It distressed me to learn the news of J.D. Salinger's death. The man was 91 years old, so it should hardly have come as a surprise. But in our collective imagination, J.D. Salinger had long ceased to be a man and had become a mythical figure.
The image of Salinger - living in isolation in the New Hampshire mountains, wearing L.L. Bean, eating exotic health foods, writing maniacally, and stashing manuscripts in his secret vault - had become timeless, and it was all we had. This mythological narrative invited our imaginations to sculpt it in any way we wished and to infuse it with our own hopes and desires - or with our own prejudices.
In the media, it was rather sad to see the news of Salinger's death compete with the release of the Apple i-Pad. But nonetheless it did receive some coverage, and the coverage reflects our conflicted perceptions: notions of Salinger as a noble and sensitive romantic who has influenced generations and could hold the key to mysterious truths about the universe, versus notions of Salinger as a controlling, misogynistic weirdo who has made all those close to him miserable.
The New York Times describes Salinger's work as possibly the greatest of our time, but in the same breath remarks that he is mostly “famous for not wanting to be famous”. Bret Easton Ellis declares on twitter that he is happy about Salinger's death. CNN reminds us of his “affair with the teenage Joyce Maynard” (though the wording was later changed), who was in fact a 19-year-old adult when she lived with Salinger. And of course, speculations abound as to whether there really are unpublished manuscripts in the vaults that are rumored to be in his home. Perhaps he produced masterpieces but instructed his lawyer to burn them. Or perhaps he scribbled nonesense in his study day after day, or wrote nothing at all. With his estate as protective of his privacy as Salinger himself had been, we may never know the answer.
In 2005 I had just finished graduate school and began my first job, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. I moved into a house in a nearby town and discovered that I was practically “neighbors” with J.D. Salinger - at least in the rural sense, where the nearest neighbor can be a mile away. I knew where Salinger lived, as many people in that area did. I passed the winding road that led to his house on my commutes to work and back every day. But I never saw Salinger and never attempted to see him - not even to catch a glimpse at one of the local events he was said to always attend. In retrospect, I had wondered at this restraint on my part, especially as he was one of my favorite writers. But now I think I understand: It wasn't so much restraint, as a means of protecting myself against disillusionment. I did not want to see Salinger, because I did not want to know which version of him was real, if any.
In the end, it matters not a bit what kind of a person Salinger was, whether there really are any unpublished books in that vault, or for that matter, whether there is a vault at all. In his existing body of work J.D. Salinger has given us a great gift, and may he rest in peace.
As I strolled inside, I immediately liked the market. There was something unplanned and random, as there is about the best of farmers’ markets wherever they are. Other than for pearls, I hate shopping. Here there were no vegetables, fruit, meat, chickens, fish. No fresh baked goods. No eggs or rodents. No clothes, CD or DVD knock-offs, no fake Louis Vuitton, Chanel, or Prada purses. No cut-rate soccer jerseys. No gold or silver. Just pearls. My kind of market.
As I walked up and down each row, the hundreds of vendors, all women, all in the most vociferous and vigorous way, began hawking pearls directly to me, the sole Westerner there, someone they undoubtedly figured to be loaded.
High-quality, near-perfect round 10–12-millimeter choker strands were going for the equivalent of $75–$200. That weren’t cheap, but similar strands fetched as much as five times that in the States
“Meester, lookey here!” one vendor teased, dangling multiple strands from red-lacquered fingertips, shaking the pearls so they resembled a hula dancer.
“Toop cal-le-tee!” another woman yelled. “Come. You like!”
“I make special price,” another vendor cooed.
As I made a loop back again to the second aisle, a pretty woman shouted, “I luv-e you, sir!” I imagined carrying my newfound Pearl Princess through the pearl market to thunderous applause in a Chinese remake of An Officer and a Gentleman.
High-quality, near-perfect round 10–12-millimeter choker strands were going for the equivalent of $75–$200. That weren’t cheap, but similar strands fetched as much as five times that in the States, and if the retailer called the pearls Japanese (or Australian), the price would be higher.
At first, I wanted to opt for a white Jackie Kennedy choker, but that would be classic Japanese akoya pearls (like the ones my mother used to wear), and today those pearls look small and dated. Besides, this was China. Why get a knock-off Japanese strand in China? What made sense was to buy a strand of dyed Chinese freshwaters.
I was about to pay a stranger for one necklace of 31 matched pearls more than what most workers in Zhuji earn in an entire month. I wasn’t sure if I should feel guilty or glad that I was investing so much in one family’s economy.
I found a vendor, in her mid-forties, and started bargaining. Shaving $10 or $20 meant a lot more to the vendor than it did to me, and we settled on $140 for a strand. I was about to pay a stranger for one necklace of 31 matched pearls more than what most workers in Zhuji earn in an entire month. I wasn’t sure if I should feel guilty or glad that I was investing so much in one family’s economy.
I opted for a strand of slightly punk pinkish pearls, but after going through all the strands, I found nicks and abrasions in more than several of the pearls, so I asked to see a bag of loose pearls of a higher quality.
I sat in a corner of her stall, carefully picking out three-dozen drilled pink pearls I thought were perfect, and handed them to the vendor. She picked them up, laid them on a table (with the requisite white tablecloth) and went to work, thread and needle in hand.
Within fifteen minutes, she’d strung the pearls, tight little knots between each, and had put a small clasp on the end. I examined them, and they were as perfect a strand as I’d seen.
The vendor held the strand by the clasp, pulled a silk pouch from a drawer, loosened the black string to open the top, and then dipped the pearls into its new home. She tightened the string closure, and smiled as she handed me the pouch. We each bowed every so slightly.[Photo by Stephen G. Bloom]
---Buy Tears of Mermaids here---
Back in Zhuji, managers took me on tours of six mega pearl-processing plants, which lined the town’s main thoroughfare. Each contained endless rooms of sorters, in which tens of thousands of pearls poured onto long tables covered with taut, stretched white tablecloths. Under banks of bright fluorescent lights, scores of girls no more than sixteen sat on rows of benches, peering over multitudes of pearls. Each girl used oversized bamboo tweezers, grouping the pearls according to a variety of criteria — color, shade, shape, size, surface quality, lustre, orient. Each girl wore a smock and cotton sleeves cinched at the wrist and above the elbow.
My presence caused no small amount of tittering among the girls. “Do you mind if I ask you some questions?” I asked one girl, though Sofinny Kwok, a company minder assigned to me.
She flushed ruddy cheeks and very white teeth, the unlucky recruit singled out by the middle-aged foreign man. I could see how terrified the girl was, in front of her friends, bosses, a strange-looking, curly-haired stranger who spoke a language she had likely never heard before.
The employee sputtered that said she had worked as a pearl sorter for a year, and was one of four children who migrated from southern Anhui Province to Zhuji. Yes, she enjoyed her work. Of course, she enjoyed her work. In fact, she loved her work. I got it. She said through Kwok that she hoped to return to her home in several years, after saving money, to get married and start a family.
Rank-and-file workers at the processing plants were almost all women from fifteen to thirty years old. Most started out at the equivalent of 1,200 RMB a month, which converted to $167. (RMB is the abbreviation for Renminbi, which means “People's currency.”) This compared with $2,500 a month in Kobe for the same work done by workers with the same skills.
Kwok suggested there was ample opportunity for advancement in the company. In ten years of employ, sorters who showed exceptional promise could earn as much as 3,000 RMB, or $418 a month. The job is 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., six or seven days a week (depending on the season), with two tea breaks a day.
“What’s ‘exceptional promise?’” I asked, trying to break through company speak.
“Reliability, dependability, a good attitude. We look for girls who are stable, have good eyes, able to concentrate,” said Kwok. Indeed, after forty, he said, a sorter’s vision begins to soften and her worth to the company declines. “This is job for young girls,” Kwok said with no apologies. “Many far from their home. They have companionship here. Very few stay for more than ten years. This is good adventure for girl from a rural village.”
Once the millions of pearls have passed through the banks of hundreds of eagle-eyed sorters, each pearl is classified into further minute categories. Then the pearls are sent to an assortment of treatment rooms.
I came to think of these rooms as a kind of transformatron, where pearls, some plain and homely, come out stunners. Kwok opened a heavy metal door lined with shiny chrome and sparkling mirrors. I stepped inside. The room was so bright, I immediately looked down to shield my eyes. Inside were hundreds of large glass apothecary-type jars filled with thousands and thousands of pearls, all sitting under nonstop, very bright fluorescent lights and mirrors on the walls and ceiling. Pearls would stay here for weeks to months, to be transformed into orbs with vibrant shades, dazzling shines, and effervescent orients.
In another transformatron, I saw jars filled with pearls going from various stages of white, to gray, then to black, so eventually they’d be as dark as classic Tahitians. I walked into another transformatron, and the opposite was happening: mousy off-whites were being bleached over a course of weeks and months to turn into brilliant whites in an attempt to mimic the dazzling natural shades of Australians.
I could hear the telltale pearl plink: the click-clack-click of pearls bouncing off of each other and the side of the vats. Pieces of cork, ground-up walnut shells and eucalyptus chips, wax, even pulverized gold or platinum dust were added to enhance the pearls’ lustre. “Shine is good,” Kwok said, adding, “as long as not too shiny, then it look fake.”
This kind of wholesale enhancement and color alteration included sunlight, heat lamps, irradiation, various chemicals (silver nitrate, hydrogen sulfate, metallic silver), dyes (potassium, carotene, pomegranate extract, cobalt, and silver salts), as well as constant florescent light. Some rooms were lit brighter than a glary day in Nome, others were sealed and kept pitch black. Still other rooms were where which pearls were heated to infuse new color. Nearly everything could be altered about the pearl, except its size and shape, although I have no doubt Chinese technicians were working on pearl-growth hormones, too.
Kwok ushered me into more than two dozen transformatrons, each for a different purpose. He freely copped to the oft-repeated charges that the Chinese treat their pearls, enhancing their lustre, deepening or altering colors. Neither Kwok nor any of the other managers trailing on my tour was in the least defensive about the business of pearl treatments. It was no big deal. Whereas to the Tahitians, Philippines and Australians, as I was to learn, such wholesale tampering with the integrity of a pearl was akin to fraud and manipulation. Executives from all three nations angrily charged that the Chinese with essentially creating fake pearls by employing these methods.
But Kwok just shrugged his shoulders when I asked. “We do it to make our pearls as competitive as we can,” he said no apology.
Kwok took me into another room where large stainless steel Mixomatic-type vats sat, into which workers dumped sacks and sacks of pearls for polishing. I could hear the telltale pearl plink: the click-clack-click of pearls bouncing off of each other and the side of the vats. Pieces of cork, ground-up walnut shells and eucalyptus chips, wax, even pulverized gold or platinum dust were added to enhance the pearls’ lustre. Kwok again had no qualms about such methods. “Shine is good,” he said, adding, “as long as not too shiny, then it look fake.”
There were other rooms in this Mission Control of Pearls, in which workers further refined already matched pearls before they were classified into varying grades. The women worked their tweezers fast. The pearls proceeded to rows of more employees, who sat before drills, placing a new pearl in a slot to be drilled every three to five seconds. Still another room was filled with more young women with the nimblest of fingers, for here was where stringing took place.
It all was a continuous production line that spanned the length of a hangar-long building, all leading up to the Sales Hall, where buyers could purchase anything from bushels of sorted pearls to completed hanks of AAA-quality pearls.
Next: At the pearl market[Photos by Stephen G. Bloom]
---Buy Tears of Mermaids here---
Pearls are emblematic of China’s rising global dominance. They’re a national cash cow, but they’re also a fitting metaphor. Nearly everything the world uses today comes whole or in part from the Chinese provinces of Guangzhou, Fujian and Zhejiang. Refrigerators, washing machines, computers, TVs, building materials, cell phones, microwave ovens, processed foods, automobile components, toys, bio-tech products, clothing, shoes, baby strollers, tools, the list goes on and on.
Small, satellite towns surrounding Zhuji are incubators for what is known as “lump economics,” the process of specializing in one particular niche product. Nearby Datang has the distinction of being the world’s biggest sock maker, manufacturing more than ten billion pairs a year. Diankow has become a hardware-manufacturing district. Fengqiao specializes in the manufacture of shirts. Sandu makes butter-soft pashminas every woman in the west seems to covet. Tens of thousands of peasants leave the countryside every year, flocking to these specialized factory districts, where jobs are waiting, along with dormitory housing and cafeteria meals.
Zhuji is to pearls what Hershey, Pennsylvania, is to chocolate. As my bus got closer to downtown, I noticed more and more piles of discarded mussel shells alongside the road. The piles got taller and taller, one after another, until they weren’t piles any longer but continuous mountains of used shells lining the thoroughfare. Downtown, in the middle of a traffic circle, an imposing sculpture of three silvery sea nymphs beckoned visitors. Each Brobdingnagian nymph was kneeling on her right knee, her long luxuriant hair horizontally caught in mid-flight. In each nymph’s palm, lofted high above her head as an offering to the gods, was — what else? — a gigantic silver-colored pearl.
Early the next morning, China Pearl & Jewellery lieutenant Dave Bing drove me out to see a pearl farm. This was early March and the weather was brisk. Bing looked harried, nervously pushing back his black hair as we sped down a busy boulevard. We turned off onto a secondary street, then onto a gravel road that ran perpendicular to the first, driving four miles or so, until we stopped at a fenced gate. Bing nodded to a sentry, who pushed open the wide gate. We traversed a muddy road filled with potholes. The ride was so bumpy that, after a particularly deep pothole, Bing’s head and mine hit the van’s ceiling, and as we came down, our shoulders bumped against each other. “Too much rain,” Bing muttered under his breath. We crossed a narrow, rickety bridge. For another mile or two, we drove on a field rutted with tire marks. Finally, we parked on a steep, pitched grade overlooking a small lake filled with very dirty, almost black water.
I could see against a backdrop of purple fog and haze scores and scores of similar lakes, cut into the patchy Yangtze River Valley countryside. The lakes seemed to go on forever. Dotting the surface of each were tens of thousands of green plastic pop bottles bobbing up and down. It was a bizarre sight. Deep in rural China, as far as possible from anything Western, it seemed a 7-Up bottling plant had unloaded millions of green, liter-sized bottles that magically found themselves floating on the surfaces of a multitude of opaque lakes.
“Follow me,” Bing instructed. He took a machete from the pickup.
A small welcoming party awaited my arrival, and therein ensued all the requisite bowing that accompanied such occasions. As we finished with formalities, Bing asked me to choose whichever green bottle I fancied on the lake before us.
I did, pointing to a bottle thirty feet from the shore, which seemed off in its own world. A worker promptly got into a flat-bottom wooden boat and paddled over to the bottle.
“This one?” he shouted in Chinese. “This is the one you want?”
Within seconds, Bing was picking out glowing oblong things that looked like jellybeans. They were pearls, of course — purple, pink, lilac, white, and yellow. And they were shiny. I couldn’t count how many Bing had scooped from the mussel, but he had at least fifty,
The worker promptly pulled up a muddy five-foot rope tethered on top by the green plastic bottle and on the bottom by a round wire basket. He cut the rope and dropped the basket onto the ribbed floor of his boat, then quickly paddled back to shore. Inside the basket were four large hard-shelled mussels, their halves shut tight. As the worker dumped out his haul, I noticed how different these mussels looked from oysters. They certainly were larger than any oyster I’d seen. And their shape. If I hadn’t known these gnarly-looking mollusks were mussels, I might have thought they were some kind of crustacean, maybe an exotic hard-shelled crab whose legs had retracted into its body. Bing lined up the four bivalves on the cement apron to the lake.
He asked me which I wanted him to open, and I pointed to the second one. It looked as ugly and as unprepossessing a thing as possible, even after Bing cleaned it off with a squirt of water from a hose. A circle of onlookers edged closer.
Bing wiggled the machete firmly inside the twin halves of the mussel. He lifted the machete and the attached mussel chest high. Then with a whomp, he slammed both down to the concrete, splitting apart the twin hemispheres.
What I saw first was an excess of flaccid, fleshy meat, oozing out of the split shells. The insides were markedly different from the gray translucent viscera of oysters. This stuff resembled pinkish-white fatty tissue, and it carried a foul odor. Bing quickly put down the machete, knelt, and pried open the twin halves. He grabbed the gooey innards of the mussel. Bing’s blue tie kept getting in the way, swinging back and forth, and out of frustration, he finally flipped the tie over his shoulder.
Within seconds, Bing was picking out from the mussel halves glowing oblong things that looked like jellybeans. They were pearls, of course — purple, pink, lilac, white, and yellow. And they were shiny. I had never before seen so many bright-colored, smooth-skinned nuggets come from anything. I couldn’t count how many Bing had scooped from the mussel, but he had at least fifty, and they weren’t small. They were longer than the pearls I’d seen come from oysters, and their shapes were more oblong than round. More squirts from a hose to clean off his treasures, and then Bing held out both his hands, cradling four dozen iridescent pearls.
“Wow!” I said.
The circle of onlookers seemed pleased with my reaction. “Wow!” they said, nodding to each other, smiling widely, “Wow! Wow!” “Wow!” they mimicked in increasing volume. I guess “Wow!” was one of those universal words like “Okay!” that needs no translation.
“Pick one,” Bing offered majestically. I chose a pinkish-orange pearl, which I carefully picked from his open palm. I placed the pearl in the middle of my own flattened palm, as the sun had finally made its way through the morning haze. I marveled at its color, shin, lustre, and density. It was, at once, hard like a stone yet, in its own way, soft and vulnerable. Wow, indeed.
Tomorrow: A pearl processing center in Zhuji
[Freshwater pearl beads from Yiwu Disa Jewelry Co., Ltd. Piles of discarded shells by Randy Goodman, originally published by Shanghai Scrap, used with permission. Dave Bing taking pearls from mussel by Stephen G. Bloom.]
---Buy Tears of Mermaids here---
Zhuji (pronounced SHOE-ghee), about 100 miles southwest of Shanghai in the province of Zhejiang, is the epicenter of the world’s freshwater pearl market. These are cultivated pearls that don’t come from oysters, but instead from large, oval-shaped mussels. China produces 99 percent of all such freshwater pearls in the world. Zhejiang province is dotted with thousands of small, family-operated pearl farms, most of them state cooperatives. Such farms are seemingly everywhere, with millions of green plastic pop bottles bobbing up and down on the surfaces of thousands of small artificial lakes, each bottle signifying another crop of fresh mussels, and each mussel containing as many as fifty pearls inside. Exactly how the Chinese have been able to cultivate mussels that produce so many pearls remains something of a mystery. These pearls don’t develop around an inserted nucleus, as their counterparts in oysters do, but instead grow from multiple tiny squares of mussel mantle tissue inserted into each host mussel.
The first crop of Chinese freshwater pearls appeared in the early 1970s, and since then, pearl exports from Hyriopsis cumingii mussels have grown exponentially. At first, the pearls were miniscule. By the 1980s, their size had grown and they started coming in a variety of striking rainbow colors. These pearls were often labeled and sold as Lake Biwa or Lake Kasumigaura pearls from Japan, fetching higher prices because of the Japanese label.
The Chinese freshwaters were a breakthrough in the fashion marketplace. Fashion-conscious women around the world started wearing pearls that weren’t just white or cream-colored, and not always round. Stylish younger women gravitated to them. These pearls had four things going for them: they were colorful, they often weren’t symmetrical (the baroque shapes appealed to non-traditional pearl wearers), they had the legitimacy of being real pearls, and they were downright cheap when compared to traditional pearls. As their size got larger, the Chinese freshwaters readily turned into trendy fashion items, turning into accessories fashion-forward women in their twenties and thirties from Paris to São Paulo just had to have. It didn’t hurt that women like Meryl Streep, Jennifer Aniston, and eventually Michelle Obama started wearing them, too.
As Chinese technology got better, more and more freshwater pearls came on the global market at a fraction of the price of their international counterparts. By the late 1990s, the best of the Chinese freshwaters were virtually undetectable from increasingly scarce Japanese akoyas, and soon, the Chinese pearls were available in even larger sizes than the Japanese species would allow. Symmetrical freshwater Chinese pearls now come as large as 14 millimeters (that’s as big as a marble), and are getting larger. Their skin can be flawless and comes in a multitude of colors (pink, blue, violet, orange, gold, gray), some right out of the shell, others the result of dye, chemical, and radiation treatments.
The flooding of so many Chinese pearls into the world market presented a problem for producers of more expensive pearls (just about every producer outside China). It’d be akin to the De Beers diamond syndicate discovering a competitor had come up with a new process that could create a genuine diamond, not a zirconium knockoff, but a real diamond that cost pennies to the thousands De Beers diamonds fetch. No wonder the worldwide pearl industry started screaming.
Example: A strand of medium-sized, near-perfect Chinese freshwater pearls can be bought wholesale today for under $150. Such reverse sticker shock is freaking out just about every other national producer of pearls. To make matter worse, to most consumers, such a strand is virtually identical to strands that sell for five and ten times as much (and sometimes more). Chinese freshwaters are showing up everywhere, from top-end retail jewelry boutiques like Mikimoto, Bulgari, Harry Winston, and Van Cleef & Arpel’s to low-end merchandizing giants, such as Wal-Mart, JC Penney, Jeremy Shepherd’s Internet sites, and cable TV’s QVC. Their price-point is so low and their quality can be so high, that it’s no surprise that some dealers intentionally mislabel Chinese strands as of a more expensive provenance (Japanese, Tahitian, even Australian). This can be by unscrupulous intention, but it’s often just an uninformed mistake. Chinese pearls can look so good they fool wholesalers and retailers alike.
Inexpensive high-quality Chinese pearls are out there, and out there in a big way, and because of their proliferation, the global pearl industry is undergoing the same cataclysmic changes it faced in the 1930s, when Japanese cultured pearls were introduced to world markets. The rapid abundance of cultured pearls devastated and soon destroyed the natural-pearl market. Some dealers say today that the same could happen with Chinese freshwater pearls, ultimately replacing their much more expensive seawater counterparts from around the world. I wanted to see how the Chinese were going to make this happen.[Pearl farm and baroque pearls photos by Stephen G. Bloom. Freshwater pearl necklaces from Yiwu Disa Jewelry Co., Ltd.]
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With their mysterious origins and luminescent surfaces, pearls have an intrinsic glamour. They were for centuries the most precious of gems, more treasured even than diamonds. Mikimoto Kōkichi’s development of cultured pearls in the early 20th century made pearls more common and affordable—and a big international business. In recent years, Chinese freshwater pearl farms have further expanded pearl production. In Tears of Mermaids: The Secret Story of Pearls, journalism professor Stephen G. Bloom traces pearls from oyster to store, revealing a usually hidden world of jewelry tycoons and pearl enthusiasts. In revealing the complex global business behind the jewels, he manages not to strip the gems of their glamour but, through his own fascination, to restore some of the luster they’ve lost to images of staid preppy matrons. To introduce a week of selections from Tears of Mermaids, journalism professor (here, here, here, and here), Bloom answered our questions about the glamour and business of pearls.
DG: Why pearls? What's their appeal to you? SB: Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a quirky newspaper story about a year in the life of a frayed tuxedo jacket I rented when a friend asked me to be an usher at his wedding. After I returned the tux to the rental store, I followed who else wore the same jacket for the next 51 weeks. The jacket, model 18214, went on four Caribbean cruises, not just a few weddings, and a slew of proms. By week 14, jacket 18214 had developed a rip under the right shoulder. After week 22, it came back with a bloodstain under the left armpit (I didn’t want to know). Several times 18214 was returned with either vomit stains or the smell of vomit on it. Those proms and weddings must have been festive affairs. After the year was over, I interviewed as many of the wearers as I could find. One man, Renter 46, told me he had worn 18214 while on an Alaska cruise with a woman who was not his wife. He asked me to withhold his name, a request I honored.
The tuxedo story was a gimmicky piece that began in a rental shop and from there moved forward. But years later, I wondered if my direction had been wrong. What would have happened had I moved backward in time — to where the jacket’s fibers had been grown, who had gathered the crop and how, where the threads had been spun into cloth, who had sewn on the buttons?
Tracking the hopscotch world route from creation to consumption was an off-the-wall concept that stayed with me, and not just for tuxedo jackets. Who were the nurturers at whose hands any object took shape? What kinds of lives did each along this global assembly line lead? What were their stories? Did the goods these laborers produce have any meaning to them? After the products were manufactured, how many middlemen traded the goods along the way, and by what amount did each hike the price?
Some people have visions of Jesus, Rolexes, Rolls Royces, the 18th hole at St. Andrews. My visions have always been of pearls. Big, beautiful, shiny, luminescent ones.
As the Western world becomes less and less a consortium of producer nations, we forget (or ignore) that the objects we wear, consume and surround ourselves with come to us from a spider-web network of laborers, processors, managers, brokers, agents, jobbers and distributors, usually in faraway places. The closer to the raw material, the less remunerative the pay usually is (straight out of Economics 101, I know, but nonetheless something I found nutty). Some workers earn practically nothing. Others further up the ladder are rewarded quite handsomely. All share hopes and dreams, desperation and heartbreak. Yet we know nothing about these anonymous laborers, toiling to bring necessities, convenience, and luxury to our insular, cozy lives. Who are they all?
Those at the beginning of the global chain seldom know anything about those in the middle or those at the end; those in the middle and end know little, if anything, about those at the beginning. The genius of the global economy, of course, is to ensure that we’ll never know any of them. Indeed, part of that genius is to dissociate with the end user any human intervention whatsoever in the creation and transit of the commodities to which we’re so fiercely attached.
But why exactly pearls? That’s the question. Why not some other object (diamonds, coffee beans, chocolate, really almost any commodity would have worked) to use as a prism to observe the world’s interconnections? What was it about pearls that led me on this crazy, manic four-year orbit?
And it’s a good question. My affection for pearls is curious. Except for pearls, I’m not a jewelry person. I’ve never worn a watch. I hate diamonds and gold. Too showy, too glittery. Too much of a neon sign. Pearls, though, are altogether different. Plucked from a live oyster, pearls are at once shiny, lustrous, ready to wear. They need no polishing, no treatment.
I’ve carried a torch for pearls ever since I was a little boy. My favorite book was The Pearl, which I must have read 20 times. I had (and still have) a wild crush on Holly Golightly, the Audrey Hepburn character in the 1961 film Breakfast At Tiffany's, bedecked in those exquisite pearl strands while peering into Tiffany’s on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. Princess Grace, Jackie Kennedy, and Princess Diana were beautiful women, yes, but what sealed their sophistication and charm for me wasn’t their looks, it was the pearls they wore.
Some people have visions of Jesus, Rolexes, Rolls Royces, the 18th hole at St. Andrews. My visions have always been of pearls. Big, beautiful, shiny, luminescent ones. The best have orient, a depth that allows a connoisseur to look into the pearl and see different layers of conchiolin, or calcium carbonate. It’s like looking into a pearl’s soul. Let me play with pearls any day. It’s my grown-up version of marbles. There’s something so tactilely satisfying about rolling them around on your palms, pushing them atop a white cloth to see if they wobble, or spinning them between your index finger and thumb to determine the perfect round pearl from the near-round.
Still, though, why pearls, of all things?
I was mesmerized by what I thought were mysterious white marbles on a string. I’d marvel at their sheen, but what I remember most was the clean, clicking sound the pearls made when they collided with each other.
They’re a touchstone to my mother, a way to remember her. When I was a child, my mother used to wear — only on special occasions — her one and only pearl necklace. The strand was modest and frugal, as was my family, a reflection of post-Depression, post-World War II. The necklace had been given to my mother by her mother as a wedding present. Preparing to go out for a modest night on the town, perhaps to celebrate their anniversary, my father would dress in a suit and somber tie, my mother would wear a cheerful but demure dress. Following the age-old pearl dictum, “last on, first off,” my mother would fix her hair and slip into her dress. Then she’d take the glass stopper of a bottle of Shalimar perfume, and dab behind each earlobe. It was only when she was finally ready that my mother would ask my father to fasten the clasp to her one extravagance: the pearl necklace. This was always an ordeal, my father struggling with the clasp, my mother waiting anxiously till he got it right. “Stand still,” he’d instruct my mother, sternly and genially.
I was mesmerized by what I thought were mysterious white marbles on a string. I’d marvel at their sheen, but what I remember most was the clean, clicking sound the pearls made when they collided with each other. They had a certain weight and density, they had symmetry, but most of all, they seemed to still be alive. To a little boy, they had magical powers.
Once a year, there they’d be, my parents — two ordinary Americans in the 1950s, arm in arm, strolling out the front door of an ordinary suburban home, headed to celebrate another year together, a single strand of pearls leading their way to the future.
DG: Your book traces the path pearls take from oyster to final buyer, depicting a lot of the business and technical details. Does knowing where they come from change how you feel about pearls?
SB: I started out knowing practically nothing about pearls — with the possible exception that pearls are created when a grain of sand gets caught inside an oyster. Wow, was I ever clueless! Besides finding out that the grain-of-sand theory is a myth, I discovered a global cosmos of pearl freaks, people who not only work daily with pearls, but who are as addicted to pearls as chocoholics are to chocolate.
The four years I worked on the book turned into a pilgrimage and ended as an obsession. I drove hard bargains with cagey dealers and got ripped off (at least in the beginning) before I learned to haggle with the best dealers in the world. I became pearl-crazed, spending hours studying individual pearls till I got dizzy. Pearls were all I thought about. Wherever I went, I had vivid, recurring dreams about them. I still do.
Maybe it was over the blue expanse of the South Pacific or the Timor Sea while sorting pearls moments after they had emerged from their watery wombs. As I got more and more attached to these perfect little spheres, as my appreciation for them deepened, my fascination paradoxically became as much about pearls and as what pearls ultimately represent. Yes, they embody how humans can trick and then coax Mother Nature into producing one of the world’s most heavenly and expensive objects. That was a nifty trick, but it wasn’t what drew me deeper and deeper into pearls. Pearls had grown into metaphors, ways to look at global economics, the environment, fashion, wealth, danger, greed, exploitation, adventure, even human spirit.
You might think this little pearl “phase” of my life is now over. That now I can get on with the rest of whatever is important in the life of a Midwest college professor and writer. But, still, seeing a spectacular strand of pearls drops me to my knees.
When I was researching the book, I can’t begin to guess how many times I’d be at a pearl convention, show, or auction when a drop-dead gorgeous woman would stun everyone by strutting in, wearing a magnificent strand of pearls. Given the audience at these events, every head would swivel towards the necklace (not the woman). Within a nanosecond, the dealers would have assessed the pearls’ orient, lustre, surface quality, size, shape, and match — and, if they were as grand as they looked at first blush, the dealers’ eyes would dilate. Without a moment’s hesitation, the first thing they’d sputter to the woman would be, “May I inquire the provenance of your pearls?” It was all a game, of course, since the dealers already knew, but a popular diversion nonetheless since the wearer almost never had a clue.
I’ve become that dealer.
DG: What's the most surprising thing you learned about pearls?
SB: The most amazing thing pearls was to see the pearls fresh and virgin, sitting inside an oyster waiting to be plucked out. And if everything had worked according to plan, the pearls sitting next to the oysters’ gonads would be big, round, and lustrous. I saw thousands of pearls come directly from oysters, and each and every time I saw another pearl extracted from inside an oyster, my heart skipped a beat. It’s akin to witnessing a birth of sorts.
I also learned the two ways to tell real pearls (either cultured or natural, it doesn’t make any difference) from fakes: by rubbing a single pearl across the bottom of your teeth or by rubbing two pearls against each other. Either test will produce the same gritty sensation. Fakes feel smooth. Fakes are generally glass beads; there is no drag, no friction; whereas pearls have a natural coating that is impossible to replicate.
DG: In our DeepGlamour Q&As we routinely ask the question, Diamonds or Pearls? Although pearls have their fans, people often use words like “stodgy,” “dowdy,” and “very Westport, Connecticut.” One interviewee said, “Pearls are classy, but they add 10 years to anyone.” Why do pearls have these negative associations?
Blame it on June Cleaver, vacuuming the living room carpet in a tailored suit, high heels, and a pearl strand, waiting for Ward to come home and ask about the Beaver. Barbara Bush also was terrible for the pearl industry.
But wrap a strand of luscious baroque Tahitian black pearls around Halle Berry’s neck, and I doubt anyone would think that they make her look ten years older.
Pearls don’t have to be round or white any longer. Nor do they have to be dainty and small, always in traditional matinee length. Today, pearls come in exotic, freeform shapes in just about every color of the rainbow. Women can wrap ropes of pearls around their necks. They can use them in their hair. Classic, symmetrical, round white pearls still work, but I personally prefer pearls with contours, rivulets, ripples in them.
Coco Chanel in the 1930’s promoted the casual use of pearls, and I think what Coco did 80 years ago was a pretty fashion-forward thing to do. She mixed faux pearls with real ones, whether she was kicking around in sneakers and Capri pants, or wearing the little black dress she invented.
Today’s remade June Cleavers are just as likely to wear pearls — now, though, they’re dressed in Vera Wang cocktail dresses and Jimmy Choo stilts, or wearing Old Navy sweatpants and flip-flops.
An abbreviated registry of today’s style-makers for whom pearls are close to the core of their fashion aesthetic includes Hillary Rodham Clinton and Nancy Pelosi — but also Michelle Obama, Madonna, Nicole Kidman, Oprah Winfrey, Jodie Foster, Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Roberts, even Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. Your grandmother might still wear pearls, but probably not in a low-cut Versace gown with a thigh-high slit. As shoe-design king Manolo Blahnik put it: “Pearls give a gloss, a certain refinement, even if you’re just a trashy girl.”
The thing about pearls is that they project a series of paradoxes that gold or diamonds can’t touch: innocence and power; simplicity and sophistication; youth and wisdom; integrity and drama; humility and conceit; tradition and haute couture; chastity and sexuality; modesty and wealth. Really, when you think about it, what other fashion item can do all that?
SB: Several suggestions:
• Get to Michelle and convince her to wear pearls every day, not just when she’s pumping iron, entertaining the Indian prime minister at a state dinner, visiting Sasha and Malia’s school on parent-teacher night, or slipping out for burgers with Barack at a Foggy Bottom diner. First Ladies (Remember Jackie? Forget everyone else) for better or worse ought to be the world’s chief progenitors of wow glamour.
• Spend more on product placement of hip, fashion-forward, large baroque pearl strands worn by glamorous trendsetters at events like the Golden Globes, Tonys, and Oscars. Don’t bother with the People’s Choice Awards.
• Let women know that the value of pearls outstrips diamonds and gold because pearls can be worn more often and in more diverse settings. Gold or diamonds of the same price as AAA pearls weigh too much to be worn. Something else distinguishes pearls from gold or diamonds: Gold shines, diamonds sparkle, but pearls actually glow. Their soft, warm luminescence quite literally lights up a wearer’s face. Diamonds might be a girl’s best friend, but let’s face it, in a necklace they’re over-the-top garish. And gold frankly doesn’t look great against the milky complexions of Caucasian women.
• Educate jewelers. People who sell jewelry generally know little about pearls. I can’t tell you how often I’ve gone into a jewelry store, and innocently ask a clerk to show me a pearl strand, only to be told outrageous tales about the pearls — that they’re natural, or that they’re are still living. Really! There’s not much general knowledge about pearls these days in the jewelry industry, and I think that may cause jewelers to steer buyers towards other adornments.
• One thing I wouldn’t do is mandate a uniform grading scale of pearls. Many leaders in the industry advocate the creation of such a system. I oppose such a plan. Pearls don’t have carats or the 4C’s to set price. While a dealer can boast of a pearl’s color, lustre, skin purity, orient, shape, there’s still no universal grading system. The same strand can go for $300 or $30,000. Even the best appraisals are sketchy and subjective. Pricing a pearl is wholly subjective. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I like ’em so much. Their beauty lies wholly with the beholder.
Pearls are the coalmine canaries of the world’s seas and oceans. The environment pearls come from (at least for saltwater pearls) has to be absolutely pristine for pearls to flourish. There’s no equivalent in the pearl world to “blood diamonds” or “conflict diamonds.” There are no dark, calamitous, unsafe mineshafts.
• Pearls are the coalmine canaries of the world’s seas and oceans. The environment pearls come from (at least for saltwater pearls) has to be absolutely pristine for pearls to flourish. Pearls don’t have to be faceted or melted. They’re organic objects that come out of their natural homes perfect.
There’s no equivalent in the pearl world to “blood diamonds” or “conflict diamonds.” There are no dark, calamitous, unsafe mineshafts, as there are with gold, diamonds, and other extractive ores and minerals. Today, the conditions under which pearl workers around the globe labor are reasonably good. Certainly, some pearl workers are poorly paid (principally in China and Indonesia, and to a lesser degree in the Philippines), but wages in most venues are relatively high. The industry needs to broadcast this aspect of pearl cultivation.
• Change the way the jewelry industry sells pearls. Open pearl boutiques, where buyers are able to sift through dozens of bins filled with pearls. This way buyers can create their own strands, rings, bracelets, and earrings.
One of the coolest pleasures of my travels was to plunge my hands into vats filled with pearls, and to let the pearls fall through my opened, splayed hands. I did this in Japan, China, the Philippines, French Polynesia, and Australia. I never got tired of doing it, either. The feeling was quite like nothing I’d ever experienced. And it wasn’t just the tactile sensation; it was the click-clack, plinking sound of so many luscious pearls colliding. Every woman and man ought to have the same sensation.
One of my most glamorous memories is of my book editor hopping on her bicycle to go back to the office after a lunch with me in New York. She was wearing a skirt and heels and looked utterly graceful and sophisticated as she rode away.
With their smooth, silent progress, bicycles have great potential for glamour. We use "like riding a bicycle" to mean a physical skill that has become second nature, unforgettable even after years of disuse. We don't say, for instance, "like brushing your teeth," equally second nature but much less impressive. A bicycle can't even stand upright without support, much less move forward.
Yet unlike a car--or, for that matter, a horse--a bicycle depends only on its rider for locomotion. It represents autonomy. In my childhood, getting a bike was the first step toward independence. You could now travel reasonable distances without your parents.
But bicycles aren't on most people's short list of glamorous objects. Competitive cycling, like marathon running, never looks effortless. Kids are burdened with bicycle helmets that make them look dorky and tell them cycling is dangerous. No wonder President Obama skipped the helmet at the beach in Hawaii, after drawing laughs for his helmeted bike ride during the campaign.
As cycling has become more and more an esoteric sport, with complicated gear and lingo, buying a bike has become off-putting to outsiders. When the design firm IDEO worked with component manufacturer Shimano to develop a new bicycle concept, the two firms found were surprised at non-cyclers' attitudes. They loved their memories of biking but were put off by the attitudes and complexity of cycling shops. As Bicycling magazine explained:
"When we asked if Lance Armstrong inspired them, people would say yes, but not to ride a bike," says Shimano's [U.S. marketing manager David] Lawrence. And while all the interview subjects had positive, almost reverential memories of childhood bike rides, Sklar noted that "their feelings about the reality of the biking world are remarkably different." Their dominant image of cycling was one of exercise, speed, uniforms and competition--not of play or fun. "There are a lot of people who feel intimidated and unwelcome in that environment," Sklar says.
To teach cycling enthusiasts what it felt like to be a casual biker in one of their shops, IDEO made them shop for skin products at Sephora. As Daniel Gross recounts in Bicycling:
The Sephora staff, quickly sizing up the bike guys as outsiders and neophytes, treated them with disdain. Says Lawrence: "Everything that happened to noncyclists in a bike shop was happening to our guys in the cosmetics store."
That design collaboration produced a new category called "coasting bikes," designed for casual riders. Another concept, which incorporates more cycling glamour, is the "lovely bicycle," designed for daily, but noncompetitive, use. Here's a description of a lovely bicycle from the blog by that name:
When utility and romance coexist not despite, but because of one another, that is a Lovely Bicycle! A Lovely Bicycle does not only look beautiful in itself, but allows you to look your best while riding it.
Our notions of personal aesthetics vary, and, naturally, so will our bicycles. For the individual whose personal style consists of casual or athletic clothing, a roadbike can be a perfectly appropriate choice. For the individual whose style revolves around formal attire - including suits, skirts and high heels - an upright city bike works far better. The main idea, is that the bicycle should not require the cyclist to change their preferred way of dress or their lifestyle in order to ride it.
Recounting her yearning for a lovely bicycle untainted by the butt-up, head-down, Lycra-legged aesthetics of competitive cycling, blogger Filigree writes:
Only on vintage posters and in old art films did I see the romance that made me long for cycling again. Seeing these fictional lady cyclists of yore, the relaxed chic they exude is alluring and enticing. It makes cycling seem cool and fashionable. But can these associations exist in today's world?
They certainly do on her blog, from which these photos are taken. Although I'm a dedicated walker, she makes me want to get a bike—at least once the rain stops.
[Vintage poster from Swann Galleries and up for auction February 4.]
—Wayne Koestenbaum, Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon
This photo appeared in Sunday's NYT business section, as part of a photo feature on the lost glamour of air travel. (The feature also appears as an online slide show.) The feature makes the important point that air travel is both more common and much more affordable than it used to be: "In 1940, passenger planes in the United states carried only 3 million people, compared with 17 million in 1950 and about 650 million in 2008."
Like many of the images that create our idea of glamorous air travel, this photo is staged. It's a marketing image created by Pan Am, which probably featured a mother and children to emphasize the safety of flying to a public that still thought of aviation as dangerous. But even a staged photo can reveal an unacknowledged flaw concealed in our glamorous image of that lost era.
Why do they need beds?
For the same reason that international airlines compete to offer more and more luxurious beds to their premium-class passengers: Because the flight takes a long time. Only in the case of the Pan Am photo, the flight is a domestic one. And bumpy.
I wrote about the lost glamour of air travel (and tested one of Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class beds) in a 2007 Atlantic column.
Here's Karol's notice:
I need help shooting candid photos of an event I have volunteered at the last 4 years. Sorry for the late notice but our photog had a family crisis and will not return in time. If you're available please message me. We will feed you! Event Info: RSN 11th Annual Renal Teen Prom - Theme: Masquerade! Sun. Jan 17 6 PM - 11 PM - Sherman Oaks, CA
For more information, or to volunteer, contact Karol at okarol-at-yahoo.com. This is a great cause. If you can't volunteer, consider making a financial contribution: Thanks to in-kind donations, just $25 will cover one teen's evening.
Stainless Steel Case
Water Resistant 50m
Band is adjustable with a fold-over buckle
In addition, the company is having an online sale, with watches like the Orient cfa05001b discounted 30 percent.
To register for the giveaway, enter a comment below, making sure to include your email address (not for publication). We will choose a winner on January 28, using Random.org.
Open to U.S. residents only. Watch will be shipped directly from Orient Japan.
I drove a friend to a podiatrist appointment, and one of the magazines in the waiting room was this December 2006 issue of Traveler. I was struck by the strange photograph on the cover. Though it is daylight, the model is wearing a brightly colored evening gown, and is posing on the steps of the grounds of this estate in bare feet.
Though an image showing a bare foot seemed fitting for the office of a foot doctor, I felt that there must be a more romantic advertising purpose involved.
The cover mentions fairy-tale Europe, so perhaps the image is supposed to make the viewer think of Cinderella. If so, the story has been distorted because the model’s foot looks fairly large. Feeling that the model’s proportions seemed slightly odd, I cut the page apart to see if the image had been split apart just slightly to make more room for the banner. To my eye, the lines of the skirt and her bodily proportions looked more natural when I moved the bottom portion up about the height of a step, so I suspect the cover image was manipulated a little in Photoshop. (Check out Lady Gaga’s shoulder on this cover photo to see an obvious and bizarre Photoshop manipulation.)
Whether the image was manipulated or not, I don’t get it. If women find this image appealing, I can’t quite understand why. As a man I can’t image going around in a tuxedo in bare feet, not even as a fantasy. Ladies, is there something about this image that appeals to some deep inner sense of princess? I’m both baffled and curious.
My first response is yuck. Only the generous use of white saves the bed from looking tacky. It reminds me of the beds 19th-century French concubines used to impress their clients.
I far prefer the Zen-modern aesthetic of the bed on the right, which Grace Peng calls “the most beautiful bed in the world.” Like ads for organized closets, she notes, its allure lies not just in its clean lines but in “the fetish of empty space in a land where so few possess it.” (Grace commented on the Container Store post below.)
In fact, both beds are glamorous, but to different audiences. Carefully styled for the camera, they stoke different desires. The French-style version, like the concubines’ beds it alludes to, offers the promise of abundance and indulgence—luxury in a world of scarcity. The Zen-modern bed, by contrast, is all about escape from stimulation and stuff—luxury in a world of plenty.
Which do you prefer? Or is your idea of a “glamorous bed” something different altogether?
While I was writing that piece, I thought whether you could write a script about Earhart that preserved her glamour but wasn't emotionally flat. One idea would be to tell a story not about her but about someone who observes and is inspired by her. Another would be to emphasize the challenges and hazards of early aviation, something that Amelia did in its best moments but downplayed in favor of a flattened soap opera.Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean, a graphic novel aimed at tweens, does both. And while the book, written by Sarah Stewart Taylor and drawn by Ben Towle, doesn't have enough plot to make a movie, it demonstrates that the way to portray Earhart is, in fact, to use a sympathetic protagonist who admires her. The graphic novel makes the wise choice to show us Earhart through the eyes of an admirer, a girl who lives in the seafaring community of Trepassy, Newfoundland, and aspires to be a newspaper reporter. Located on the far eastern edge of North America, Trepassy is the point from which Earhart and other aviation pioneers took off for Europe. It's also a shipwreck-strewn place whose name essentially means "the dead."
In June of 1928, tweener Grace, the dubious townspeople and a mob of impatient newsmen wait for Earhart to finally get her plane in the air for a transatlantic flight. Grace yearns to leave the little village and to become a newspaper woman, so she observes the commotion and manages to get the aviator's personal encouragement in an interview before her successful departure. Taylor's lean script leaves much of Grace's feelings understated but easy to imagine. Towle's art is also emotionally restrained, but panels showing the bleak landscape—especially double-page spreads of what Earhart called “this broad ocean”—emphasize the courage of people willing to take ultimate risks. Astronaut Eileen Collins's introduction, which describes the inspiration she drew from Earhart's example, carries the theme to the present.Grace's point of view preserves Amelia as a glamorous, somewhat mysterious figure who represents a different life. You can get a sense from this spread. (As always, click the images to see a larger version.)
[Images reproduced with permission of Ben Towle.]
To kick off the New Year—and because the shelves lining the walls are completely full and the floor has become an obstacle course of piled-up books and magazines—I am reorganizing my home office and adding more bookshelves in the closet. So I've been spending a lot of time exposed to the surprising but palpable glamour of The Container Store.
For those unfortunates who haven't experienced it, The Container Store is, in the words of Bernard-Henri Levi on his Tocquevillian visit to Dallas, un magasin des boîtes: a big store devoted entirely to boxes (and folders, hangers, shelves, and other tools for wrangling your stuff).
With its open shelves, aproned staff, and fluorescent lights, the Container Store will never be mistaken for a luxury boutique. It features no movie stars, no sunny beaches, no sparkles or perfumed air. Although aesthetically appealing, it is not what people think of when they hear the word glamour.
But it creates a similar seductive effect. Like a glamorous travel ad, it heightens customers' longing for escape and transformation—in this case, to a more orderly home and, with it, a more peaceful life—while suggesting that this ideal can, in fact, be achieved. The “inspirational spaces” on its website do more than demonstrate how you might apply its tools. They encourage you to project yourself into a new, more graceful and desirable life.
The Container Store’s glamour is particularly paradoxical, because, by deliberate strategy, the store lacks mystery, distance, and exclusivity. It is friendly and accessible and down-to-earth. Even its carefully styled photo vignettes tend toward the overt. (If I were advising the company, I’d suggest adding more dimension—doorways, windows, and other suggestions of a life outside the frame—while playing up the use of translucent materials.) How can it create the same feeling as more recognizably glamorous icons or environments?
There are two reasons, I think. The first is that the promise it offers is of something that always remains slightly out of reach: an escape from entropy. And the second, as we know from Monty Hall, is that you never can be sure what's in the box.
“The fantasy of the wedding day is that it represents undeniable public and private truth that you have been chosen. For that one day, you are the most valuable creature in the world—a treasure, a princess, a prize. For many women, who have never felt chosen or desirable or precious, this is an unshakable yearning. And I'm afraid many women do choose the wedding over the marriage. It seems a steep price to pay, but it comes from a place of deep, sad longing to be loved and to have it proven that you are of value.”
—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, in a Wall Street Journal interview about her new book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage
[Photo by Flickr user Loelle under Creative Commons license.]
New year, new decade. Reflecting back on the holiday season I realized that The Nutcracker had come up several times in conversation. One family had taken their children, another person’s best friend had been once been cast as Clara, and so on.
The Nutcracker is glamorous on many levels. Ballet itself is one of the most glamorous forms of dance, as has been discussed here before. The orchestra, especially as used by a composer like Tchaikovsky, can be a glamorous sound machine (more on that in a moment). And the costumes and stagings of this ballet are often captivating.
The Nutcracker plot joyously celebrates aspects of the winter season that are often denigrated because they seem more pagan than religious. Some historians argue that Christmas is celebrated on December 25 because that was the Roman date for the winter solstice, a tradition time for celebrating the return of the sun and longer days. The Nutcracker acknowledges that festive parties, colorful decorations, and receiving gifts are memorable and exciting, especially to a child, whatever the reason for celebrating.
The ballet’s central character Clara is an adolescent poised between childhood and young adulthood, and she has desires and longings in both domains. Boys remain mischievous and clueless about her dreams of the future. But in this ballet’s dream a prince arrives and transports her into a magical world. No wonder that countless young ballet students dream of being cast as Clara, and that mothers take their daughters to see this timeless fantasy.
I do not mean to slight men here. The ballet was created by men. The ballet is based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffman, and the story adaptation, original choreography, and music were all done by men. In Hoffman’s original story the heroine is named Marie and the nutcracker is Drosselmeyer’s nephew. How he came to be a nutcracker is a complex story involving magic spells, and Marie’s love for him eventually lifts the curse and he becomes himself again.
In the ballet Drosselmeyer’s ability to create life-size mechanical dolls makes him seem a kind of magician, and sets the stage for dreams of giant mice and toys that come alive to battle them. Scenes like this are bound to delight children.
Yet Clara’s trip to the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy is a dream of transformation into adulthood, and in that land Clara becomes a woman and a prince becomes her escort. In her dream Clara becomes a princess-to-be whose life is filled with fancy costumes, elaborate entertainments, and dances that show her perfect poise as a adult.
Tchaikovsky’s music plays a major role in the success of the ballet. Tchaikovsky had a keen ability to create musical textures that can stimulate a listener’s imagination. At the same time his ballet music is easy enough to follow that we have mental room left to take in the dancing. This same openness also leaves room for his ballet music to interact with our imagination, allowing us to project auras such as “mystery” and “longing” onto what we are hearing. (Densely intellectual musical textures such as fugues seldom allow this.)
In creating ballet music that seems glamorous, Tchaikovsky became a kind of conjurer. By developing an awareness of how particulars sounds and musical textures could stimulate a listener's imagination, he used that awareness to create music that encourages listeners to generate imaginative illusions.
In the following Pas de Deux between Clara and her prince (Bolshoi Ballet production), no words need be spoken. Clara’s prince becomes her ideal consort. He is there for her whenever she needs support to display her poise. Tchaikovsky’s music supports them both. One of his friends bet Tchaikovsky that he couldn’t compose the theme for a pas de deux with a scale. Tchaikovsky asked if the scale could go downward. When that was allowed, Tchaikovsky took the bet, and won with the main theme of this music. Tchaikovsky’s ability to create something extraordinarily evocative out of simple material demonstrates his deep understanding of what works as ballet music. His music captivates our hearing, but leaves enough room in our minds to appreciate the staging and dancing, and even to imagine that we are feeling something similar to what these dancers are feeling. And that is a beautiful illusion to experience.
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