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.