There’s something about charm bracelets.
People love them – and love to talk about them. In her book Charmed Bracelets, jewelry designer Tracey Zabar says that nearly every time she wears a charm bracelet (and that’s almost every day), women stop her on the street to ask about the jangly bracelet on her wrist.
They want to know the story of the charms and how the bracelet came to her. All jewelry – even costume stuff purchased at the mall – tells a story. Why it was purchased, who gave it to the person wearing it, how it makes her feel.
My own charm bracelet, pictured on the left in its original box, was a gift from my grandmother. She compiled the charms while living in Europe during the 1950s. My grandfather was stationed in Germany - the bear and Brandenburg Gate represent my grandmother’s time in that country.
Other charms were souvenirs of trips – Rome, London, Paris, the Netherlands and Switzerland all have spots on the chain.
When I wear the bracelet – and I do, frequently – I have the same experience as Zabar. People, even those I don’t know, compliment the bracelet and ask questions about the charms. I get to tell them about my glamorous grandmother and her years in Europe, when she had two small children but still managed to travel and live in style.
Vintage charm bracelets are popular these days. Jewelry stores and sites like eBay and Etsy burst with them. The allure of the story-in-a-bracelet is so strong that for some, it doesn’t even matter if they don’t know who first created the bracelet, or why the charms were chosen.
They know that there’s a story behind it. And that’s enough.
Jewelry designer Sandy Leong has lived in Manhattan for nearly two decades, but she still exudes the fit, outdoorsy vibe of her native Pacific Coast (Portland to Anchorage to San Francisco as a child). So it's not surprising that she brings a combination of urban refinement and subtly organic shapes to her line of jewelry--a business that grew from a hobby she developed while looking for a creative outlet once her kids were in school. Now her designs are turning up on such stylish celebrities as Fergie and Gabrielle Union and in the pages of magazines including O, Lucky, and People. (Having followed Sandy's business, I was excited when, during an American Airlines upgrade, I spotted some of her teardrop earrings in the pages of Celebrated Living, American's magazine for its first-class cabin.) Sandy shared her thoughts on the glamour of jewelry, building a luxury business in tough times, and why she believes in gold.
DG: What's the appeal of jewelry?
Sandy Leong: “The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.” My favorite line from Steel Magnolias. And I think that really applies to the appeal of jewelry. Along with shoes, it really has the biggest impact on your outfit.
DG: How did you get interested in designing jewelry? How did you learn jewelry design?
SL: When both my children were in school full time, I found myself wondering what I used to do before I had kids? A girlfriend and I both received the 92 Street Y catalog and decided to pick a class that we could both take together. It turned out to be Jewelry for Beginners. That was nine years ago and from the first time I held a soldering torch, I was hooked. I’ve been taking classes there continuously and have also taken classes at the Jewelry Arts Institute in NYC.
DG: How would you describe your design aesthetic?
SL: It’s easy, simple, modern, and timeless. You can wear my pieces during the day to pick up the kids from school, go grocery shopping and not feel overdressed, but can also wear it out to dinner and evening functions and it adds just the right of amount sparkle and pizzazz. It’s all made here in the U.S. with recycled 18k gold, too!
Although most pieces have a very organic feel in nature, I am also extremely influenced by the cut of my stones and the architectural style that surrounds the stone.
DG: Why do you work in gold as opposed, say, to both gold and silver?
SL: Gold has a very luxurious feel to it. I wanted my jewelry to be timeless investment pieces that would hold their value over time, whether sentimentally or financially. When using 18k gold, the finish doesn’t tarnish and with care, will look and feel exactly like the day you bought it.
DG: Who is your customer?
SL: My customer is a successful woman who has her own money and is not afraid to spend it. She knows quality, is a trend setter, rather than a follower, and loves luxury and beautiful pieces. She’s active, athletic and can’t be bothered to change her jewelry for every event throughout her busy day. She wears her jewelry, but the jewelry doesn’t wear her.
DG: What's the most difficult challenge you've faced as a new jewelry designer?
SL: The economy is a huge challenge! I launched my line in 2008 when conspicuous consumption was out of fashion. However, my customer is back and more cautious about making wise investments instead of trendy fads that come and go with the season. Also, most major department stores are consignment based and the financial outlay is tremendous for a jewelry designer trying to make retail presence and with limited resources.
SL: Perseverance. So many times it seems it would be so much easier to just throw in the towel, but I have a point of view and the response has been so positive. I design each and every piece for myself. If I wear it, I know I have a customer that will too. I have a growing and rabid following, who swear they wear their Sandy Leong earrings, rings, necklaces, etc. every day. That is exactly how I intended my jewelry to be worn. I have a necklace that is a little 18k dewdrop on a very delicate chain that I wear every day, with everything. And I never leave the house without an easy pair of earrings like these.
DG: Aside from your own designs, what are some of your favorite pieces of jewelry, either ones that you own yourself or ones that you've seen?
SL: I’m currently obsessed with my husband’s Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date. I had links taken out of so it fit my wrist. It’s a nice complement to my more feminine pieces.
The DG Dozen
2) Who or what is your glamorous icon? Elizabeth Taylor, the early years, and Kate Middleton
3) Is glamour a luxury or a necessity? Glamour is a necessity. It’s the allure of the excitement and adventure that makes life worth living.
4) Favorite glamorous movie? Breakfast at Tiffany’s
5) What was your most glamorous moment? The Boys and Girls Aid Society’s Black and White Ball. I had a fabulous dress by Pamela Dennis and Jimmy Choos, and felt like the belle of the ball.
6) Favorite glamorous object (car, accessory, electronic gadget, etc.)? Right now? My black Hermes Birkin bag! I feel glamorous just holding it.
7) Most glamorous place? Capri, Italy
8) Most glamorous job? 1960s American Airlines Flight Attendant
[9 and 10 skipped]
11) Can glamour survive? Of course it will. Where would we be without it? Everyone can use a little bit a glamour and magic in their life.
12) Is glamour something you're born with? I would say no, but my daughter who is 15 was born with it. She has an amazing sense of style and has so much self confidence that she’s been turning heads since she was a baby. She can command a room and I don’t know how I could teach that.
Walking through Bloomingdale's, I was struck by this sign in the jewelry department. The Carolee jewelry company is pitching its line of pearls with photos of four pearl-wearing style icons: two American first ladies, Jackie Kennedy and Michelle Obama, both Democrats, and two foreign consorts, Eva Peron and Wallis Simpson, who, to put it politely, leaned fascist. (What, no Imelda Marcos? Too famous for shoes I guess.)
Now I realize that jewelry marketers should not be confused with historians, but if I were Michelle Obama I'd be offended. And if I were managing the Obama brand I'd certainly protest. If the White House can ask a noncontroversial windbreaker-maker to remove a billboard featuring a press photo of President Obama in its jacket, surely the first lady's staff can ask Carolee not to link Mrs. O with Evita.
It is, of course, possible that this is a sanctioned use of the first lady's image. To find out, since there's no press contact listed on Carolee's site, I posted a query to @Caroleejewelry on Twitter. (If someone were paying me to write, I'd call the company and the White House.) No response.
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.]
---Buy Tears of Mermaids here---
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.
Last Monday, we announced our best-ever DG contest prize, one of Orient Japan’s automatic watches. The one we featured last week was a ladies watch. But when the folks at Orient Japan found out that about half DG’s readers are, in fact, men, they added this model as an additional choice. The winner will get to pick his or her favorite of the two watches.
To enter, just leave a comment below and be sure to give us your email address (not for publication) and website, if any. Entries from this post will be combined with last week's, and the winner will be selected on November 1, using Random.org, and announced on November 2.
And take a look at the Orient Japan site, where you'll find nice looking, but not-so-snappily named, models like the CEX0R001W.
Contest open to U.S. residents only.
In December, Lange will have a solo exhibition of her one-of-a-kind pieces at the Luke and Eloy Gallery in Pittsburgh. She sells production designs through Etsy and blogs here. The strange charm of her work has attracted attention from Rob Walker in the NYT Magazine and, most recently, TimeOut New York, where she appears surrounded by translucent bins filled with mostly headless Barbies.
New Yorkers can visit Margaux's studio this Saturday night, September 26, as part of the Morgan Arts Building Open Studio event featuring more than 25 artists (and an open bar). For details see Margaux's blog.
Margaux Lange: I used to be obsessed with Barbie dolls as a kid. They played a pivotal role in my development as a tool for acting out and exploring the human relationships in my own life, as well as the fantasy lives I imagined. My experience with Barbie was uniquely positive in this way. Barbie can be a source of empowerment through exploration and imagination. Each child's experience with the doll is unique and I believe there's a value in that.
I would spend hours crafting many precious details for my Barbie dolls and their miniature worlds, such as: pillows, stone fireplaces, food items, clothing, accessories, etc. Playing with Barbie dolls helped to develop my dexterity and strengthened my attention to small detail: skills imperative to the art of jewelry making.
DG: How did you get started “fondly re-membering” Barbies?
ML: Barbie made her debut in my artwork in high school and then again in various incarnations throughout college where I studied fine Art (The Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, MD.) I started to focus more on jewelry making during my junior year, and I became interested in incorporating found objects into my metal work. Because I had done artwork with Barbie in the past (drawings, sculptures, etc) it felt natural to try her out in the jewelry realm. It was an unusual idea with a strong personal connection for me, so it felt right. The Plastic Body Series Jewelry Collection continued to grow from there.
ML: I had no desire to cut up all my Barbies as a kid, thatʼs for sure! So that has certainly changed. As a child, I would look at a doll and she would instantly transform in my mind into the imaginary personality I had dreamed up for her.
Now I look at a doll as I would any other material: I think about how that piece of plastic is going to be transformed in an interesting, wearable way.
Iʼm also able to intellectually step back and examine the impact Barbie has had on our society from all angles now. I certainly didnʼt think about any of that as a child so of course that has changed as well.
DG: What do you think makes Barbie glamorous?
Barbie is a quintessential icon of glamour. Sheʼs intriguing and appealing on many levels, not to mention she owns the biggest wardrobe on the planet, has a multitude of cars, shoes and accessories, and has had every possible career you can imagine. I think that makes her pretty glamorous.
DG: How has the changing face of Barbie over the years influenced your work? When Mattel alters Barbieʼs face or body, do you relate to Barbie in a different way?
ML: No, I wouldnʼt say that the way I relate to Barbie changes when Mattel rolls out a new style, but it does change my work. For example, Mattel made some major changes to Barbieʼs body in the year 2000 when they introduced the new “belly-button models” which had wider hips, a more shapely bum, and for the first time, a belly button and a smaller chest. Because her new bust size was smaller than the original Barbieʼs, it happened to be the perfect size and shape for making my Have-a-Heart Necklaces, which are now a prominent piece in my production line.
Barbie is a lot more varied than people assume. There is quite a lot of difference in skin tones, body styles, hair colors and facial features as well. Itʼs interesting however, that when we think of “Barbie: the icon” an image of blonde hair and blue eyes is what comes to mind.
DG: When talking about your work, you mention the vast impact that Barbie has had on our society. What do you think is the most important impact Barbie has had over the last 50 years? Do you think her impact has been more positive or negative?
The most important impact she has had has probably been on the millions of little girls who have been drawn to Barbie as a way to understand, what is to them, a very abstract notion of “Womanhood.” Barbie is very unlike us as little girls, and yet under our complete control to manipulate and project onto her “adult-hood” in whatever way we wish. There is enormous power in that type of imaginary play.
However, thatʼs not to say thereʼs nothing to examine regarding Barbie as an ideology. Barbieʼs life of excess has certainly had its negative implications. Particularly the dollʼs emphasis on materialism, beauty, and fashion. We are a nation obsessed with beauty and youth, and Barbie is a direct reflection of our cultural impulses in this way. Plastic and forever youthful, she remains relevant and in-vogue. With each generation, she is re-invented as we see fit to define her. I wouldnʼt be surprised if she sticks around for another 50 years because of this.
Barbie is the most beloved and maligned of playthings. Rarely do we feel indifferent about her. I think the urge to destroy Barbie comes from this polarization. To some, she represents oppression in the form of unattainable perfection and unrealistic beauty standards. Thereʼs something cathartic about deconstructing a symbol of those ideals.
At times, my work has dealt with utilizing the doll as an archetype for critiquing beauty, materialism, and prescribed gender roles often associated with women in our society. Sometimes I aim to distance myself and critically evaluate pop culture in this way, and other times I wish to engage and participate in it. Much like my own experience with womanhood as a feminist: a series of rejecting and embracing.
The Plastic Body Series is sought after by Art Jewelry collectors, Barbie nostalgics, and bold individuals who arenʼt afraid to wear jewelry that sparks a conversation. Some people respond to its humor and think itʼs clever and fun, or it feeds a sense of nostalgia for them. Some wear it as a feminist statement and others simply appreciate it because itʼs bizarre and unique.
I love that everyone brings his or her own baggage and reaction to the work. Itʼs indicative of their own relationship with, or feelings about the icon, as well as how an individual defines wearable jewelry. My goal has been to create Art that a broad range of people can relate to and I feel Iʼve been successful with this.
A background in fine Art gave me the foundation necessary for conceptual exploration in my jewelry work, however, it is my personal connection with Barbie that I credit for the success of this series. It's ironic that what I adored as a child has become the focus of my career as an adult.
ML: I acquire all the dolls as second-hand objects; usually from yard sales, thrift stores, and Ebay. I also have a few friends across the country that are always on the lookout for me. I have thousands of “previously owned” Barbie dolls and parts in my studio from which to choose. It’s important to me that the dolls have had a previous life in the hands of a child. It's a crucial part of the story, the love, and the conceptual basis for the work. I also really like the idea that the dolls are being repurposed after they’re discarded and are contributing to Art, not landfills.
The DG Dozen
1) How do you define glamour?
Glamour is something or someone that exudes a particular allure, an air of confidence, style, uniqueness, distinction, beauty, and grace.
2) Who or what is your glamorous icon?
Besides Barbie? My grandmother was always very glamourous to me growing up. For instance, she would never dream of putting a carton of milk on the table as is, it always went into a “proper” carafe or something first. This seemed very glamorous to me.
As this silver brooch, another from Deja-voodoo.com, demonstrates Scotties weren't just a Bakelite subject. They were popular in all sorts of media in the 1930s and 1940s. Why? Ellen Solway, who owns Deja-voodoo with her husband, supplied the obvious answer: Fala. Much more famous than Checkers or Bo, FDR's Scottie was so important to the president's public persona that a sculpture of Fala appears on the Roosevelt Memorial in D.C. The fame of Scotties lingered long enough to affect me as a first grader in early 1967, even though I'd never heard of Fala. Assigned to write about my dog, or the dog I would have if I had a dog, I decided my theoretical pet would be a Scottie. (A huge fan of The Wizard of Oz, I probably thought Toto was a Scottie.)
Greyhounds, bulldogs, and poodles are very popular in dog jewelry. The Japanese particularly like poodle jewelry. However, we sell a lot more cat jewelry than dog! We have six cats and I think that personally I am more drawn to cat jewelry than dog jewelry. For collectors, cat jewelry is pretty generic while dog jewelry is more linked to a specific breed. I have sold some very glamorous and beautiful dog and cat jewelry, as well as some very cute and bizarre pieces.
The remarkably detailed silver head to the right is a working whistle meant to be worn as a pendant. The man who bought it, says Ellen, was "beside himself when he received it."
Yes, this is an ad. But it's also fun to play around with even if you're coming up on your 23rd wedding anniversary (June 22!) and have no intention of replacing your engagement ring. Click the graphic to get started.
After my previous posts I assumed I was through writing about watches, but then I discovered the internet site Watchismo.com. Watchismo was started by Mitch Greenblatt as a site to sell “the most unusual vintage watches and chronographs of the mid-century through the space age, everything that is ahead of their time, then and now.” Then Mitch’s brother Andrew joined the firm as they expanded to sell new watches that, on the whole, seem to make some kind of statement about watch design itself. (Many of the watches mentioned in my post on watches that emphasize design can be purchased at Watchismo.)
One of the unusual watches on the site is Robert Jones’ “The Accurate” watch, a timepiece whose hands read, “Remember, you will die.” This is a translation of the Latin phrase momento mori, placing this watch in the long tradition of artistic creations that remind people of their mortality. Both the silver and black versions of this watch are polished to a mirror-like finish, so whoever looks at the watch will see themselves reflected in its surface. This tradition dates back to Roman times when victorious generals paraded through the streets. Behind the general was a slave who would periodically say, “Momento mori,” or “Respice post te! Hominem te memento!”: “Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man!” (Most of us can think of people, especially politicians, whom we imagine might benefit from wearing a watch whose hands read, “Remember you are but a man.” Alas, Jones doesn't make that model, and, in any case, the people we would most like to give it to probably wouldn’t wear it.)
When I discussed status and power watches, I mentioned that their advertising is typically tied to vehicles with powerful engines and athletes who dominate their fields. This is “serious” stuff, so the design of chronographs tends to be tradition bound. This mold was completely broken by the French designer Roger Tallon with his LIP Chronograph Mach 2000, originally designed in 1973. This fun watch with it’s colorful function buttons is as refreshing now as when it was first released. LIP watches are now being marketed in the U.S.A. for the first time, and watchismo.com is the representative.
Many of LIP’s designs reference other designs. There are, for example, a TV series and a Fridge series, and these have overall shapes corresponding to their names. These watches, designed in the mid 70s, remain astonishing modern, a testament to the effectiveness of good industrial design.
Tallon’s LIP Mach 2000 Moon watches were designed in 1973, and look like watches that would have looked great worn in the first Star Wars film, released in 1977. A new model, the “Dark Empire,” looks perfect for Darth Vader.
The industrial design angle is referenced in some watches by taking it over the top. This is case with Retrowerk Watches, which use antique-looking finishes and attach compasses, pistons, or levers to their unusual designs. Other watch companies, such as Rebosus (their RS002 Chronograph is pictured here) produce huge watches that look like an industrial machine when strapped to your wristes. Big watches have been a recent trend, and many of these have been gathered together in a big watches collection at watchismo. (It is here perhaps that readers may wonder if the firm’s decision to call itself “watchismo” is ironic or self-revealing.)
The selection of vintage watches is fascinating, and, because of Mitch Greenblatt’s interests, you can see many examples of watches that achieve digital readouts with mechanical numbers. In human experience, time flows sporadically, flowing quickly when we are engrossed, tediously when we are bored, and disappearing entirely when we sleep. Some of the watch designs at watchismo play with the concept of time by using unusual displays. Botta watches only use one hand. Nooka watches express designer Matthew Waldman’s interest in showing time in a variety of unique ways.
The origins of watchismo as a company for vintage watches, often emphasizing modern design, sometimes shows in their choice of contemporary watches. A good example is the Quiksilver Baron Copper Auto watch (shown in the photo), which is one of their most popular watches. Many things about this watch remind me of art deco styling: the colors, the vertical grooves, the facets at top and bottom, the graceful shapes, and the brown leather band. When I first saw this watch on their site, I assumed it was a vintage watch rather than a new one. It makes a fascinating contemporary tribute to an elegant, glamorous style.
In previous posts I’ve discussed watches as erotic glamour and as symbols of status and power. But men may sometimes wish to wear a watch that reveals their eye for exceptional design, and this is especially true of architects, designers, artists, and men who simply love good visual design. Traditional watch design, while intriguing to watch collectors, can seem rather boring to someone wanting to make a strong statement about design itself. To that end, a watch with a unique shape and distinctly modern look (like the Rado Cervix shown here) makes a bold statement.
In the realm of watches as design, the cost of the watch is relatively unimportant. This Rado is moderately expensive, but this is partly because this Swiss company's design philosophy emphasizes “incomparable surfaces,” and they use expensive, extremely hard materials such as ceramics and space age metals to make their watches both beautiful and difficult to scratch. With design-oriented watches, the materials used are integral to the design, and, just as some of the most beautifully designed objects in my music studio are colorful plastic containers and waste baskets, some design-oriented watches make use of plastic in vibrant colors (I’ll give an example later).
With high-design watches the designer is crucial, and many of the most stylish watches are produced by companies that also market jewelry, clothing, and accessories. The Italian design company Alessi is typical of this. When you go to their watch design site and click on “designers and models” you are shown photos of the 18 designers and architects who have designed watches for them. By clicking on the designer, the watches they designed are revealed, and they are wonderful in their variety. (The watch shown below is one of them.)
Other interesting companies emphasizing design include the Danish firms include Skagen and Danish Design and the Italian firm Movado. The Swiss company Mondaine has designed watches based on the modern clocks used in Swiss railroad stations.
As one would expect, Japan is producing interesting watch designs. Seiko sponsors a yearly project for new designs. Issey Miyake is a Japanese fashion firm that produces watches, and their site is another that features the designers themselves (hovering the mouse over the gray rectangles reveals the watches). They use watch movements produced by Seiko, and it is not uncommon for companies whose emphasis is design to use movements produced outside the firm, often using Japanese quartz movements.
This is the case with two interesting American companies. One is the San Francisco/Tokyo company TOKYObay and the other is the Encinitas, Calfornia company Nixon. While TOYKObay’s orientation is more toward the traditional fashion world, Nixon’s orientation is to the world of surfers, snow boarders, skate boarders. By paying serious attention to this market, Nixon has become a successful, worldwide company.
Here’s part of the Nixon company statement, which is both irreverent, and deeply committed:
We make the little shit better. The stuff you have that isn't noticed first, but can't be ignored. We pay attention to it. We argue about it. We work day and night to make the little shit as good as it can be, so when you wear it, you feel like you've got a leg up on the rest of the world. We believe that you deserve a lot of respect. When you choose to wear a watch,...you deserve to have something that reflects your entire package....Dammit brothers and sisters, you can't slap on an off-the-shelf piece and consider yourself you. Can you?
The model shown at left is the Nixon Outsider. This is not a watch you would wear to a board room meeting, and that is precisely the point. Although the name “Outsider” likely refers to the integrated electronic compass, it also seems to symbolize the outsider attitude of a culture that focuses more on riding on recreational boards than sitting on company boards. (Many Nixon watch models are hard to come by. Some are made in limited editions, and boarders quickly snap them up.)
Such markers of style work remarkably well, and not just with watches. I recently purchased a stylish pair of Bevel eyeglasses, designed in the U.S.A. and manufactured of titanium in Japan. While wearing these I sat down with my wife at a pub bar to grab a quick meal. The man next to me asked if I was an architect. When I said, “no,” he said, “You’re wearing architect glasses.” He told me that he designed software for architects, and from years of experience he knew how much attention they paid to the little details of visual design (the “little shit,” as Nixon watches put it).
Some design companies seem to have said to designers, “You design it and we’ll figure out how to make it.” No wonder many architects and designers have welcomed the chance to design watches that they themselves would like to wear--watches that reveal how deeply they care about style and distinctive visual design.
[In the market for a watch? Check out the broad selection at the Amazon Watch Store.]
As mentioned in a recent post, mechanical chronograph wrist watches are symbols of status, power, and conquest for men that can afford them. One of the most interesting blogs about watches is Ablogtoread.com, and as was once posted there:
Some history is required to explain why some watch makers are "show me the money" brands, and why these watches are usually mechanical. Making an accurate, portable mechanical clock is extremely difficult, but the need for one was critical. The invention of the marine chronometer in the 18th century by Yorkshire carpenter John Harrison revolutionized marine navigation. It has been argued that the building of the British Empire depended on the dominance of the Royal Navy, and that this dominance occurred during a period when the ships of the Royal Navy had marine chronometers and their opponents’ ships did not. Accurate chronometers later proved crucial for aviation navigation, and they are useful for land warfare. During World War II the American watch company Hamilton perfected the mass production of accurate wrist watches and shipped more than a million of them overseas.
Given this history, it is not surprising that manufacturers of prestige watches like Omega, Rolex, TAG Heuer, Breitling and others advertise this association with marine and aviation navigation. They also use images to connect to airplanes, trains, and racing and luxury ships and cars. Breitling, for example, frequently uses images of military planes, and also has an association with Bentley automobiles. And any male athlete who is a highly dominant figure in his sport may be approached to represent a luxury watch company. Thus the ads for Tiger Woods and TAG Heuer suggest that wearing a their watch implies you are “made of” the same dominating stuff as Tiger Woods.
Ironically, in the 1970s mechanical watches were quickly outclassed in accuracy by quartz watches. A typical quartz watch is accurate to 1/2 second a day, and rated quartz watches can be accurate to within ten seconds a year. Highly accurate mechanical watches can be accurate to about 1/10 second a day, but this kind of accuracy in a mechanical watch comes at enormous expense, especially as you add “complications.”
Complications are watch functions other than telling you the time. Typical complications are date functions, stopwatch functions, lunar phases, and so on. To give an example of the relative costs of adding complications to a watch using electricity versus purely mechanical means, consider the Citizen Campanola Grand Complication. This watch is discussed in detail at ablogtoread, and there he estimates that this complex watch (which sells for approximately $3,000) would cost $80,000 if duplicated as a mechanical watch.
Much of the work on the Campanola is hand done, with attention to finishing details that would rival any luxury watch. But for years neither Citizen nor Seiko attempted to sell their high-end watches outside of Japan. They realized that in places like the U.S.A. they could not compete with the brand snobbery associated with luxury watches. They faced the same issue that Toyota faced in trying to compete with Audi or Mercedes Benz. In the U.S.A., Toyota was known mostly for making well-made, but relatively inexpensive cars. So Toyota created Lexus as a division of high-end automobiles. Likewise Citizen has created Campanola as a separate division in order to market this watch. (The watch that ablogtoread first reviewed was labeled Citizen, but now the watches are labeled Campanola. After all, what CEO would want a watch that suggested he was an ordinary “citizen.”)
Once upon a time owners of mechanic watches might have taken comfort that if a worldwide catastrophe stuck while they were out on their yacht, causing all electrical battery supplies to vanish, their mechanical chronometer would still allow them to keep accurate time. But now there are quartz watches that use light (or pivoting mechanisms that move when the watch is worn) to power storage batteries, and thus they never need replacement batteries. So owners of those watches would still be able to tell time (and most likely more accurately too).
Because of their accurary and advantage in production costs, quartz watches now account for the majority of watch sales. Because of their tradition, high price, and mystique, mechanical watches still retain top status as collectibles. But even the luxury brands now use quartz movements in some of their watches, and who knows if future generations will care that mechanical watches might at one time have helped conquer the world. As reader belle de ville pointed out relative to my last post on watches, jewelers don’t yet know whether the cell-phone, iPod generation will bother to wear watches at all.
The world of men’s watch advertising is frequently about status. Accurate mechanical chronographs with many functions are expensive (four figures and up), and brands like Rolex, Omega, Breitling, and TAG Heuer make much of their long association with aviation, auto racing, and yachting. Their watches often have names like Yacht Master, Seamaster, and Speedmaster. Associations with famous athletes are common, such as Tiger Woods and TAG Heuer. Movado makes both stylish dress watches and sport chronographs, so it is not surprising that Tom Brady is used in their ads, given that he is both a star quarterback and the well-dressed husband of model Giselle Bunchen.
Few companies have dared to advertise watches as objects of erotic desire, but Breil has had fun doing this. Their watches have glamorous names like “Milano”and “Eros.” One of their representatives is now Charlize Theron, and in the TV ad below, she sees one of Breil’s watches, which launches a series of erotic fantasies involving men’s hands.
Perhaps the most erotic of all of their ads is the one below. By rubbing his Breil watch, a man in a bar somehow sensually stimulates a woman sitting some distance away. He is amused by her response until she turns the tables by rubbing her own Breil watch. (Incidentally, her necklace is also by Breil, and is featured in different cuts of this ad.)
With shoppers in a frenzy preparing for DG's four-month anniversary on December 25, we asked a number of contributors to recommend glamorous gifts that don't require braving the malls. Save gas and aggravation. Let your broadband do the walking.
I am obsessed with Ippolita jewelry. Just one plain gold hammered bangle is so fabulous and the gift of gold these days is a safer investment than anything else! This is for any women with expensive taste who likes chic simplicity instead of over-the-top bling.
I've got a theme: I like pretty card holders that aren't just these plain boring things. I've even attached a pic of the one I carry.
Also, I'm big on nice pens. I use Waterman fountain pens exclusively (I've been a fountain pen fiend since middle school and cut my teach on how to use them when they made the cheap ones with colored ink). Anyway, I know Amazon has a good selection of those. For those who are scared of ink leaks there is always a nice fountain pen. Either way, a nice pen is distinguished, stylish and definitely glamourous. This is the one I use now. But, yeah, I've got a few of them.
A vivid canary diamond, weighing 102.56 carats, is expected to bring around $10 million in a Hong Kong auction. Sotheby's says it's the largest fancy colored stone they've ever sold. Set with white diamonds, the pendent can be also worn as a brooch, which makes it practical, as well as slightly ostentatious. It's not exactly a triumph of the jeweler's art.
To contact the authors, use the email addresses below. (Substitute the @ sign for "-at-".) If you would like to send us something by surface mail, please contact Virginia Postrel at virginia -at- deepglamour.net for a mailing address.
All posts copyright by the authors unless otherwise noted.
Logo and banner design by Julia Ames of Spoolia.
DeepGlamour is an Amazon affiliate. Virginia Postrel receives a percentage of the purchase price on anything you buy through one of our Amazon links, including purchases you make while on Amazon that we did not link directly to. The Federal Trade Commission wants us to tell you this—they think you're idiots and are violating the First Amendment with their regulation of what bloggers publish—but it's also a friendly reminder to Support DeepGlamour by starting all your Amazon shopping here.
We also get money or in-kind compensation from places that have ads on the site, our contest prizes are donated, and Virginia receives review copies of lots of books (most of which never get mentioned on the site and end up donated to the Westwood branch of the L.A. Public Library). But you could probably figure that out on your own.