Jewelry: Tuning your taste to the times

Happy announcement: Last Friday our son Etienne and his wife Tash welcomed their 9 lb. 11 oz. dumpling, Emile. Our daughter-in-law had to postpone her planned marathon last fall, but ran one in the delivery, and superbly. Sure beats a t-shirt at the finish line!

I watched several women browse a large fine jewelry store recently. Each was attracted to certain pieces, and barely glanced at others. I could pretty accurately guess where each would pause, from her overall appearance. I began to group the jewelry—and the clients—into three broad categories.

1. Serenely classic
This is the style of my friend Lorrie, who never met a navy garment she didn't like, and always carries a discreet, neutral bag. She would choose a pair of Gurhan hammered 24k gold hoops (price, about $1,200), not at all concerned that identical pairs live on other lucky ears.

She would also admire how she can wear them with everything, and that their high-carat colour will endure and deepen over time.

2. Singularly striking

Annette is an art gallery partner whose eye has been honed by her career. She is knowledgeable about advanced techniques and admires the workmanship involved. Annette, in exuberant colour from fuchsia glasses frames to forest-green boots, is the antipode of Lorrie.

She would adore Cambridge MA artist Daniel M. Spirer's anodized silver, 18k gold, and sapphire earrings (price, around $480), and be especially pleased that they were made in a limited edition.
(Note: Mr. Spirer writes an interesting blog about jewelry here.)

Photo by permission of Daniel M. Spirer

3. Sophisticated and elegant

Lorrie's sister, Diane, glamourous yet minimalist, is always impeccably turned out. She will will join us for a Sunday am. run to Ikea in a crisp white shirt, tailored trousers, kitten heels, coral lipstick.  When I say "glamorous", I don't mean glitzy; rather, her soignée polish seems entirely natural—think Grace Kelly. She would want a dash of drama displayed via uncluttered, well-resolved design.


That store carries a few items by revered Montréal designer Janis Kerman, and it is there Diane would pause. This pair is made of relatively modest materials: black diamonds (sidebar: black diamonds are irradiated to achieve that colour), mother-of-pearl discs, and silver; in Kerman's hands, they are supremely elegant.

What to choose? 

Like the women I watched, you will be drawn to certain pieces, and of course, will factor in your budget. But here is the Big Reveal, the kicker: try something outside your niche. Bend it by twenty or thirty degrees.

Ask permission to put on a new piece and spend at least 15 or 20 minutes in it in the shop. Take a photo of yourself.  (Most vendors will allow one if you explain your reason. Occasionally, concerns about copying yield a "no".)  Study that photo later, because you can quickly forget the proportions and overall effect, and think about whether you would wear it with your wardrobe. I've also known jewelers who let an established client take a piece home for a day or two.

You could also borrow from a friend to assess a new style or how you look in different materials, even if you only wear it while you're at her place for lunch.

Whichever way you manage your tryout, even a short test spin delivers benefits:
1. You may get ideas for restyling things you own. 
2. You may be able to trade your Frida Kahlo hoops (seemed like a good idea in Acapulco but not back home) for a friend's silver mesh bracelet, the one she's allergic to. Donation is noble, but swapping recoups your investment neatly.

Or, you might be motivated to finally sell your little-worn piece to fund the new. (The fine jewelry you don't wear isn't like a once-worn lipstick; there's unrealized value there. )

3. You will, even if you make no change now, build your eye for what compliments you, which definitely shifts as you mature. An item you coveted might turn out to be not nearly as pleasing on you as you thought.

The updating of a jewelry collection lags behind clothes; once we think a five-year-old jacket suddenly looks démodé, poof! it's banished, but we don't bother with those fifteen-year-old earrings, stuck in the back of the drawer. Maybe they're still fine, but as times change, older contemporary pieces can look too girly or generic.
Victorian cameo earrings, Beladora

Whether you're in a luxe boutique or funky friperie, play a bit, and look at yourself with new eyes. If you feel a magnetic repulsion, stay away, but if you have never worn Tahitian pearls or a Victorian cameo, take a moment to try the unusual.

There's no better way to find a magical bijou that's going to delight you for years.

Closet creep: Why?

In style blogland, a perennial topic is that of de-cluttering, especially the closet purge. Most writers detail experiences with the Three-Pile Method. Even though I know this material like a Beatles song, I will read every one of these posts intently.

However, in a kind of Wardrobe Groundhog Day, over time a predictable cycle occurs: first, the joy of the refined, airy closet, followed by posts that feature a perfect new whatever, and within a year or two, another purge post.

So the question is, how does a recidivist succumb? Few of us (and I definitely count as one) go out one day and say, "Hey, it's time to buy another three pairs of navy pants and six white tees". Not many women have work or social requirements that dictate we can't wear the same thing too often– I mean, Kate Middleton repeats her clothes.  

I reflected first on my own habits.

1. Replacements that aren't
I buy the new black v-neck to replace the one that's on its last legs, but then keep the last-legs sweater because it has the perfect not-too-low neckline and really does have some wear left, at least around the house. (Hi Mom; no, of course I'm not throwing that out.)

2.  Hero-itis
I find a spectacular jacket, coral with gorgeous white embroidered detail down the front. Wow, I love it! In the dressing room, I'm styling it with everything I own.

Then I get it home, and I do not wear it, maybe because spring in Montréal is two weeks long, and then it's hot in summer and the jacket's too summery in fall. But it sure is pretty, so there it hangs, next to other 'special pieces' that always get free passes during purges, till they fill a quarter of the closet all on their own.

 3. The magnetic pull of small things
Always room for another scarf (for some women, it's shoes or bags). Whether secondhand or new, the prize enjoys an initial run, maybe even several seasons of prominence, until another crush comes along. Meanwhile, the stack grows, the shoe rack squishes tighter.

4.  Spare feels unsatisfying
Post-purge, a little inner voice says, Whoa, you have no clothes anymore! Did you really think this will be enough? I visit a friend who rotates a half-dozen winter coats plus a full MEC storm suit for biking, and think, I have only two? Maybe another one would be OK?

And, there's boredom: the same jeans, again? Even the most dedicated minimalists will admit they get sick of their stuff.

The fix is philosophical

Keeping a decluttered closet is akin to maintaining a healthy weight: I've made a lifestyle change, and now can either "put it back on" or not.

At least every several weeks, I remind myself that I don't need more, and the desire for more is the fast track to the next purge, unless I follow the one in/one out rule. This means giving myself permission to change things up occasionally, as long as something exits, concurrently.

Also, I remind myself that I chose to buy better clothes and wear them longer, so I can just belt up about the fact that my blue cashmere v-neck has been in rotation since before eBay existed.

Boredom is assuaged by a deeper dive into the scarves, or by switching up jewelry. If I need a spirit-lift, a small consumable serves: a plump, glowy mango, new notebook, tea.  

But that's me. If other cyclical wardrobe-parers are reading, kindly tell me how you stem a slip back to crammed closets and old habits.

Buying jewelry: "Curieux, intrigant"

One of the reasons why I so enjoy living here: in early winter, this poster was taped to a phone pole just steps from my door.

It reads, "Tell me. Has something bizarre, curious, intriguing happened to you? Phone 514-819-0203 and leave your message anonymously."

Go ahead, call! Here's my story.

Several days before my W., my former husband, and I married, I gave him a small, 18k gold pin, a replica of Flash Gordon's rocket ship.

I'd found it in a boutique run by an exotic couple who wore wafty semi-robes and seemed to have but fourteen exquisite things for sale at any time: some jewelry, a few objets, silver, a painting. The place shuttered less than a year after opening, which wasn't surprising; with so little on offer, how could they survive? W. wore the pin on his jacket lapel; when we parted, he left the pin behind.

I threw the piece in a jewelry box, where it lay for a good 15 years. One day, browsing an outdoor art show, I noticed that one of the artisans, Mr. S., had an identical pin on his vest. "Oh", I said, "is that one of your designs? I bought one many years ago, but in gold."

Mr. S. looked at me closely and said, "I only ever made one in gold; it won a prize, but then was stolen from my studio. Could you describe the person you bought it from?" I had no trouble remembering the sloe-eyed man in robes. "I knew it was him!" the artist said, "but I could never prove it."

I phoned Le Duc and asked if he would retrieve the pin from my jewelry box and join me at the show; within the hour, the stunned artist held, once again, his prizewinning piece. I wouldn't accept payment, but he insisted I choose a pair of his earrings.

I almost wish that I still had the pin, but returning it felt right. If I were buying a bijou curieux today, I might choose one of those below. Every jewelry collection, from modest to major, needs at least one unusual piece. Nearly always, I find they are antique or at least vintage.

Vintage German Art Deco ring; $388 from Etsy seller TheLovelyJumble

Vintage silver cat and mouse pendant by Joanna Lesley Thomson; now sold; from Etsy seller BeautyandtheBeadsUK

Antique Victorian diamond and enamel snake ring; $1, 450 from Beladora

Mark Davis vintage Bakelite and pink sapphire bracelet; $2, 390 from Twist

You might also find an idiosyncratic and charming treasure for much less.

A few months ago, I found a curieux, intrigant necklace when I strolled past a small consignment store. The proprietor said it had been bought in Geneva by a traveler, but because of the hieroglyph carved on the blue wooden bead and the characteristic materials (copal, carnelian, agate), I am guessing it is Middle Eastern.

Then there are the jumble sale or thrift scores; readers and friends have found striking silver and amber, turquoise or art glass pieces for a few dollars. I haven't shared their luck yet, but it's always such fun to hunt!

Every now and them though, I see a serious jewel of such originality that I just bow down before its idiosyncrasy. And so it is with this ca. 1950s diamond compass ring. What is the story here? Who made it?  I'm swept into its spell. (Price, $25, 500 from Fourtuné, on First Dibs.)

Small pleasures and treasures

Several useful things came my way over the past few months, a hodgepodge of small delights. Each may be useful to you, and would also make a good house or hostess gift.

Chair Slippers

We moved into a condo with wood floors, a surface I had not had in a dining area for decades. I tried every kind of pad under the dining chairs' metal legs to prevent scratching: felt, deluxe felt, hand-cut felt. 

After nearly every meal, someone would skootch his chair back leaving mangled pads and adhesive smudges on the floor.

Finally, I found Chair Slippers. They work perfectly, and what a relief to see the floor no longer more damaged by the week! Some people use tennis balls, but the Slippers, which come in three sizes and many colours, are less conspicuous.

The Spring Epilator

Gave this to a GF for her birthday and she wondered where it has been all her life. Well, you really don't need one all your life, just after 50 when you get those chin bristles and upper-lip fuzz.

You can spend $17 on a Bellabe, or a buck or so on this one on eBay, slightly smaller but works just as well; guess which I buy?

Marvis Jasmin Mint toothpaste

"My baby don't care for rings, or other expensive things, my baby just cares for... toothpaste."

Why not? You put toothpaste in your mouth several times a day, right? None of those nasty microbeads, a pleasing taste, and a gorgeous retro Italian tube.  The Ginger Mint variety is delicious too.

I can get it cheaper across the street, but if you don't live near Italian things, it's on Amazon.

Tangle-free tool for layered necklaces

Reader Carolyn from Oregon found this jewelry accessory; she wears several pendants on thin gold chains, and they tangle. She has not ordered one yet, and is pondering whether she'd be pleased with gold fill. Unless you have high-karat gold (18 or 22k) I'll bet the gold fill will be fine, but you'd want the option to return if not.
You could make this yourself, for less (or if you want to invest in a gold clasp, around $130 or more). The clasp is a multi-strand like those used for two or three-strand pearl necklaces, with an additional jump rings added, so there is a fastening for both the hook and eye sides of the original chains. You remove the necklaces by simply lifting the vertical pin in the clasp.

The photo shows the design better than words:

The Strandalign is available in both silver and gold-filled models, for $US33 to $49; free shipping in US; international shipping available.

Satin pillowcase

If you are coping with hair loss, or, like one of my best friends, have temporarily lost all your hair, a satin pillowcase is an excellent choice—and why not rock out with leopard? Not cheap (about $65 plus shipping from Etsy seller SatinSwank) but a personal-care treat.

Maybe when you see these, you'll contribute your own, via a comment—I would enjoy learning of your small treasures, the objects that, now that they're in your life, you wonder how you lived without.


A recent New Yorker article ("The Terrible Teens", by Elizabet Colbert) explores the adolescent-to-young-adult brain.

Anyone who has reared, taught, dated or even sat beside a teen on a bus ought to read the full article, but here's a summary: like the rich, teens are different from you and me.

They have more fun.

Citing "The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist's Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults", by Frances Jensen with Amy Ellis Nutt, and "Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence" by Laurence Steinberg, Colbert limns the neural differences behind what you always knew: teens and young adults feel invulnerable, hence their fun is, as my own then-teens said, funner.

What crazy shit did you do?

Several newly-minted drivers and their friends would drive way out onto the frozen ice of Lake Michigan on a subzero evening and tie toboggans onto the rear bumpers of the family cars. We'd pile on those toboggans, and the drivers would go real fast. (For those unfamiliar with the Great Lakes, they freeze in jagged moon craters of snow-covered ice, not glassy, like a skating rink.) No one died.

Not everything we did for fun was dangerous to us. My classmate Dick was fooling around with a hunting rifle, in his room. Unlike the tragic incidents in which a careless kid hurts someone, Dick merely discharged the rifle into the wall—but that wall was the boundary of his parents' clothes closet, so Dick shot through every one of his mother's dresses, blouses and coats, murdering her entire wardrobe.

Oh, there is more, much more. But the point is, if you could lure me out onto a frozen lake today and offer that wild, moonlit ride, I would say, Are you crazy?, and also wonder, Where is the nearest bathroom? What if I lose my glasses? Don't I have a geometry quiz tomorrow?

That's because, according to the neurologists, the executive function of my prefrontal lobe is now firmly and fully on duty. When the brain matures (around age twenty-nine), fun grows up too.

We know a couple who moved to a retirement community in Florida called The Villages; it's an Epcot of the Elderly: a zillion golf courses, all kinds of themed restaurants, plenty of edifying classes and lectures, travel provided by motorized cart, vodka-and-sodas cheaper than Coke, and ample casual sex, if one desires.

Mary and Mike admit that problems of excess can arise, but say most residents balance sybaritic pursuits with responsibility. But I cannot even think of signing on for packaged, deliberate fun; amusement parks have never delivered for me.

I'm culturally Canadian now; we don't grab our gusto, we sip. I tried to complete the sentence, "My idea of fun is...". The results were embarrassingly mild: a friend and I have real hot chocolate at Juliette et Chocolat after yoga. What, I wondered, happened to the exhilaration I felt at sixteen, when the folks' car pulled out of the driveway and Susie came over for a marathon of fudge-making, soul-baring and belting "Downtown" while we nipped at the mickey of Jack she stole from her brother's gym bag?

I realized that, just like a trip, a key component of fun is its anticipation; that hour before Mom and Dad left was exquisite as a pitcher's windup.

Another memory rises from the two years when I lived, from nineteen to twenty, in a sorority house at a Big Ten American university.

ca. 1967

It is Saturday, early evening, and everyone's getting ready. Dates announce their arrival on the house phone; study buddies debate where to get the best pizza after the library closes; Mary Kay waits for her boyfriend and his cousin to drive from Detroit to go dancing. ("Anybody want to come along? Stu's kind of cute.") "Suzy Q" blasts from the stereo, a nimbus of steam, hairspray and fragrance floats from the communal bathroom; Jeanne walks by in a killer outfit: her roommate's miniskirt and my sweater.

I have never again experienced that fizzy anticipation, supercharged by a liberal shot of autonomy, a restrained Midwestern glamour (false eyelashes, falls), and the rich certainty that the evening ahead would deliver fun. We knew it and unreservedly leapt in— and so it was, indeed, funner than nearly anything I have experienced since.

What's fun for you, these days? Does it differ from 'then'? Are you still open to risk and excitement, or is playing with your cat or grandkids amply satisfying?

Having a little work done, thanks to the sun

Over Christmas, I had a photodynamic therapy treatment (Levulan) on my face, as a preventative treatment for skin cancer. I had already had a basal cell cancer removed, and my dermatologist recommended this treatment, because of a proliferation of facial "sun spots" (actinic keratoses or AKs) that kept flaking, especially evident on my nose.

He thought it was a good idea given my age and history. All those years of sunbathing on dorm roofs with those tinfoil reflectors? Hah, not so smart! Though I had converted to sunscreen and shade by my thirties, my misspent youth on beach blankets had caught up with me.

The treatment is administered in an office by his nurse. I'd read accounts, and was prepared. I spent two hours with my face coated with goo, then exposed to hot, UV light. By the time I left, the skin was tender and tight but not painful. Unlike my university days, they didn't blast the Dead on their radio.

I rode the subway home covered like a bank robber, a slit of eye showing between my muffler and hat. A mother checked me out, grabbed her kids and held them close.

By nightfall, my face bloomed into a moderately severe "sunburn", with discomfort well-managed by Advil and vodka. Kidding, but would have been nice.

Post-procedure protocol requires 40 to 48 hours in a dim room to promote the effectiveness. Because the light reveals patches below the surface, you can see where formerly hidden sunspots lurk, rather like an archaeological dig down to decades past. The next morning, I took this shot:

See the tip of my nose? That's where the most obvious damage was, but the treatment also raised welts on my forehead and even ears.

Patients are told to expect redness and peeling for up to a month; nearly all of mine was gone within two weeks. Some women cover it with makeup, but I thought that looked worse.

At three weeks:

There's just the faintest tinge of pink at the tip of my nose, and the flaking, persistent AK is gone. The last step is a forty-night application of Aldara cream.

Some patient testimonials claimed the treatment faded their age spots, but I wasn't that lucky. However, I had it not for aesthetics, but to prevent the two most common forms of non-melanoma skin cancer, basal cell and squamous cell.

AKs are also treated with topical creams, cryosurgery (liquid nitrogen), peels, lasers and other methods; see this list. If you are discovering spots that have AK characteristics, talk to your doctor. Those scaly patches are now considered part of the skin cancer spectrum.

Some persons repeat the therapy, but since it is not covered by insurance, I hope this is the only one I need. Cost in Canadian dollars was $650.

I learned that fair-skinned persons who don't tan easily are more at risk. I wish that, back when I wore a bikini, instead of slathering on more iodine and baby oil and turning over for another hour to Let The Sun Shine In, I'd just resigned myself to being A Whiter Shade of Pale.

Jewelry reno: Old bands, new music

Few items of jewelry reach obsolescence as noticeably as wedding jewelry, especially the matchy engagement/wedding ring set, which is what many women wore when their first dance was to The Carpenters:

Yet, women are reluctant to update, even if the rings clash with the jewelry they wear today. "But it's the one we made vows with", they say, as if an update would cancel the commitment. I see restyling as a renewal, not an erasure. And if you never tied the knot, read on; you might inherit someone else's rings.

My friend Nancy, a noted food stylist (click and you'll be drooling over more than her jewelry!) showed me her truly personal reno: four rings made from cherished vintage material, restyled with new silver and new and recycled gold. 

She kept her original wedding band, and created a casually elegant selection of new rings by repurposing her engagement ring (a classic claw-set diamond that was once her husband Marvin's mother's), several rubies and an emerald Marv brought back from a trip to Thailand, and gold and a diamond from her mother's wedding jewelry. 

Here, with her generous permission, is a peek at her lavish collection. (Yeah, Nance, you're stacked!)

From left to right: Nance's original wedding ring, now over 35 years old; the two rubies (originally set as earrings that she never really wore), and her ER diamond.

Here's the emerald, mixed in:

And the newest addition, below: her mother's diamond, shown between the rubies. Nance says, "I love that both mothers are with me."

She mixes and moves the rings at whim, the jewelry equivalent of the perfect wardrobe, where everything works together. 

Her rings were made over several years by Toronto jeweler Willa Drummond.  She chose silver for the band section of the ruby and diamond rings, and gold for the bezels, where strength and durability are essential. The result: a playful, modern mix that echoes Nance's vibrant style.

About commissioning work, Nance says: "Sometimes people feel obliged to like what the artist created, but there is no amount of consulting, drafting or illustrating that can guarantee complete happiness once the object becomes tangible. Our minds work differently and communication is the only way to get what you want."

The most recent, the square-bezel diamond, was begun last June and was on her finger in December. Ms. Drummond worked through several adjustments, noting that "the best results are found with patience and honest communication."

When "I do" becomes "I don't"

Since at least a third of the unions from the '80s did not endure, some women have ex-rings. If that's your situation, you could re-use the material, assuming you took a different route than my friend Lorri's sister, Janet, who hurled her Chaumet band into Venice's Grand Canal, shouting "Arrivederci, Jimmy!"

While stacking rings also suit the single life—just swap the wedding ring out—another option is to make one beautiful new ring. A design like Mallary Marks' French Horn ring provides a home for a diamond that originally perched in a classic Tiffany style. (You would add the small second diamond):

Nance is reno-ready for more than rings: "My next project is to redesign a pair of garnet earrings my mum gave me for my 19th birthday.  We will be incorporating a tiny diamond as well as converting a stud to a hook that will hang, but not dangle, just below my lobe."

I'll ask if we can see those, too!