl nor the small smokey quartz round are costly.

Made me wish I had something that's past its time. Sometimes you find the jeweler, than sift down to the bottom of your box for some unworn items!

Try your luck to win free matching leggings

TumTum & TukTuk is my daughter-in-law Tash's Etsy shop, where she sells her funky and well-made leggings for tiny kids, senior kids, and (by order) adults. She's been happily surprised by the reception; mamas from Canada to Norway are ordering her designs.

Tash is presently running a contest, open to all, in which she's giving away two matching pairs, so you'd have a gift for two little ones, or a pair for the snapper and for yourself—they make great grownup pjs or long johns. Grandson Émile models with his mother, above. Someone has to fill the Ramones' shoes.

To enter, go to TumTum Facebook link, where it's easy to sign on for the draw. (You must have a Facebook account.) Note that entries are accepted through Friday, Nov. 29.

Other contest news: I'll present my first ever pearl earring giveaway very soon, so check back next week.

In the meantime, if you simply must have pearls right now, what about these? (This is not the giveaway pair, but a stellar example of a jeweller's art.) 

Atelier Munsteiner aquamarine and Tahitian pearl earrings. Note the unusual and striking 'icicle cut' of those aquas and the lustre of the pearls. Price, $12, 970 at Szor Collections on First Dibs.   

Brand new leopardskin

Last week was a bear, for me, for many. First, the US election stunned.  Aware of the promises of the President-elect, I reflected on my family's experience as immigrants, which ranges from the present—my own—and also those of five preceding generations, my forebears and those of my extended family who arrived in desperate circumstances from Ireland, Russia, Germany, France.

Then, I had a serious, expensive, heartbreaking computer issue. (Isn't it weird that a PowerBook can break your heart?) Le Duc had thought he'd backed up my computer but that big data storage key was empty—and I lost almost everything, which led to marital tensions.

Leonard Cohen died, and though he had spoken eloquently of his readiness in a moving New Yorker interview by David Remnick, I was bereft.

Other worrying matters piled on. A dear friend suffers from the return of episodic depression, a son struggles to secure enough paid hours to survive, my father-in-law was admitted to hospital in dwindling health.

Reader, I caved and bought a leopard-print coat.

Though secondhand, it was pristine. I buttoned it on and felt much better—even though I looked like Cyndi Lauper's mother. Thanks to a substantial padded lining, I can wear it till our bitterest cold sets in. It does need to be dry-cleaned, but the cotton velours print is forgiving.

Le Duc was amused; he quoted Dylan, in whom he has been immersed since Bob received the Nobel:
"Well you look so pretty in it
Honey can I jump on it sometime?
Yes I just wanna see
If it's really that expensive kind..." 

It's not "that expensive kind": $69 all in. That coat is not going to change history, bring back a bard, or provide my son with more stable work. But it did make my friend, whom I met for Sunday brunch, grin. (Good news there: she has excellent treatment and is confident she'll recover.)

In years past, during of jump-out-of-my-skin stress, I have bought something as "therapy". (Stupidest: an unconscionably expensive face cream no different from Nivea.) Then I'd feel even even worse, guilty and furious with myself. So this coat countered my consumption habits and my usual colour choices, black and navy.

And yet, I have no remorse. Could it be that just sometimes something you wear helps? Or is it that it's leopard?


Paris: The inner woman

Le Duc rented a bike in Paris, and would return with sightings of places that he thought would interest me. One day, he mentioned a lingerie boutique, Laure Sokol, in whose window he saw the kind of lingerie that makes a man apply the brakes.

We have long had a low-key lingerie dispute; he would give me delicate pieces that were unsupportive and—how to say this—shifted. He eventually granted my request for brands like Hanro, in practical black and nude, but every so often I'd receive a gift of his true preference, lacy, silky, lushly coloured, French.

I knew what to expect at Sokol, so at first said I would not even window shop. But in Paris, just as you might eat a butter-fragrant croissant that you'd pass up at home, a woman gets caught up in a glow of indulgence. I had already swooned over couture lingerie in Carine Gilson's window, where, I learned, George Clooney shops. (I briefly entertained an image of Clooney in a silk jacquard negligée.)

Sabbia Rosa are next door; several of their signature silk camisoles are in my drawer.

On the aptly-named Rue des Dames, we walked past the atelier of Louise Feuillère, whose bespoke lingerie, including corsets, offer a world antithetical to Spanxy shapewear. It is open by appointment only, and I demurred, saying that if I entered, I'd inevitably order, and the pieces did not suit everyday life.

Mme. Feuillère offers a number of lingerie workshops for sewists, and that would interest me. Imagine building a trip to Paris around learning to make such confections!

One morning, hooking my plain beige Olga, I had a change of heart. A poll of two French girlfriends I saw on the trip confirmed that I was lingerie-dowdy. One wears Aubade, Simone Perele, and Princesse Tam-Tam (she is very small-busted); the other is devoted to Ères.

I was (at that point) decidedly under budget for the trip, so decided to up my game, went to Sokol, received expert, efficient fitting, and returned home with a Conturelle bra and slip, setting me back about $200 because you simply must match. But I have to say, that beautiful, supportive bra lifts not only my bosom but my spirits.

It is not for nothing that Paris has lingerie shops on nearly every corner, and even department stores carry prestige brands. There are three distinct levels: Plenty of inexpensive foam-formed bras at Etam and at Monoprix; then the boutiques, with better-to-high-end brands (Empreinte, Simone Perele, Lise Charmel, Rosy, etc.), and at the seductive summit, the luxury bespoke boutiques mentioned above.

Mid-priced is harder to find; department stores offer a smattering of brands like Calvin Klein, but not once did I see a floor with a sea of Olga, Bali or Warners like I'm used to here.

I also looked for a branch of Change, the Danish lingerie brand whose shop offers pretty pieces for less than French or other European makers. But they have no boutiques in France, which may mean they know competition when they see it.


Paris: The outer(wear) woman

A preamble to say that I have received many e-mails from American friends, indicating their shock over their election. They wonder what to do now, in a time of agitation and uncertainty. One friend's young adult daughter lives in the US with her American husband; she was heartbroken by the result, but in the earliest morning hours, N. wrote her mother,  " democracy begins in our small community, and I see strength in our growing culture. With no leader. Our collective voice, hearts and work are the light with which I welcome the new day." She is referring to a civic role that is not wholly dependent on electoral politics. No matter which side you were on—and I write this as a US citizen, as well as a Canadianeach of us can contribute, or not, to a stronger community. That's what I keep telling myself today.

Filing the fashion report, now.

If, as Thomas Friedman wrote, The World is Flat, the style world is ever more Homogenized. So I saw the same horizontally-quilted light down jackets in Paris as well, everywhere, the same black 3/4 length topper as is worn in Montréal, the same twisted or flung scarves. That's not to say, ho-hum, but this is Paris.

Years ago, I asked myself, What is a key difference? and settled, almost eight years ago to the day, on the preponderance of 'strict' clothing in France as opposed to embellished, detailed daywear sold in North America. But that distinction has eroded, as COS, Everlane and even the quieter corners of J. Crew make pared-down clothes available online, and the aesthetic has reached North American department stores who carry lines like The Row.

What is noticeably different still is a refined eye and acceptance of beauty that leads a woman to wear flat-heeled plum suede over-the-knee boots, matching tights, a knee-length charcoal knit cashmere pencil skirt and over that, a close-fitting acid-green velvet 7/8 length coat: a luxurious audacity that takes an assured, even artistic sensibility but is nothing like the getupy garb you see on some Advanced Style doyennes. The reference is the haute-bourgeoise, not Iris Apfel.

Hardly anything on that woman was a practical basic. Steeped in Retiree Economics, I thought, What else do you wear that with? and realized, that is so not the point. (If you are younger or poorer, there are approximations—but really nothing substitutes for a coat of fine quality.)

I saw only about 10% of women on the street dressed like that, but I was not in the swankiest sectors.
But dozens of times a day, I saw the ensemble below; the woman in rose lives in the neighbourhood where we stayed, but I saw it everywhere, the modern woman's Mao jacket.

Her grand-daughter upholds the French approach of dressing children under voting age in navy, but I also saw astonishing children's ensembles, such as this little fur gilet:

Le Duc noticed the popularity of brightly coloured wool coats, a Parisienne's privilege due to mild winters. My friend Huguette wore a dusty mauve over her Uniqlo light down vest (black); this young woman pairs mustard with pink, and notice the lining at the sleeve:

In the foreground, her friend in black, which comprises maybe 20% of the coats, with the other 80% in every hue imaginable, the opposite ratio of my city on a good day. (When you need a coat that handles subzero temperatures for four months, black is the default choice. Women here fear a bright, full-length down coat will make them look like an M&M.)

The mid-50F/14C temps meant jackets were chosen as often as full-length coats; here's a woman at the bus, en route to work in her leather skirt and tweed. I liked the beautiful bag, not in a basic black, but a vibrant blue:

The mild winters also allow knit coats or "coatigans" to be worn months longer. This one is a windowpane; lovely pair of soft blue leather shoes, too:

 She matched her coat to her hair, and both are really red!

And though down rules the world, you can find original styles. Tweaking the classic marinière, a boutique showed a sheared sheepskin striped pullover. An extra $2, 000 or so more than the puffer price tags, though!

Next week, the inner woman, specifically, the passion for lingerie and my attempt to survey these places without spending all of next year's clothing allowance.

Back...and forth

Though we have been back from France for a few days, I have no photos to post because I picked up a virus toward the end, and will take time to recover.

Weeks spent in any locale sets the place upon your bones, and you begin to shift your rhythms: the pace of walking, the scan of a street, the hours of meals.

Our apartment contained a small collection of Paris-themed books; I re-read Adam Gopnik's "Paris to the Moon" and quoted a paragraph in a note to a friend:

"Paris is the site of the most beautiful commonplace civilization there has ever been, cafés, brasseries, parks, lemons on trays, dappled light on bourgeois boulevards, department stores with skylights, and windows like doors everywhere you look."

I wish I'd had those words at hand when someone asked, "Why are you going to Paris again?"

Gopnik, one of my favourite essayists (who grew up in Montréal), also wrote of his inability to ever truly penetrate Paris' inner life, despite his five-year residency, fluent French and access to the city's journalists and academics. But that will happen in any large city, especially in cultures where people do not have the reflexive friendliness of Americans. (I have lost that quality, so was startled when addressed without preamble by a young woman on a bus, who smiled widely and asked, "Where are you from?")

We lived neither as tourists nor residents, but in that in-between world of visitors, which means the local cheesemonger knows you enough to shake your hand, you are received in friends' homes, and might decide to do nothing on a given afternoon but watch the light shift across the park rather than tick off another attraction.

Some sights grew familiar but never routine; every day, we passed the skein of the Seine, running like a satin ribbon around an ample beauty's waist. Le Duc repeated the words of a Parisien friend, who told him when he first came to Paris at twenty: "It is impossible not to look at the river."

On one crisp Sunday, we walked by the Canal St-Martin and came upon the vast tent city at Stalingrad métro. The next day the dense camp would be torn down and many of the 3,000 there bused to "resettlement centers" in the region. There was none of Baudelaire's "luxe, calme and voluptué" at Stalingrad, but the long narrow space under the métro's elevated plaza was orderly. Men played cards, clothes hung from lines, the tents stood in rows.

Now, forty-some years after our first trips, we wonder—not, Will we come again? but, How many more can we make? And as we returned home to Canada, thousands from the camp were still travellng, unlikely to revisit the center of Paris, or their native lands.

There are many Parises: first, the exquisite jewel to which tourists come for the stirring vistas, the celebrated parks, museums, restaurants. Then there is the residents' Paris, long blocks of apartments furnished with bookshelves and (to North Americans) compact kitchens, walled courtyards, schools and offices, all overseen by a monumental civic administration.

The first two Parises intersect, in the markets and grands magasins, the concert halls and métro, in the public spaces claimed for a sprint, a picnic, a meeting under a tree. It's a generously-overlapping Venn diagram, but there will always be a private Paris for residents. (They can tire of so many visitors; a friend's partner stuck his head into a favourite brasserie, and lept out as if scalded, saying: "Trop d'anglais!")

And finally, there is the dim and desperate Paris of camps and squats through which increasing numbers of the displaced pass each month, which few tourists see, and residents watch, compassion competing with wariness. Such a place is hard to imagine, unless you had Depression-era parents who knew Hoovervilles. (The Occupy movement camp in Zuccotti Park was like a three-star hotel compared to the improvised shelters.)

Europe shuffles these masses like a three-card monte game: seen, hidden, moved, with no winning hand in sight.

Paris, Saturday evening

Hello; a very short update on What People Look Like: those down quilted sweater-jackets on everyone aged three to eighty.

When the temperature dips below 57F/14C, Parisiennnes haul out down, thick woolens, over the knee boots and scarves big as bedsheets. Canadians find that weather almost mild enough for a t-shirt. I met Huguette at the Grand Palais for the "50 Years of Mexican Art" exhibit. I wore a light padded jacket over a midweight t-shirt; she wore a below-the-knee wool skirt, heavy tights, a down vest under a wool coat, gloves, and a wool felt fedora.

This woman reading in the Jardin du Luxembourg was a compromise, and I liked her red accessories:

At home in a comfortable apartment, we eat as many French oysters as Le Duc will shuck... if you like them too, you'll now how good these are:

 In a week we'll fly home to snowflakes in the air, but for now, the winding streets invite more steps and enchantments. But home is best, isn't it?

See you soon. 

Morning, Paris

This morning (or is it still night?), I awoke in Paris, in an apartment in the 5th, where we've come to visit friends, eat, and "get lost"—hard to do with Le Duc, who has known its corners for decades. In the cobalt half-dark, with no more sleep possible, the first caws of ravens blend with the buzz of a few mobilettes; I have a several hours' wait to buy a baguette.

I will not post regularly for the next few weeks; we're here so infrequently that I'd rather walk than write.

I'm in my late sixties now, so that walking is punctuated with more pauses in a park or café. Nor do I pack to go anywhere that requires dress-up: black, scarves for colour.  Gone too are the days when Le Duc and I would march all day, then go out at 9 p.m. for a four-course dinner. Our endurance, our preferences and even our appetites have changed: The City of Light becomes the City of Lite.

I am still enthralled by the first glimpse of mansard rooflines and bridges spanning the Seine, a tease of shop windows' temptations, the pungent assault of diesel fuel. I'm happier than ever to be here, as our ability to travel with relatively carefree mobility is ever more precious.

In these first few hours I realize how life flows, wherever we are. All over the world, women buy groceries, walk the dog, hurry to work. Shortly, I'll slip out for a stroll in the Jardin du Luxembourg, trailing others around my age who are not, for whatever reason, synched to to the business day.

Soon, we have a rendezvous with friends; soon, Le Duc shall trace his old map of his rambles, choosing places he wants to see again and new additions. As the sun rises I shall be seduced by this city of deliberate magnificence, and I'll try to sidestep being just another tourist... yet I am.