Changes: The Passage hangs a new sign

Smack in the middle of a contented retirement, when I was offered a part-time job, I said yes, instantly. The opportunity to work in a field that has long fascinated me, with a company founded by a woman I admired from our first meeting: how could I refuse?

Emerald beads; photo courtesy of Pierres de Charme
In December, I began training with Pierres de Charme, the family business of gemmologists who sell coloured gems to jewelers and designers. From the first day, I was delighted to work amid the glow and charisma of stones sourced by ethical, passionate professionals.

When my friend Clare heard that, she burst out laughing, imagining every penny earned would wind up on my neck, and while I have not succumbed, stones like those below are giving my pearl love some serious competition.

Tanzanites and zircons

Going back to work is an adjustment. I'm trying to catch on quickly and not make mistakes, but I've made them. I bought a lunch bag, what every women who ever sat at a desk knows as work pants, an iPad. Excel and I are dating again.

The Passage: Open by Chance 
After today, I will post intermittently; the Passage is now one of those quirky places with an Open By Chance sign on the door. I'll keep the thousand-odd posts up and may occasionally write if moved. To receive these posts, please subscribe or follow.  Questions about jewelry renos or pearl choices may be sent via e-mail; the address is under my photo, at right.

Thank you for reading, and especially for commenting over the past nearly eight years. I have learned so much from you. Please follow and comment for other bloggers whom you admire; it keeps us going—especially those of us whose only reward is your company.

Till you wander through again, be well, be your ineffable self, be pearls and, I should now add, in coloured gems!

And if it's the last thing I post for awhile, it must be pearls! It's Isabella Rosselini (so touching in the documentary "Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words"), who's pearled up lately: a rope of mixed white, black and gold pearls (they look like Tahitian and South Seas), to which she sometimes adds a second rope, of whites. Wear it and wear it!

That made me think of an Isabella rope... but for now, I'm wearing what I have!

Has the time come for the self-styled "work uniform?"

Photo: Harper's 

Around 2012, a young Saatchi and Saatchi art director, Melinda Kahl, adopted her own daily work uniform: narrow black pants, white silk blouse, black blazer for colder months, and a lone accessory,  a black leather rosette tie. In her original post, she mentions both the responses—people asked whether she was she all right, had joined a sect, or had made a bet—and also spoke of her vast relief at letting of early-morning struggles.

Kahl commented that suit-wearing men have used this approach for ages, and tartly said, "...I couldn't help but notice that it appeared as if I needed a male authority to legitimize my choice of clothing in order for others to truly accept it."

Recently, she refreshed the pieces, ordering 15 identical white Zara shirts (at a discount).  On weekends, she wears whatever she likes, including "lots of dresses".

I did a half-Melinda for awhile: in the early 2000s, when I worked for a global telecommunications company, I wore as the bottom part of an outfit only black pants or skirts. I found the formula liberating, professional yet simple. I wouldn't have had the nerve to wear but one full outfit, and am impressed by her resolve and equanimity.

Secretly, I've always been drawn to uniforms (and I admit, to men in uniforms; pilots, naval officers in dress whites. Now, where was I?) I spent my junior high and high school years in uniforms, and though we suffered itchy grey wool, I didn't envy my friends at other schools who waded through stacks of discards to find a different look, the right look, each day.

At only one other time was I issued a uniform of sorts, a lab coat, when I worked in hospitals in the 1970s. I liked the lab coat; it didn't much matter what you wore under it. 

By 1980, I had moved to corporate life with its formal business attire: jacket-and-skirt, hose, heels—the whole kit on my dime, a steady drain on the paycheque for the next thirty-five years. I learned to enjoy the business-world fashion show, but by the 2000s, was disenchanted with the continual expense and upkeep. Hence, the black on the bottom gambit.

There was definitely competition in the corporation. One woman executive made it known that her female direct reports should buy their suits from a designer she favoured.  (Men, I noticed, might compliment another man's new suit but no one sniped that Jim's blue pinstripe had been seen for several years.)

Many companies specify a dress code so that employees wear all but a uniform, but have some choice regarding fit or quality. Some retail apparel stores specify that staff wear only clothing sold there, and offer attractive discounts.

Kahl, though, marches to her own elegantly emphatic beat, and I love it! She reminds me of certain designers (Calvin Klein, Yves St. Laurent, Marc Jacobs before he went into kilts and kohl) who worked in austere, self-styled uniforms, such as jeans and a white shirt. In photos of Coco Chanel in her atelier,  she's usually wearing her classic suit and brimmed hat, with low heels (like the classic Vivier) or flat-heeled boots.

This post was interrupted by my Canada Post carrier, in her regulation navy and red pants and parka, topped with a jaunty toque. She didn't have time to discuss her clothing, she's a working woman headed out in -12C/10F weather.

Have you ever worn a uniform? Would you welcome its comfort and constancy, or find that a dispiriting way to face the world? 


Commemorating a parent: Eulogies and obituaries

My friends are losing their parents, and each has been concerned with the rituals of farewell. Carolyn arranged for pipers to play at her mother's funeral, in honour of her Scottish heritage. Kate and her brother read excerpts of letters they had received from their mother over the years, funny, wise, and occasionally scolding. Alice's father's colleagues provided warm reminiscences in the chapel of the university where he taught for his career.

Each of these gestures reflected the love those gathered felt for the parent. 

Joanne faces a different task. If she had once loved Maxine, the feeling was destroyed by instability and her mother's consistent inability to nurture. Because I witnessed some of these behaviours, I'd say Maxine's mothering was about a -3 on a 10-point scale. When Maxine died suddenly, a continent away, Jo felt only relief.

But soon, Jo must stand in front of family and close friends to deliver a eulogy.  She has decided to acknowledge the chaos and hardship that led her mother to terrorize her children and family, to say "she did the best she could", then read a poem (to be determined, probably Wordsworth, her mother liked the Romantics), and leave it at that.

The obituary was easier, a précis of facts, history, kin: Maxine lived through the Blitz, then emigrated to Canada, overjoyed to hear that our post-war rationing allotted each adult a half-pound of butter per week.

In my parents' time, you did not "speak ill of the dead". Memorial services sidestepped human flaws, the homilies of faith papered over unspoken pain. The real story often came out when family gathered to dispense of possessions, or at the wake.

When she read the obit to me, I thought of a noted British obituary-writer of the last century, who was known as master of the euphemism. "Possessed a keen intelligence" really meant "pompous know-it-all", "devoted to his work" meant "boring drudge", and "had a large social circle" meant "anything in a skirt".

But in the last decade, I have noticed an increasing tendency toward more candid obituaries and eulogies. An obituary may note, for example, that the deceased "gave her opinion even if we didn't want to hear it", or even mentions darker qualities or struggles. The notices are also reflecting social change; today, I read the first acknowledgment I have seen of a "physician-assisted death", of a man who journeyed to Switzerland for his choice. (For an example of unusual obituaries, see "Nine of the Most Incredible Obituaries Ever Written"; click on the person's name to read.)

Don't we all wish that one day, our surviving family and friends commemorate us tenderly, summoning precious memories? But we reap what we sow, and now that a frank, full assessment is increasingly common, others will speak of us as they think we really were.

"She is at peace now", those who offer condolences often say, but Jo says she too will feel peace, once she has said goodbye with respect and sadness, and in truth.

Jewelry: Tuning your taste to the times

Happy announcement: Last Friday our son Etienne and his wife Tash welcomed their 9 lb. 11 oz. dumpling, Emile. Our daughter-in-law had to postpone her planned marathon last fall, but ran one in the delivery, and superbly. Sure beats a t-shirt at the finish line!

I watched several women browse a large fine jewelry store recently. Each was attracted to certain pieces, and barely glanced at others. I could pretty accurately guess where each would pause, from her overall appearance. I began to group the jewelry—and the clients—into three broad categories.

1. Serenely classic
This is the style of my friend Lorrie, who never met a navy garment she didn't like, and always carries a discreet, neutral bag. She would choose a pair of Gurhan hammered 24k gold hoops (price, about $1,200), not at all concerned that identical pairs live on other lucky ears.

She would also admire how she can wear them with everything, and that their high-carat colour will endure and deepen over time.

2. Singularly striking

Annette is an art gallery partner whose eye has been honed by her career. She is knowledgeable about advanced techniques and admires the workmanship involved. Annette, in exuberant colour from fuchsia glasses frames to forest-green boots, is the antipode of Lorrie.

She would adore Cambridge MA artist Daniel R. Spirer's anodized silver, 18k gold, and sapphire earrings (price, around $480), and be especially pleased that they were made in a limited edition.
(Note: Mr. Spirer writes an interesting blog about jewelry here.)

Photo by permission of Daniel M. Spirer

3. Sophisticated and elegant

Lorrie's sister, Diane, glamourous yet minimalist, is always impeccably turned out. She will will join us for a Sunday am. run to Ikea in a crisp white shirt, tailored trousers, kitten heels, coral lipstick.  When I say "glamorous", I don't mean glitzy; rather, her soignée polish seems entirely natural—think Grace Kelly. She would want a dash of drama displayed via uncluttered, well-resolved design.


That store carries a few items by revered Montréal designer Janis Kerman, and it is there Diane would pause. This pair is made of relatively modest materials: black diamonds (sidebar: black diamonds are irradiated to achieve that colour), mother-of-pearl discs, and silver; in Kerman's hands, they are supremely elegant.

What to choose? 

Like the women I watched, you will be drawn to certain pieces, and of course, will factor in your budget. But here is the Big Reveal, the kicker: try something outside your niche. Bend it by twenty or thirty degrees.

Ask permission to put on a new piece and spend at least 15 or 20 minutes in it in the shop. Take a photo of yourself.  (Most vendors will allow one if you explain your reason. Occasionally, concerns about copying yield a "no".)  Study that photo later, because you can quickly forget the proportions and overall effect, and think about whether you would wear it with your wardrobe. I've also known jewelers who let an established client take a piece home for a day or two.

You could also borrow from a friend to assess a new style or how you look in different materials, even if you only wear it while you're at her place for lunch.

Whichever way you manage your tryout, even a short test spin delivers benefits:
1. You may get ideas for restyling things you own. 
2. You may be able to trade your Frida Kahlo hoops (seemed like a good idea in Acapulco but not back home) for a friend's silver mesh bracelet, the one she's allergic to. Donation is noble, but swapping recoups your investment neatly.

Or, you might be motivated to finally sell your little-worn piece to fund the new. (The fine jewelry you don't wear isn't like a once-worn lipstick; there's unrealized value there. )

3. You will, even if you make no change now, build your eye for what compliments you, which definitely shifts as you mature. An item you coveted might turn out to be not nearly as pleasing on you as you thought.

The updating of a jewelry collection lags behind clothes; once we think a five-year-old jacket suddenly looks démodé, poof! it's banished, but we don't bother with those fifteen-year-old earrings, stuck in the back of the drawer. Maybe they're still fine, but as times change, older contemporary pieces can look too girly or generic.
Victorian cameo earrings, Beladora

Whether you're in a luxe boutique or funky friperie, play a bit, and look at yourself with new eyes. If you feel a magnetic repulsion, stay away, but if you have never worn Tahitian pearls or a Victorian cameo, take a moment to try the unusual.

There's no better way to find a magical bijou that's going to delight you for years.

Closet creep: Why?

In style blogland, a perennial topic is that of de-cluttering, especially the closet purge. Most writers detail experiences with the Three-Pile Method. Even though I know this material like a Beatles song, I will read every one of these posts intently.

However, in a kind of Wardrobe Groundhog Day, over time a predictable cycle occurs: first, the joy of the refined, airy closet, followed by posts that feature a perfect new whatever, and within a year or two, another purge post.

So the question is, how does a recidivist succumb? Few of us (and I definitely count as one) go out one day and say, "Hey, it's time to buy another three pairs of navy pants and six white tees". Not many women have work or social requirements that dictate we can't wear the same thing too often– I mean, Kate Middleton repeats her clothes.  

I reflected first on my own habits.

1. Replacements that aren't
I buy the new black v-neck to replace the one that's on its last legs, but then keep the last-legs sweater because it has the perfect not-too-low neckline and really does have some wear left, at least around the house. (Hi Mom; no, of course I'm not throwing that out.)

2.  Hero-itis
I find a spectacular jacket, coral with gorgeous white embroidered detail down the front. Wow, I love it! In the dressing room, I'm styling it with everything I own.

Then I get it home, and I do not wear it, maybe because spring in Montréal is two weeks long, and then it's hot in summer and the jacket's too summery in fall. But it sure is pretty, so there it hangs, next to other 'special pieces' that always get free passes during purges, till they fill a quarter of the closet all on their own.

 3. The magnetic pull of small things
Always room for another scarf (for some women, it's shoes or bags). Whether secondhand or new, the prize enjoys an initial run, maybe even several seasons of prominence, until another crush comes along. Meanwhile, the stack grows, the shoe rack squishes tighter.

4.  Spare feels unsatisfying
Post-purge, a little inner voice says, Whoa, you have no clothes anymore! Did you really think this will be enough? I visit a friend who rotates a half-dozen winter coats plus a full MEC storm suit for biking, and think, I have only two? Maybe another one would be OK?

And, there's boredom: the same jeans, again? Even the most dedicated minimalists will admit they get sick of their stuff.

The fix is philosophical

Keeping a decluttered closet is akin to maintaining a healthy weight: I've made a lifestyle change, and now can either "put it back on" or not.

At least every several weeks, I remind myself that I don't need more, and the desire for more is the fast track to the next purge, unless I follow the one in/one out rule. This means giving myself permission to change things up occasionally, as long as something exits, concurrently.

Also, I remind myself that I chose to buy better clothes and wear them longer, so I can just belt up about the fact that my blue cashmere v-neck has been in rotation since before eBay existed.

Boredom is assuaged by a deeper dive into the scarves, or by switching up jewelry. If I need a spirit-lift, a small consumable serves: a plump, glowy mango, new notebook, tea.  

But that's me. If other cyclical wardrobe-parers are reading, kindly tell me how you stem a slip back to crammed closets and old habits.

Buying jewelry: "Curieux, intrigant"

One of the reasons why I so enjoy living here: in early winter, this poster was taped to a phone pole just steps from my door.

It reads, "Tell me. Has something bizarre, curious, intriguing happened to you? Phone 514-819-0203 and leave your message anonymously."

Go ahead, call! Here's my story.

Several days before my W., my former husband, and I married, I gave him a small, 18k gold pin, a replica of Flash Gordon's rocket ship.

I'd found it in a boutique run by an exotic couple who wore wafty semi-robes and seemed to have but fourteen exquisite things for sale at any time: some jewelry, a few objets, silver, a painting. The place shuttered less than a year after opening, which wasn't surprising; with so little on offer, how could they survive? W. wore the pin on his jacket lapel; when we parted, he left the pin behind.

I threw the piece in a jewelry box, where it lay for a good 15 years. One day, browsing an outdoor art show, I noticed that one of the artisans, Mr. S., had an identical pin on his vest. "Oh", I said, "is that one of your designs? I bought one many years ago, but in gold."

Mr. S. looked at me closely and said, "I only ever made one in gold; it won a prize, but then was stolen from my studio. Could you describe the person you bought it from?" I had no trouble remembering the sloe-eyed man in robes. "I knew it was him!" the artist said, "but I could never prove it."

I phoned Le Duc and asked if he would retrieve the pin from my jewelry box and join me at the show; within the hour, the stunned artist held, once again, his prizewinning piece. I wouldn't accept payment, but he insisted I choose a pair of his earrings.

I almost wish that I still had the pin, but returning it felt right. If I were buying a bijou curieux today, I might choose one of those below. Every jewelry collection, from modest to major, needs at least one unusual piece. Nearly always, I find they are antique or at least vintage.

Vintage German Art Deco ring; $388 from Etsy seller TheLovelyJumble

Vintage silver cat and mouse pendant by Joanna Lesley Thomson; now sold; from Etsy seller BeautyandtheBeadsUK

Antique Victorian diamond and enamel snake ring; $1, 450 from Beladora

Mark Davis vintage Bakelite and pink sapphire bracelet; $2, 390 from Twist

You might also find an idiosyncratic and charming treasure for much less.

A few months ago, I found a curieux, intrigant necklace when I strolled past a small consignment store. The proprietor said it had been bought in Geneva by a traveler, but because of the hieroglyph carved on the blue wooden bead and the characteristic materials (copal, carnelian, agate), I am guessing it is Middle Eastern.

Then there are the jumble sale or thrift scores; readers and friends have found striking silver and amber, turquoise or art glass pieces for a few dollars. I haven't shared their luck yet, but it's always such fun to hunt!

Every now and them though, I see a serious jewel of such originality that I just bow down before its idiosyncrasy. And so it is with this ca. 1950s diamond compass ring. What is the story here? Who made it?  I'm swept into its spell. (Price, $25, 500 from Fourtuné, on First Dibs.)