Pearls on the Harbor

On a recent trip to my home town and surrounding area in Northern Michigan, we spent time in the village of Harbor Springs, an historic resort community. It is there that the sliver of peninsula known as Harbor Point, accessible only by the association's horse-drawn carriage, provides a summer retreat for descendants of the old industrial fortunes who built large, gracious "cottages". Adjacent enclaves like Roaring Brook and Wequetonsing contain similar wicker-filled homes, built before the automobile.

A handful of Harbor Springs shops cater to such residents, whose idea of roughing it may be taking but one cashmere throw on a sunset sail.

It is in such a setting that we found a tiny, elegant boutique devoted to pearls, Elizabeth Blair Fine Pearls. We stopped by on a quiet September afternoon, warmly welcomed by "Dilly" Blair Kirby herself. She opened her shop in Harbor Springs knowing that pearls will carry a woman from resort to city, and also shares one of my convictions: they make any woman more beautiful.

She presents pearls priced from barely three figures to the stratosphere, displayed by theme or mood, each grouping vying with the other for one's desire. It felt as if a nacreous white cloud had rained pearl treasures on a tiny hamlet.

If Harbor Springs is not on your itinerary, drop by her online shop, WestMain, a subsidiary of Elizabeth Blair Fine Pearls, features less-costly but still alluring pieces from her trove of every pearl variety.

I didn't add to my collection—not for lack of desire, but for the simple reason of not being able to decide, and of course, there is this thing called a budget. I know I'd delight in a 27-inch necklace of mixed keshis and South Seas (price, $1,700; all prices in $US):

The casual-chic pearls I prefer are stocked on WestMain's site in a range of styles from sleek to ornate. This smart pair of carved mother-of-pearl and freshwater pearl dangles is $195.
Brooches, often neglected in fine jewellery cases, receive pride of place. Ms. Kirby showed me her photo of Tiffany's famed pearl "chrysanthemum" brooch, made in 1904 from Mississippi River pearls.

She offers an homage via the charming, classic pearl flower brooch, (price, $295), as well as edgy styles like a modern abalone piece by Sally Bass (price, $325) that can also be worn as a pendant.

Pearl rings are a marvelous choice, allowing you to see and enjoy what you're wearing. A cultured 6mm Akoya pearl and diamond-accented cuff ring set in 14k rose gold (price $425) is everyday-wearable yet striking.
And if you wish to invest in the finest, Ms. Kirby will dazzle you with some of the most sumptuous pieces imaginable.
Doesn't every woman have a fantasy of discovering such a treasure of a shop, either to acquire or simply admire—whether filled with books, bikes, jewellery or hand-thrown plates?

Should that happen, you've found a remarkable refuge from the mass-market world, whether your discovery is modest or luxurious. And if pearls are present, double luck!


Style: Generations' choices

The past summer, and right into this warm fall is terrific for people-watching; coats come off, and anyone can see what was on people's backs and feet. I have begun to consider the difference between how older woman dress, versus younger.

There's more crossover than when I was a young woman. No one my mother's age wore miniskirts or floppy bellbottoms. Girls who embraced the preppy model were less individuated; they and their mothers favoured twin sets, hairbands, circle pins, those little handbags with buttoned covers. But for me, wearing things my mother didn't was kind of the point.

Now, the dividing line has blurred, with three generations in jeans, t-shirt dresses, maxi skirts. And preppy's coming back; J. Crew have clearly re-prepped after a several years of trying to be the low-rent Marni, with offerings like this shirt:

But apart from the obvious rejection of abbreviated apparel among older women, generational differences seem driven more by aesthetics—and perhaps habit—than body.

Ah, youth! Four differences

1. Coordination
 The young women throw it all together, rarely coordinating, but there is of course thought in that un-matchy ensemble.

I had lunch with two friends in their late 50s; one was entirely in hot pink and white, down to the bag and lipstick. While she looked "perfect", the youths passing by on the street looked different; not better, but different.

I'm not saying she should change her outfit, just that there is a divide.

2. Coiffure
From messy braids to beehives, many young women wore retro or folkloric styles—not to mention young men in beards and haircuts summoned from daguerrotypes.

Older women with mid-to-long hair chose high or low ponytails, or a bun, of which the best were not too 'done':

I saw a great deal of short hair on young women, which I hope refutes the belief that short styles spell 'dowdy'.

3. The embrace of "ugly"
I watched a twentyish young woman and her boyfriend shop in a thrift store; she honed in on a track-suit top in aqua poly with hot pink v-shaped inserts and a white waistband. I thought it was hideous, but she cooed with pleasure. Bulletproof synthetics, bumpy brocade, ratty lace: somewhere, a university student is amplifying her natural beauty in something you would burn.

At the same time, they have a nose for the tiny shift; no cut is truly timeless.

I shot this young women in high-waist Levis— I can't tell if they are new or vintage. We might find them a throwback (and for me, a welcome one), but for a Millenial, they're fresh.

4. Ink
I got a mammogram; the x-ray technician was a walking frieze. My favourite local restauranteur, Nada, looks like the star of "Blind Spot", not a plane unmarked.  A great deal of this work is artful and lushly ornamental.

I stopped dead in my tracks to stare at work like Fabrizio Divari's; if getting that done, the owner wants you to look:

I have seen the occasional tattoo on women 50, 60, and even older, but not the full sleeves or legs the 30ish crowd like. However, unlike the track suit top, a young women is going to have those tats for life, so I hope she chooses images she will enjoy for a half-century.

In time, she can re-colour, but she will not be able to restore the lines' crisp definition. In a few decades, there will be a generation whose limbs look permanently out of focus.

Shared space: joined at the toe

When I was young, the highest heels, from stilettos to Bowie platforms, belonged to us. Now, young women wear Adidas with chiffon dresses, brogues with summer skirts. Their attachment to the podiatric crime known as the flip-flop has waned. I see twenty-five-year-olds and their grans in Birkenstocks; the kids are wearing theirs with socks.

Though the young show more skin, this summer it was notably pale; a deep tan was an exception. (I try not to be a scold, but when I saw a young woman in a brimmed hat, carefully applying sunblock to her toddler, cigarette dangling from her lips, I wanted to ask why she was intent on making my generation's worst mistake.)

All too soon we'll swaddle in down parkas and mufflers the size of pup tents; my camera will be shoved away till my fingers don't freeze. But for now, the vintage stores show a rack of cutoff jean shorts (which women have worn for what, fifty years?), and the older crowd enjoy light skirts while they can.

Recommended: 15 Reasons to Live

Not only do I wholeheartedly recommend this documentary film by Alan Zweig, here's a link to TVO's site so you can watch it! (Note: the site's hosting of this film may be temporary.)

It is also for sale on iTunes and GooglePlay.

You will be moved, inspired and delighted, for here, amid mostly everyday events (a car breakdown, a trip to a mall, a boat ride) are stories of human loss and triumph, of birth and death, losses and recoveries. The scale of the film is humble, the wisdom prodigious.

The film, a triumph of storytelling, is based on Ray Robertson's non-fiction book, "Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live".

New pearl course, free for limited time!

Would you like to build comprehensive pearl knowledge, or dive into the pearl varieties that interest you? Would you like to know as much (and sometimes more) as a jeweler or salesperson?

The Cultured Pearl Association of American has just launched a new e-course, "Pearls as One". Pearl guru Jeremy Shepherd of Pearl Paradise was a key developer, and he's offering a coupon code reduces the $600 price to... free! The code, PEARL10951PARADISE, is valid for a limited time, so hop to it and register.

Designed for jewelers and retailers, the course contains ten modules, but if you want to learn about only Tahitians, for example, you can select only that part. Or, take the entire course and exam, and become a Certified Pearl Specialist!

A "Retailer's Guide" section for each pearl variety describes the value factors, with clear examples—invaluable when you shop. (I've seen sublime pearls and average pearls offered for the same price; why not get the great ones?)

This is a characteristically generous and collaborative gesture by Mr. Shepherd, a leader not only in this project, but in uniting a far-flung industry. Thank you, Jeremy Shepherd and team. (Contributors include Sarah Canizzaro of Kojima Company, Kevin Canning of Pearls of Joy, and pearl researcher Caitlin Williams of

And pearl hug to reader Cynthia Newberry for telling me about the coupon!

I know you dropped by to peer in the window, and the Passage today greets autumn with a trio of whimsical pearl mushroom brooches.

These are by Elizabeth Blair Fine Pearls. I met Ms. Blair Kirby recently, and will tell you all about her magical shop soon.

Pols in pearls

I spend far more time looking at photos of women in public life than I do those of celebrities. Women politicians must look professional and polished during 12-hour or longer days, from informal breakfast meetings to state functions, and often while traveling—what a brief!

We have recently welcomed a record number of Canadian women federal government ministers, and a number rely on pearls to polish their hardworking wardrobes—with mixed results. I don't think pearls correlate to performance, but because these women are photographed while they work, it's a good way to see how to wear such a popular piece of jewellery.

The Hon. Diane Lebouthillier, Minister of National Revenue, wears an average-sized classic single strand often.

At left, the pearls look unprepossessing on the substantial turtleneck; a better choice would be a brooch at the shoulder, or earrings with presence. If you want to wear pearls (or any beads) with a high collared knit, go big. And what are those earrings? Probably not the brown rabbit droppings they look like.

Christine Lagarde shows the scale for pearls worn with a high, substantial neckline:

OK, Mme. Lagarde's are ginormous South Seas, but even good costume would be acceptable.

Dr. Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, travels to the most remote areas of this vast country, most recently to meet with parents of murdered and missing indigenous women. She wears pearls well, and when she ups the size at neckline of her white blouse, as in the right photo, they're far more striking.

The Minister of Health, Dr. Jane Philpott, is, like Bennett, a physician turned politician. Her pearls are the smallest, and the ones I would most like to replace. They are not up to the demands of life on the podium, a mismatch to her significant role.

At left, a necklace that I suspect was a sentimental gift some time ago, but now too small for a grown woman. The middle one looks sloppy. To replace those, I'd suggest this pretty pearl torsade from Ross Simons, for a most reasonable $125, just what the doctor ordered.

The five-row necklace at right is a better scale for her, but is askew. Every woman can wear pearls, but they should be the adult version, and if you can't be bothered to arrange them, choose a symmetrical piece. 

An upgrade to "fully-feathered professional" doesn't imply a Lagarde-sized investment; I prescribe generously-sized (11-13mm)  freshwater metallics like these from Kojima Company:

I'd also like to see women in the spotlight choose more striking designs than the round whites. Margaret Trudeau, mother of our current Prime Minister, wife of a past one, wears pearls marvelously. She chooses modern pieces, mixing sizes or adding a pendant.

Below, the shot at left shows how smaller pearls can be worn with larger. The pearls on the right are of medium size, but the grey colour, decorative clasp and second delicate piece add visual impact.

If they are well-chosen, pearls add elegance and polish without demanding much attention or thought.  Our Canadian ministers are on the right track, but a few could use a pearl makeover.

Do they need a role model?

One of the most recognized political figures of our time wears pearls frequently, and ventures beyond round whites: grey coins, a fab mother-of-pearl bib, and large whites accented with decorative spacers.

But for the world-stage moments, she chooses important pearls. She wears at least two South Sea strands that she may mix with multicolour Tahitians or a delicate pendant. Their effect is undebatable—so Hillary Clinton wore them to hers.

Who rule the world?

Girls. In pearls.

Thrift, gift and sale: A short jaunt

Recently, I've been thrift-trolling, picking up sweet baby clothes for the snapper (at six months, no one wears out a onesie).

Late last month, I made a short trip to Almonte, Ontario, to visit my girlfriend Marina, and because this retro-bombshell artist is crazy for vintage, I checked out the women's dresses as well as baby items. I found three hip and immaculate dresses, at $7 each!

Marina insisted on wearing one immediately:

Can you see the planet paintings behind her? Those are her work. She has recently moved into a charming cottage which she's decorated in her singular courtesan-on-absinthe style, sharing the space with Mr. Oreo (rabbit), Bhumi (cat), and Bubbles (immense turtle).

Marina and I are deeply fond of Queen Elizabeth, and she had a gift for me, a china box made to commemorate HRH's coronation.

While I was scouting for her, I found this black velvet blazer, in mint condition. At $7, it's hard to think of parting with hundreds for a J. Crew version, but thrifting means you have to grab it in the moment, and there is no "trying the next size".

I left Marina, the animals and Almonte, hopped on a Greyhound and met Le Duc in Ottawa. Before we drove home to Montréal, we stopped at one of my all-time favourite boutiques, Muriel Dombret (Clothes), where I found a black skirt with asymmetrical side detail on the sale rack.  I've had a number of Muriel's black jersey separates over the years and they've never let me down.

Back to black, back to school and back home. Could Frugal Scholar, who visited Montréal this past summer, have left behind a little of her extraordinary thrifting karma?

Or maybe it was first time lucky? Whatever the reason, I've been bitten. All it takes is time, careful inspection and curbing the urge to buy if what you find isn't perfect for you or your friend. Or a six month old.

September at the Market

Welcome back! The Passage opens officially on September 13, after I return from a short trip, but let's fit in a quick trip to the market. 

What do you need? A bushel of peppers for jelly? Sauce tomatoes? And of course, we'll people-watch.

The scarves retreated briefly during weeks of scorching heat, but even now, at 26C, an off-the-shoulder blouse will be accessorized with a white scarf.

A particular charm attends mothers and daughters of all ages. Remember when a box of berries was a treasure?

Hats shield from the still-intense sun. The madame at left in her eyelet newsboy is eighty-one; you can just see the stars on her t-shirt. The other two wear jaunty straws, one patterned, one plain.

Artful prints always draw the eye. I would love those crops! The redhead wore a green cocoon shrug draped off her shoulders and matched to her eyes.

In summer, locals gorge on colour before brisk autumn nudges us into black or navy coats. Magenta with burnt-orange: exuberant and unusual—or fresh white eyelet, with feminine detail:

Did you remember your tote? Women carry everything from chi-chi patent to folkloric print to an inexpensive eco-bag.

Occasionally we admire more than the produce:

Perhaps a gelato before heading home? And do tell us about your summer!