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.