Vienna As Fashion Muse? Projections Of Splendor

LV04smShown at the Paris Fashion week last Thursday, the Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter 2010 Menswear Collection immediately caught my eye. Not because I am particularly fond of Vuitton (like too many other fashion houses, it has fallen prey to the Plague of Excessive Logos), but rather because of the references to Vienna.

Dominated by narrow-waisted suits, crisp riding boots and structured bags, the collection is described as having been inspired by Vienna's Age of Splendor, and by the Vienna of today. As Vienna has been my home on and off for the past several years, I could not help but ruminate on my own impressions of the city's style, and on the implications of its new status as Fashion Muse.

Over the course of my life in Vienna, I have continuously struggled with how I relate to it. On some level, it has become deeply familiar and even quite mundane, while on another level it has remained a romantic hallucination. In many ways, Vienna is a continental European city like many others – rich in heritage but dynamic in contemporary culture. The streets are full of young trendy people, the museums offer impressive lineups of cutting-edge international artists, the UN Headquarters looms large, and no matter where you are, you can be certain that a Starbucks or an H&M is not terribly far off. And yet, Vienna is not quite of this time. The spirit of the Austro-Hungarian Empire remains present, its rigid, explosive splendor running through the city like a rogue undercurrent.


Experiencing Vienna in this manner is like having persistent double vision, or perhaps even triple vision – whereby reality, history and historical fiction co-exist and struggle for domination over the cultural landscape.

Vienna_Architecture3When I ask myself why this is so, one obvious thing that comes to mind is the architecture. Unlike that of other German-speaking cities, Vienna's architecture has largely remained intact after the Second World War. Enormous neoclassical structures erected for the sole purpose of glorifying the Empire continue to surround the city center along the Ringstraße. The towering white marble, the black wrought iron, the vast stretches of cobblestone, and the tall chestnut trees, create a backdrop that insists upon itself and undermines the passage of time. In a sense, it is a romantic backdrop. But the brand of romance is the kind that makes one feel overpowered and somewhat uneasy. The architecture - both in its grandiosity and in the sheer fact of its continuity - sets a mood over the central district that even an army of neon Starbucks and H&M signs cannot overpower.

Vienna_CafeInteriorGranted, architecture can be seen as a passive influence. But there are other areas where Vienna's anachronistic atmosphere is maintained by choice. Take, for instance, the phenomenon of the Viennese Cafe. One can walk into any number of Viennese cafes that look as if they have remained basically unchanged since the 1920s: gilded interiors, plush red upholstery, starched white tablecloths, waiters in tuxedos, sugar cubes in tiny silver bowls, newspapers attached to wooden holders... the head spins from the elegance, and extravagance of it. And the elaborate coffee nomenclature puts other countries' terminologies to shame. (When in doubt, just order a Melange - and stay away from what the Viennese call a Cappuccino unless you want your coffee made with pure cream instead of frothed milk.)

It is not just the look of such a cafe that functions like a time machine, but the atmosphere as well. In a Viennese cafe, you will be called by your title. You will not encounter crammed floor space, even if it means that the cafe is serving only a quarter of the patrons that it could be serving. And you will never be rushed to free up your table, even if you have been nursing the same cup of coffee for hours while a crowd of hopefuls queues outside. And no, such places are not gimmicky tourist traps; they are perfectly normal cafes where the Viennese themselves go to relax.

Vienna_FurcoatLady And then of course, there are the head-turning persons you see in Vienna, the likes of whom I have not encountered elsewhere: from the ladies in floor-length fur coats and sculptural hats who look as if they've walked out of a silent film, to the serious men with heavy, intense gazes and thick streaks of gray in their hair regardless of their age, to the people wearing traditional national costumes as formalwear on a night out. True, the “retro” look has been internationally popular for over a decade, but I feel that in Vienna the look isn't “retro” at all, as it is done entirely without irony. The mixing of the old with the new simply reflects the city's nonlinear sense of time and its playful attitude towards contemporary realities.

Vienna_StoreWindowAn interesting trend I have noted, is how many fashion ateliers in Vienna are simultaneously involved in costume design for the theater. Of all the arts, theater probably occupies the most important position in Vienna, and has enormous cultural influence. Perhaps this explains why even the most contemporary boutiques seem to be at least partly inspired by dramatic turn of the 20th Century style: the designers who make the clothes for the streets are the same ones who create the costumes for the local stage. It would also explain why the past that mingles with Vienna's present seems to be not so much a historically accurate past, as a fantastical one: a romantic notion that the city embraces and projects back onto itself.

LV02smGetting back to the Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter 2010 Menswear Collection, I think that in large part it succeeds in portraying all of these things. The clothing is architectural, theatrical, and communicative, and there is a conceptual depth to it that exceeds what I have come to expect from Vuitton. The garments are rigidly tailored while suggesting fluidity, tightly closed while expressing a potential for openness. They evoke Sigmund Freud's writings on hysteria, Egon Schiele's images of tortured lanky youths, Gustaf Klimt's gilded motifs, and Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis while mixing traditional and contemporary materials and employing deconstructive techniques.

Vienna_ShoesThe LV collection is rather impressive really. But... Well, quite frankly, it brings to mind what has been available in Vienna for as long as I have lived there. If you want Viennese splendor that embodies all the anachronistic complexity the city has to offer, visit Vienna itself and walk through some of the neighborhoods that are lined with independent boutiques carrying Austrian designers, including the areas around Neubaugasse and Kettenbrückengasse. Viennese style is at its best in its natural habitat.

[LV runway images via Louis Vuitton/ Antoine de Parceval; all other images belong to the author]

J.D. Salinger: Imagining An Author

Editor's note: With this post, Albina Colden, a psychologist and visual artist, joins DeepGlamour as a contributor.

Salinger1 It distressed me to learn the news of J.D. Salinger's death. The man was 91 years old, so it should hardly have come as a surprise. But in our collective imagination, J.D. Salinger had long ceased to be a man and had become a mythical figure.

The image of Salinger - living in isolation in the New Hampshire mountains, wearing L.L. Bean, eating exotic health foods, writing maniacally, and stashing manuscripts in his secret vault - had become timeless, and it was all we had. This mythological narrative invited our imaginations to sculpt it in any way we wished and to infuse it with our own hopes and desires - or with our own prejudices.

Salinger2 In the media, it was rather sad to see the news of Salinger's death compete with the release of the Apple i-Pad. But nonetheless it did receive some coverage, and the coverage reflects our conflicted perceptions: notions of Salinger as a noble and sensitive romantic who has influenced generations and could hold the key to mysterious truths about the universe, versus notions of Salinger as a controlling, misogynistic weirdo who has made all those close to him miserable.

The New York Times describes Salinger's work as possibly the greatest of our time, but in the same breath remarks that he is mostly “famous for not wanting to be famous”. Bret Easton Ellis declares on twitter that he is happy about Salinger's death.  CNN reminds us of his “affair with the teenage Joyce Maynard” (though the wording was later changed), who was in fact a 19-year-old adult when she lived with Salinger. And of course, speculations abound as to whether there really are unpublished manuscripts in the vaults that are rumored to be in his home. Perhaps he produced masterpieces but instructed his lawyer to burn them. Or perhaps he scribbled nonesense in his study day after day, or wrote nothing at all. With his estate as protective of his privacy as Salinger himself had been, we may never know the answer.

Salinger3 In 2005 I had just finished graduate school and began my first job, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. I moved into a house in a nearby town and discovered that I was practically “neighbors” with J.D. Salinger - at least in the rural sense, where the nearest neighbor can be a mile away. I knew where Salinger lived, as many people in that area did. I passed the winding road that led to his house on my commutes to work and back every day. But I never saw Salinger and never attempted to see him - not even to catch a glimpse at one of the local events he was said to always attend. In retrospect, I had wondered at this restraint on my part, especially as he was one of my favorite writers. But now I think I understand: It wasn't so much restraint, as a means of protecting myself against disillusionment. I did not want to see Salinger, because I did not want to know which version of him was real, if any.

Salinger4 In the end, it matters not a bit what kind of a person Salinger was, whether there really are any unpublished books in that vault, or for that matter, whether there is a vault at all. In his existing body of work J.D. Salinger has given us a great gift, and may he rest in peace.

Tears Of Mermaids: My Kind Of Market, All Pearls

In Tears of Mermaids: The Secret Story of Pearls, Stephen G. Bloom (interviewed Monday) provides a behind-the-scenes tour of the worldwide pearl industry. This is the last of four installments on the Chinese freshwater pearl farms that are transforming the world of pearls. Read the first three herehere, and here. Tammy stringing pearls I bought (pg 135) After my plant tours, I made my way to Zhuji’s public pearl marketplace, where freelance family vendors set up stalls to sell their wares. The least I could do is buy a necklace for Iris, pulling double-duty, caring for our son, Mikey.

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---

Tears Of Mermaids: Pearl Processing, From Tweezers To Transformatons

In Tears of Mermaids: The Secret Story of Pearls, Stephen G. Bloom (interviewed Monday) provides a behind-the-scenes tour of the worldwide pearl industry. This is the third of four installments on the Chinese freshwater pearl farms that are transforming the world of pearls. Read the first two here and here.

Mountains of Chinese Freshwater PearlsBack 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.

Sorting Chinese Freshwater Pearls“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]

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Tears Of Mermaids: Pearls Straight From The Farm

In Tears of Mermaids: The Secret Story of Pearls, Stephen G. Bloom (interviewed Monday) provides a behind-the-scenes tour of the worldwide pearl industry. This is the second of four installments on the Chinese freshwater pearl farms that are transforming the world of pearls. Read the first one here.2-5-3-Mm-Small-Size-Freshwater-Pearl-Beads-BLP-0006-From modern Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province, to Zhuji took an hour by bus, but the ride seemed more like a hundred years. Workers marched alongside dirt roads with hoes hoisted over their shoulders, others carried water in twin bamboo pails lashed to a pole. Battered, barely motorized three-wheeled go-carts loudly puttered along. Women under conical straw hats sat on haunches in fields. Men using tree branches as whips urged on tired oxen pulling carts impossibly loaded down with stacked crates. A single ox deep in a field of dirt pulled what looked like an ancient plow. The only indication that Mao’s revolution had come was every once in a while a Chinese red flag with gold star in the upper left corner waved from atop a house or government building.

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-pearl-capital  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?”

I nodded.


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.

Dave Bing picking out pearls from a Chinese Freshwater mussel (Page 111) 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.

Dave Bing showing pearls from Chinese freshwater mussel, pg. 111

“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---

Tears Of Mermaids: The Chinese Pearl Revolution

In Tears of Mermaids: The Secret Story of Pearls, Stephen G. Bloom (interviewed yesterday) provides a behind-the-scenes tour of the worldwide pearl industry. Here is the first of four installments on the Chinese freshwater pearl farms that are transforming the world of pearls.

Jian Hao and I go out to pull up some pearls (pg. 122) 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.

Chinese Freshwater Baroque Pearls  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.

16-7-5-8mm-Multic-Freshwater-Pearl-Necklaces-BLP-0013- 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.

Next: Zhuji and a freshwater-pearl farm

[Pearl farm and baroque pearls photos by Stephen G. Bloom. Freshwater pearl necklaces from Yiwu Disa Jewelry Co., Ltd.]

---Buy Tears of Mermaids here---

DG Q&A: Stephen G. Bloom On The Allure Of Pearls

The DG Dozen

1) How do you define glamour? Feeling very cool in a tuxedo.

2) Who or what is your glamorous icon? Miranda Priestly

3) Is glamour a luxury or a necessity? Is the Pope Catholic?

4) Favorite glamorous movie? Hands down: Breakfast At Tiffany's

5) What was your most glamorous moment? Sipping cocktails in the grand, glass-ceiling lobby of the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville December 18, 2009, with our dog Hannah lounging on a Persian carpet. The scene would have made Scott and Zelda proud.

6) Favorite glamorous object (car, accessory, electronic gadget, etc.)? A pressed linen handkerchief (inside my antique leather handkerchief carrying case).

7) Most glamorous place? Shanghai

8) Most glamorous job? My very brief career as press secretary to the Mayor of San Francisco (it lasted 71 days).

9) Something or someone that other people find glamorous and you don't. Perfume. Being a foreign correspondent.

10) Something or someone that you find glamorous whose glamour is unrecognized. Spending a month writing at The MacDowell Colony, the oldest artist’s colony in America. They deliver a gourmet lunch in a picnic basket to your cabin every day.

11) Can glamour survive? Yes, but it’ll take on a different form as we get more and more casual.

12) Is glamour something you're born with? No, but looks are.


1) Angelina Jolie or Cate Blanchett? Catwoman’s pouty lips still spook me, and Cate’s bony hips and teeny shoulders scare me. Anyone for Maria Bello?

 2) Paris or Venice? Paris. Impossible to get away from the legions of lost tourists in the City of Canals.

3) New York or Los Angeles? Definitely New York, although LA’s weather beats New York’s any day.

4) Princess Diana or Princess Grace? Totally Grace.

5) Tokyo or Kyoto? Kobe.

6) Boots or stilettos? Stilettos (What straight guy wouldn’t prefer ’em ?)

7) Art Deco or Art Nouveau? Deco. Absolutely.

8) Jaguar or Aston Martin? A.M., The Spy Who Loved Me’s fab fav.

9) Armani or Versace? So très yesterday. Long live the new kings and queens: Narciso Rodriquez, Azzedine Alaia, Naeem Kahn, Thakoon Panichgul, Maria Pinto, Maria Cornejo, Tracy Feith, Peter Soronen, Jason Wu, Isabel Toledo

10) Diana Vreeland or Anna Wintour? Diana for the ages.

11) Champagne or single malt? MacAllan single malt is nectar from the gods. If you can afford the 18-year, go for it. Better: MacAllan 25.

12) 1960s or 1980s? ’80s despite Reagan and Bush I. RIP go-go boots and plastics.

13) Diamonds or pearls? C’mon!

14) Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell? Project Runway babe Heidi Klum rocks my world. Auf Wiedersehen to the rest.

15) Sean Connery or Daniel Craig? The one and only.

[The Girl with Pearl Earring from Wikimedia Commons. Pearl photos by Stephen Bloom. Barbara Bush portrait from the Library of Congress. The Obamas dancing by at the Governors Ball by Pete Souza, from The White House Flickr stream.]

Bicycle Glamour: Everyday Cycling Vs. Competitive Sport

Lovely bicycle man fall autumn leaves harvardOne of my most glamorous memories is of my book editor hopping on her bicycle to go back to the office after a lunch with me in New York. She was wearing a skirt and heels and looked utterly graceful and sophisticated as she rode away.

With their smooth, silent progress, bicycles have great potential for glamour. We use "like riding a bicycle" to mean a physical skill that has become second nature, unforgettable even after years of disuse. We don't say, for instance, "like brushing your teeth," equally second nature but much less impressive. A bicycle can't even stand upright without support, much less move forward.

Yet unlike a car--or, for that matter, a horse--a bicycle depends only on its rider for locomotion. It represents autonomy. In my childhood, getting a bike was the first step toward independence. You could now travel reasonable distances without your parents.

Lovely bicycle nightbikegirl1But bicycles aren't on most people's short list of glamorous objects. Competitive cycling, like marathon running, never looks effortless. Kids are burdened with bicycle helmets that make them look dorky and tell them cycling is dangerous. No wonder President Obama skipped the helmet at the beach in Hawaii, after drawing laughs for his helmeted bike ride during the campaign.

As cycling has become more and more an esoteric sport, with complicated gear and lingo, buying a bike has become off-putting to outsiders. When the design firm IDEO worked with component manufacturer Shimano to develop a new bicycle concept, the two firms found were surprised at non-cyclers' attitudes. They loved their memories of biking but were put off by the attitudes and complexity of cycling shops. As Bicycling magazine explained:

"When we asked if Lance Armstrong inspired them, people would say yes, but not to ride a bike," says Shimano's [U.S. marketing manager David] Lawrence. And while all the interview subjects had positive, almost reverential memories of childhood bike rides, Sklar noted that "their feelings about the reality of the biking world are remarkably different." Their dominant image of cycling was one of exercise, speed, uniforms and competition--not of play or fun. "There are a lot of people who feel intimidated and unwelcome in that environment," Sklar says.

Lovely bicycle woman beach sunset planeTo teach cycling enthusiasts what it felt like to be a casual biker in one of their shops, IDEO made them shop for skin products at Sephora. As Daniel Gross recounts in Bicycling:

The Sephora staff, quickly sizing up the bike guys as outsiders and neophytes, treated them with disdain. Says Lawrence: "Everything that happened to noncyclists in a bike shop was happening to our guys in the cosmetics store."

That design collaboration produced a new category called "coasting bikes," designed for casual riders. Another concept, which incorporates more cycling glamour, is the "lovely bicycle," designed for daily, but noncompetitive, use. Here's a description of a lovely bicycle from the blog by that name:

When utility and romance coexist not despite, but because of one another, that is a Lovely Bicycle! A Lovely Bicycle does not only look beautiful in itself, but allows you to look your best while riding it.

Our notions of personal aesthetics vary, and, naturally, so will our bicycles. For the individual whose personal style consists of casual or athletic clothing, a roadbike can be a perfectly appropriate choice. For the individual whose style revolves around formal attire - including suits, skirts and high heels - an upright city bike works far better. The main idea, is that the bicycle should not require the cyclist to change their preferred way of dress or their lifestyle in order to ride it.

620241Recounting her yearning for a lovely bicycle untainted by the butt-up, head-down, Lycra-legged aesthetics of competitive cycling, blogger Filigree writes:

Only on vintage posters and in old art films did I see the romance that made me long for cycling again. Seeing these fictional lady cyclists of yore, the relaxed chic they exude is alluring and enticing. It makes cycling seem cool and fashionable. But can these associations exist in today's world?

They certainly do on her blog, from which these photos are taken. Although I'm a dedicated walker, she makes me want to get a bike—at least once the rain stops.

[Vintage poster from Swann Galleries and up for auction February 4.]

Quotable: Wayne Koestenbaum On “The Jackie O Show”

Life Jackie vs. Jackie Watchers  “We didn’t fabricate her from thin air; she must have collaborated with the media, however unconsciously, to form her image and to preserve it (always the same smile, the same hairdo). Because we didn’t willfully make her up, but accepted her as part of our landscape, we may consider ourselves her beneficiaries and her audience, and we may consider her appearances—captured in photographs, whether authorized or unauthorized—to be a slow, serial, fragmented performance piece, drawn out over more than thirty years, and highly conceptual, its premises never articulated or codified. Jackie was a show—the Jackie O Show—but its plot was buried, its backers were invisible, and its spectacular special effects seemed unpremeditated, thoroughly natural.”

—Wayne Koestenbaum, Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon