The pearl that went round the world

Last fall, our friend, J. wished to give pearls to his wife, B., at Christmas, and asked me for a little help. He has a great eye, and was completely attuned to what would suit her, but needed pointers toward good sources. My kind of fun!

B. is a multi-disciplinary artist who wears a beautiful collection of family heirlooms, vintage treasures, and Mexican silver found on their travels. I had never seen her in pearls. J. headed briskly into the territory of colour, from greys to lavenders, and made astute evaluations; all I had to do was supply links and offer a few comments about quality.

And I also suggested that instead of a strand, J. might consider a piece of jewellery that uses one or a few stunning pearls.

I showed him the work of London Jeweller Malcolm Morris, who made the ethereal tiaras for the film "Shakespeare in Love" and the miniseries "The 10th Kingdom".

Photo: Malcolm

J. admired Morris' assured aesthetic and thought his designs reflected B.'s style. J. chose the Nyx pendant necklace, and I too saw it as "her".

A version on the web site with prehenite and sterling silver:


J. commissioned the necklace in oxidized silver, labradorite and pearl. Mr. Morris uses pretty freshwaters, but J. wanted something special. We chose a fine 13mm x18mm silver-green Tahitian drop with aqua overtones from Ehret Design Gallery and off it flew, from Arizona to London. Malcolm Morris thought it beautiful, and went to work.

There is a leap of faith in any commission, especially when you have never seen an artist's work in person—but we had trust, and Mr. Morris was in touch often.

When I received the box (so she wouldn't suspect), I peeked to check, but did not lift the necklace from its velvet box; the first touch would be hers.  But I glimpsed the detailed silversmithing, the flashing labradorites, the glowing pearl.

Some days later, I was able to admire it on B., and it was everything her beloved anticipated, framed by her beauty and personality.

A special thank you to the wonderful Malcolm Morris, whose work keeps calling me back. You can see more of his designs on his Instagram feed, where he is the gingerjeweller.

Tracking Personal Spending: 2016 Report

Early each year, I analyze whether the clothing and accessories I bought the previous year returned good value.

Beginning in the Great Recession of 2008, I  recorded every penny I spent, which revealed that I was a fritterer, an impulse buyer, a stockpiler who had more clothing than a costume supply house.

Because I had more discretionary income then, I also paid less attention to cost. Recently, I overheard a conversation between two older women whom I passed on the street: "$120 for a t-shirt? What happened?" I realized that in addition to the well-known Princess Dollars (buy item on sale, subtract sale price from full price, then award yourself the difference to spend) women my age think in Gran Dollars: we not only remember when a soft, 100% cotton tee cost $35, we remember when it had set-in sleeves and was made in North America.

My desire for quality (which relates to value) means ever-escalating expense, and that therefore means I am buying less.


Tedious trews

Three pairs of work-appropriate trousers I bought late last winter were barely worn, nor will they be, because I was sacked in August, when the owner changed the qualifications for the part-time job.

My mood when I entered the women's chain store after work last February should have alerted me: tired, rushed, not wanting to dig out something for the next morning—a guarantee for lacklustre results. They fit, require no thought to wear, launder well, but were dispiriting.

Lesson: Work clothes need to spark joy, too. Though I like deep blue denim, the navy poly trousers were stiff and did not breathe. The grey wool made me feel like a security guard; the black were interchangeable with a dozen other pairs I've owned over the last twenty-five years. Donated.

Moth-magnet moccasins

L.L. Bean sheepskin slippers are moths. These are wonderful house shoes if you don't have pest issues, but I had to replace the sheepskin with washable plush. Since they cost nearly $100 given the currency exchange, not a good buy. Binned.

The (obvious) lesson: We cannot keep woollens out, at least for now. We laundered all knits, then froze them on the balcony (thanks to Montréal winters, a natural deep-freeze) and bought more snap-lid storage boxes. We found moths incubating in an old down duvet and an Ikea woolen Christmas ornament. (Making progress; no new moths in the traps or sighted for a month.)

Unthrifty find 

At the same thrift were I found an impeccable black velvet blazer, I bought a peach top with a taupe velvet trim, very pretty. But pale peach is not my colour, no matter that it was new. Given to a friend, out $7.

Lesson that experienced thrifters know by heart: it may be great, but if not perfect on you, pass it up.


Playful pearls

While walking through the Toronto Outdoor Art Show last summer, I saw these wild peacock-dyed 12mm Chinese freshwaters. The price was reasonable (about $200) and I liked the handmade silver clasp. (Note to pearl buyers: "Dyed" is the forthright, accurate term; many vendors use "finished with a special process", "enhanced" or "organically-treated". Those words mean dyed.)

These are as obviously dyed as a pink poodle, and should be worn in the same frivolous spirit. They pick up neutrals when it is dark by 4:30 p.m.

Lesson: I have the minimalist thing more or less in hand except for pearls.

Grrrl power

Then, there's that new-to-me leopard-print velours coat. Do you sense a theme here? Someone needed a pick-me-up. So much spotty style for $70!

Lesson: I hardly ever buy "fun" clothes but when I do, secondhand is the way to go.

Puffer: Northern necessity

Here's the other solid star, actually a replacement item: a knee-length khaki down-filled puffer, road-tested against -25C windchill. And washable! (Worn with an eight-year-old Eric Bompard milles pattes scarf, a discontinued style, in cumin, a bronzy green.)

 Lesson: We have minus zero temps for months here, no excuse needed!

Another good buy from 2016: a long black skirt from Muriel Dombret, bought during end of summer sale so not worn much, but it will return good value and pleasure in 2017.

2016 Grade: B

Even though 2016 was a record low for purchases, what I bought was not wholly well-chosen. Back in 2009, I got a D and vowed, among other reforms, to buy fewer and finer.  The fewer has been easy, but the finer harder than I thought—those damn Gran Dollars—though by now overpriced clothes seem absurd, rather than covetable.

I wish I'd bought one pair of less-generic trousers, even if they cost more. And—I did not need three. (If Christine is reading, she will laugh, remembering my shock over the price of her  teal velvet Italian pair, but she knew. The cost equalled that of my three, but hers was the smarter buy.)

Mrs B. at her 90th birthday party last winter
I'll keep tracking and assessing so that I might reach ninety (a goal in itself) like Joan Burstein, in her beautiful yet comfortable party dress.

The words of 1940s designer Vera Maxwell continue to guide me: "Clothes should be beautiful, adaptable, and sound."

And where were those words when I bought the trousers? Maybe I need them stamped on my wallet!

Fighting the sedentary spread with "How to Watch TV and Get Fit"

"How to Watch TV and Get Fit—Three Minutes at a Time" sounds like pure hype, or a sitcom, maybe both— but it's well-researched, effective program developed by Debbie Rahman, an Aspen-Colorado-based writer and registered nurse, cardiac rehab therapist and fitness trainer Diane Killian.

Debbie and Diane repeat what a physiotherapist told me (as he collected my $95): short bursts of activity will condition the body effectively; we don't need 45-minute chunks of time.

A few days ago, Debbie's son David, our superb Mac tech guru, sent a note about the book's release; he was the videographer and tech advisor. That hit my inbox when I'd been sitting for hours, meaning to get up... soon.

Yesterday, I downloaded the book, completed the self-evaluation (10 minutes), took my measurements, and began: in summary,  text and videos show how to perform a series of three to four-minute routines during TV commercials. TV isn't my problem, though, it's time on my butt in front of the screen—easily several hours a day. But, I thought, this could work pretty much the same for Mac potatoes.

Because I won't have commercials to cue me, I set a repeating timer to announce each half hour in the voice of Irish Moira. This seems about the right time between segments, and I also fit in one just before I sit down first thing.

I stand near my desk; no special equipment, no gear, no change of clothes, no sweat. (This is definitely a home-based program unless you have a private office, and can dress casually.) All the Level 1 sequences are done standing, a few against a wall.  My usual jeans are fine so far; I whip off my top and do it in my camisole. As I move through the program, I might have to keep other clothing handy; we'll see.

This is only my second day, so I need the short videos which show the correct form; soon, just the name of the exercise will do. Diane is appallingly buff (more diversity in the trainers would have been great), and those 30-minute reminders come quickly. I have just over 20 minutes between sequences, which does break my concentration but I don't "TV Fitness" all day.

There are 12 exercise sequences for a given day, but you don't have to do all of them; just pick up the next day where you left off. (At two days in, I'm finding doing two or three sequences at each break works well—that's about 8-12 minutes of exercise, easy when there's no TV show to get back to. )

Six weeks from now, I will see if there's a difference, but anything that keeps me from the magnetic pull of the chair has to be worth my ten bucks. After 18 weeks, I'll report about the full program; Debbie and Diane provide four levels and include specialized "target" area sequences, but you never have to do what you don't like, or anything that causes discomfort—and Moira says if I improve, she'll buy the Guinness. The book contains the usual disclaimer about checking with your doctor before beginning an exercise program.

Rahman, who quotes a poll by Vanderbilt University's Institute for Medicine and Public Health, estimates that many people spend about eight hours a day sitting between sitting on transit, in front of the TV and computer, even dining.

"How to Watch TV and Get Fit" gives me bite-sized resources to fight this, uh, spreading problem. Improved heart health, lower risk of diabetes, more toned body, better bone density, renewed energy: why not, given it's only a few minutes at a time?

You can download a sample, but I found it gave only a hint of what's in the book, so I suggest you spring for a copy. (It is currently available only as an iBook). For more information about the program and its benefits, visit WatchTVandGet Fit.

Wish me luck! I'm just hoping to address hours spent in front of a screen, immobile—but I wouldn't say no to an inch less spread in the chair zone, either.

Uneven aging: When a lovely flame dies

My in-laws, whom here I'll call Roger and Rosalie, were models of happy marriage; the devotion and contentment of "Ro and Ro", as they are known, cast a glow on family and friends.

When the kids were small, Roger made their breakfast and got them off to school so Rosalie could sleep longer and rise to a peaceful house. Ever a romantic, he wrote love poems for her and did not mind if they were read aloud to anyone. She, in turn, supported his dream of early retirement and  travelled for fifteen years as an "RV gypsy" with Roger, even though she deeply missed the family events that took place during the six months each year that they were on the road.

They explored North America for fifteen years, carefree, content and deeply into velcro (which holds things on RV walls), until Roger's deafness made driving unsafe and the rig aged out. In their early seventies, they swapped the RV for comfortable apartment in their home city, where family outings and renewed friendships replaced the pleasures of travel.

Roger's deafness deepened despite a cochlear implant. Once gregarious, he steadily became less social, but remained an unmitigated optimist. Rosalie was the extrovert, always available to help older neighbours, kind and friendly to all.

Le Duc and his siblings began to see a shift in her manner by her mid-seventies, a decade ago. Gifts were never right, former pleasures did not satisfy, and she became critical of Roger, driving him to tears on occasion. A move to a retirement home three years ago brought welcome relief from grocery shopping and meal preparation, and many of their friends already lived in the building.

Eighteen months ago, Rosalie became vocal about her escalating discontent. She announced to all that she "wanted to throw him in the river". Her symptoms—uncharacteristic aggression, forgetfulness and some obsessive behaviours—were diagnosed as early-stage dementia.

"In sickness and in health", they once vowed, but debilitation had overtaken a close, loving marriage, and she no longer wanted the job. Roger's response was that this was "a phase" of hers. Because he now had Parkinson's, he moved to a long-term care facility adjacent to their retirement home just before Christmas. Rosalie shares their assisted-living suite with a new roommate.

While everyone agreed Roger needed skilled care, what shocked her children was her insistence that, whether he would be in the same building or not, she was done with caregiving. The "and" was excised from the two Ros.

It seems that love is tied to the brain as well as the heart, and that its associated virtues, devotion and duty, are similarly eroded by cognitive impairment. Uneven aging may last for decades, while the same partner, always healthier, is willing to take care of the other— but in some cases, a late-life form of leapfrog sets in.

I have also seen the healthier partner up and leave, but that is often a reflection of years of a less-than- happy relationship. No one saw Rosalie's resignation coming.

When her dementia recedes, as it will at times, I wonder whether Rosalie misses those close and passionate years. I suspect so, because I have saved cards she sent on our wedding anniversaries, in which she wrote of the strength of a couple's love, and its importance to family life. She enjoined us to take care of a precious gift.

Her personality changes are more difficult for their children than the sight of their father's infirmity; her inability to summon a once-intense love distresses them. She needs their love precisely at the time she is unable extend it herself. Her two sons and daughter are attentive and sensitive to her plight, but they hope that absence truly makes the heart—even one dented by time—fonder. On a recent good day, Rosalie admitted that she missed Robert.

After my father's death, I found a note in his jacket pocket on which he had written, "Old age is an unkind thief; he takes what we value most."

At no time has that melancholy metaphor seemed more apt.

Home again

One of  last summer's jaunts was to my hometown, in Northern Michigan, a place I had not visited in twenty-two years.

For several years, I had thought of returning to the small town where our family lived for 65 years. In mid-August, a high school classmate contacted me to say that a few of them had decided to throw together a 50th reunion. We bought tickets within the hour.

Nearly half of "The Cats and Chicks of '66" met at the historic Terrace Inn in the summer colony of Bay View, at the edge of our town, Petoskey, Michigan. The planning committee had negotiated a reasonable price for a casual dinner dance ("Even we don't know how we did it!"), one of the 'boys' DJ'd, and everyone caught up.

After fifty years, people were willing to talk; they had lived a life. Perhaps the deepest secrets were not unveiled, but much was shared, succinctly. The attitude seemed to be, Here I am.

"Annabelle" became a nun, but left the order. When I asked why, she said, "They worked me to death. I became a nun to be with God, and all I did was cook and clean." She now lives in a small trailer on a country road. Three days a week, she visits a local retreat center to care for the founding order's sole remaining nun, age 86.  The rest of her time is spent in the contemplation she craved.

"Joanne" was such a quiet girl in high school that I can't recall her stringing thirty words together. But there she stood, chic in an aubergine blouse and striking crystal necklace, greeting everyone. When I asked if I could adjust the necklace, she said, with heartrending gratitude, "Thank you, Kathy!" I realized that I, and the other extroverted girls, had ignored Joanne in high school. There was no bullying or even dislike, but she was not invited to sleepovers, not scooped into the booth for a gossipy Coke. She was thanking me for finally seeing her.

"Bud" grew up on a farm; his brother still runs the place. In high school, Bud fell asleep at this desk, never dated, and bore the stigma of a definite barn odor.  Fifty years later, Bud was funny, warm, and happily married. He owns an auto and farm equipment repair shop and spoke with such confidence that I kept asking myself, This is Bud Sterling?

They say people don't change, and for some, that seemed true. The class Romeo (who had somehow managed to go steady with three girls at the same time) was still full of BS until we spent a few minutes talking in a quiet corner. John, with whom I've been friends since the sandbox, remains low-key but brilliant; it was he who negotiated the price of the venue from $3,500 to $350.

No one had become famous. One boy was rumoured to have made many millions via tech investments (he didn't attend). But not one life felt small, as if fifty years had layered each person with a richness beyond anything material.

And then, of course, we acknowledged those who had died. Heads bowed, led by our classmate Father John, we prayed (or at least assumed the position), and thought of the years we had shared when everyone had a future.

I'd been to the tenth, twentieth and thirtieth reunions, which were fun enough, but this one was different. We were looking back over some distance, and everyone knew it. Near the evening's close, we danced to a Beach Boys song that took on special poignancy:

"I sailed an ocean, unsettled ocean
Through restful waters and deep commotion
Often frightened, unenlightened,
Sail on, sail on sailor."

2017: Reasons to be cheerful

The association that is the Canadian equivalent of the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP) has a better acronym, CARP. It's probably my all-time favourite acronym, because if there's one thing age 50-plusses do with abandon, it's carp.

You meet a positive senior, you think, Must be the meds. Optimism is as rare as an unfurrowed face, content is kept to a discreet murmur, and the present cannot compare to times gone by.

A bookstore manager told me, "We've had great response from the customers, except for one type who complain about what we carry, how we display the books and our return policy. That's fair, but they take so much time making their point." I knew what she would say next: "They are all retired folks."

Being older is like being in a relationship: you'd better pick your spots, and if you whinge about everything, no one will want you around. Recently a friend complained that she always gets offered a seat on the bus or subway. Below her complaint was chagrin at being seen as an older person. She said, "I always turn it down." For me, the offer is a gesture of civility, and I have no problem being seen as someone who might need it. Stand or sit: to each her own.

But I carp plenty, sometimes here: clothes aren't made as well as they once were, fair employment practices have eroded, and don't get me started about the rise of personal debt. But as 2017 rolls in, I am grateful that two friends and a nephew who have faced harrowing diagnoses over the past year are doing well thanks to advanced medical treatment that didn't exist forty years ago.

I'm grateful for the access to information, and especially to culture, provided by technology. When I visited my home town last fall, the present owners of my childhood home spoke of their delight with their recent move. I, however, remembered an isolating—if beautiful—place, which I ached to leave so that I could see a ballet or professional theatre performance. The Internet would have helped.

Fleece-lined socks, the ubiquity of recycling programs, Greek-style yogurt at the corner store, jeans with stretch, safer cars, more acceptance of diversity: these are welcome differences from "the way things used to be" when I was around twenty, anticipating adult life. And I must add: the FIT test, which screens a segment of mature adults so that not everyone requires a periodic colonoscopy? Brilliant.

I am grateful for things that were beyond my imagination (my nephew's bone marrow transplant, which used cells from a donor in Germany), the trivial (nail-buffer blocks), and social movements that keep us moving toward a better world, such as efforts to register voters and resettle migrants.

If I focus mainly on what has changed for the worse, I can easily slide into that peevish-elder mode, the one many younger adults expect, the caricature too often validated.

So, I invite you to help me. What's come along in the last thirty or forty years that has made life better for you or your community?

I want to dress like Arnold Palmer

The great golfer died this year, prompting accolades, and not solely for his athleticism. GQ editor John Jannuzzi appreciated his style, writing: "... his clothes were in constant harmony, perfectly well fit and classic, polished, nothing ever too loud or crazy.”
“He was not second-guessing what he was wearing, and that’s what a lot of guys are still after, knowing what works for them and owning their own style.”
Ignore the pronoun, and that's a terrific M.O for a woman, too. If you replace the adjectives with their antonyms, you'd get jumbled, sloppy. trendy, loud: in other words, most of the inventory of the fast-fashion empire.
Last year, I said that, as I age, I want to dress like Queen Elizabeth. Now, Arnold joins the list of elder exemplars, but I am not getting into golf wear any more than I'd choose HRH's hats.  

But I do want his focus and polish; despite that, Palmer didn't look stuffy. He'd lighten his game with sky-blue pants or a pink sweater (which most men avoided like a Zika-carrying mosquito), and all of it was of high quality:

What would I buy, following Arnie's lead? A few things:
Maggiore houndstooth charcoal ruana, $275:
J. Crew lace-panel skirt (detail shown), sale price, $320— which I'd wear over tights, but the pretty contrast of lace and geometric print would still show. (Mostly sold out now.)

Jewellery: Real + vintage looks effortless, and has workmanship unmatched by most of today's mass-market designer goods. 

I might wear Beladora's retro rose gold, diamond and ruby bracelet, while enjoying an Arnold Palmer. (Price, $1, 850 and worth saving for.) The marquise diamond is a discreet 80 points, so daywear-able.

A splurge of classic tailoring: Lafayette148 "Ellington"cashmere coat with mink pockets: luxurious, clean, calm; sale price $1, 408:

As I searched for representative pieces, I realized that many are costly, even on sale. Palmer and many of his generation understood buying clothes that last. And if I'm buying for longevity, they better be things that suit me!

In a 2011 interview, Palmer said, "I’ve always felt you have to develop your own style. You can’t take it away, and you can’t give it. It’s something that’s there, and that’s what I’ve worked on through all my life. To whatever success I’ve had, I contribute it to the fact that I developed my own style. It’s how you look, how you think…everything you do is in some way connected to that style…the way you shine your shoes!”

Fast, disposable fashion diminishes that ability. When we slip into thinking, Oh it will only last a season, but that's OK, or (my personal sand trap), I need something new and I don't want to spend a lot, we actually de-skill ourselves. 

By all accounts, Arnold Palmer lived his life with joy and grace, and what he wore was hardly the defining characteristic. But how he looked meant something to him, and he would use his fame to at times improve others' game. 

Apparently he'd cross a clubhouse floor anywhere to request that a man remove his cap indoors.    

Happy New Pearls!

Warm wishes for a wonderful and especially, for a pearly New Year!

Following our tradition, the Passage reopens with a pearl post. Because I've recently received inquiries about what to do with 'not quite you' pearls, I've dressed the windows in reno ideas.

Traditional akoyas

By far my most frequent inquiry concerns Mom's or your own necklace of 5mm-6mm akoyas, the classic wedding strand, now too short and small. Why not restyle, provided Mom won't pitch a fit?

Not all the pearls may be salvageable; body oil, cosmetics and especially perfume may have degraded the pearl's surface.

Left:  Pick the best five or six pearls and combine them with beads; this example from Jan Logan shows white freshwaters combined with lagoon-blue Amazonite rounds and ovals, a graceful way to incorporate sentimental pearls into a new piece. (Amazonite is very reasonably priced; this piece is $AU 585).

Centre: Combine the pearls with new freshwaters and the more contemporary wire-wrapping. Example: Kojima Company's "Winter Blossom" necklace, which combines not only sizes but varieties and colours. This style is also a good solution if the pearls were originally a graduated strand.

Right: Here's an idea for the woman who finds a necklace too heavy, or prefers a casual piece. The example is Mallory Marks pearl collage necklace: sapphire beads—some tumbled, one faceted—with one Tahitian 11mm pearl (but you could use any pearl variety), and several small pearls; 18k chain.

Seed or rice pearls

Another reader wrote, "I have my mother-in-law's torsade of seed pearls, bought on a 1981 cruise. They are not 'me' at all... but it seems a shame to discard them." 

You can still find such pieces still sold by mainstream jewellers, and they do carry a retro whiff. But tiny, lustrous seed pearls have a distinct charm, and if good quality, can live again in a hipper new design.

Left, the original cruise souvenir; right, the seed pearls treated as 'chain', with baroque Tahitians added. The piece shown showcases 8.5 mm Tahitians, from West Main Pearls.

"Oh! You shouldn't have!"

Perhaps the most mournful e-mail: "My husband bought me beautiful pearls for my birthday, but did not think about the colour. Now I have these yellow South Seas, not great with my skin tone. They just seem to wash me out."

Ah, this is a delicate matter—and I would take the reno road only if an exchange is not possible. (But I would not wear unflattering pearls because you did not want to have the conversation.)

Assuming these are natural coloured gold South Seas, that's a costly misstep. Though you can't dye pearls like a pair of shoes, you can tweak their effect through artful composition, by breaking up that swath of gold with other coloured materials.

Two takes on restyling gold pearls: left, some of the golds mixed with Tahitian baroque and keshis, example from WestMain Pearls. Grey leavens the 'goldiness' and varied shapes make the necklace less formal.

Right, a multistrand necklace of brown and white crystals, white pearls, gold (dyed) pearls, and gold seed beads by NewJulianasCreations.The cost for adding crystal strands would be modest, and I would get top grade glowy freshwater whites for the contrast colour.

Where to get more pearls?

You can consult a good jeweller, or look yourself among these or similar web-based vendors. Below, examples of the company's goods that I might use in the renos above.

Ehret Design Gallery
Pearl dealer Carolyn Ehret sells on eBay, but the cautions of buying on eBay do not pertain to her store, which specializes in high-quality pearls and gemstones. When mixing the classic akoyas into a wire-wrap, five circled Tahitians that flash multi-colours would be one of the varieties to add; the lot shown is about $US 35. Also great for findings such as gold spacers.

Kojima Pearl Company
Kojima carry a selection of unusual pearls from singles to lots of five or so, and you can contact them for larger lots, or a mix. For those gold South Seas, I'd use these dyed grey keshi (just over $100)... and maybe scatter in a few rondelle beads for fun.

Augustus Collection
This eBay seller, from whom I have not bought pearls, but where I routinely look, has 100% positive feedback. You can also find gemstone beads, like these tanzanite rondelles, which would look terrific in that akoya "collage" restyle.

Framed, with love 

If your pearls are sentimental, but you would never wear them, consider framing! This example is from LoveLightSparkles on Etsy, but you could play with your own design. Visit a craft store to buy a shadowbox, mount the necklace with pushpins, perhaps against a backdrop of an old photo or striking patterned paper, and you'll have a gracious memento.