The most glamorous store in America may be going public.
I don’t mean Neiman Marcus Inc. -- or Bergdorf Goodman, which it owns -- although the luxury retailer is glamorous to many people, and it did just file for an initial public offering.
I’m talking about Container Store Inc.
The retailer, which has 61 stores and two more opening this fall, is known as an exemplary employer, ranking high on Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list for 14 years running. It avoided layoffs after the 2008 downturn. It talks a lot about values, and its executives regularly say things like, “We all know we’re doing more than selling a product.”
All those good feelings -- and the sales that topped $750 million last year -- depend on something every Container Store customer knows well: The store’s merchandising is amazingly seductive. Like a luxury retailer, the Container Store gets a premium price for its products and persuades people to buy more than is strictly necessary because, knowingly or not, it traffics in glamour.
Glamour is not a synonym for luxury, celebrity or fashion. It isn’t a style, like mirrored furniture or satin dresses. Like humor, it’s a form of communication that elicits a distinctive emotional response. Glamour lets us feel that the life we yearn for is almost within our grasp. It is a powerful form of nonverbal persuasion.
“We’re really selling not space as much as we are time,” says Chief Executive Officer Kip Tindell. Like the sight of chairs looking seaward on a white sandy beach or a model strutting down a runway in the latest fashions, a walk through a Container Store makes a customer imagine a better self in better circumstances. With the right equipment, it suggests, your life can be peaceful and orderly, giving you more time to relax and enjoy yourself.
Read the rest on Bloomberg View.
Michelle Breskin's EITHER/OR
1) Angelina Jolie or Cate Blanchett? Cate
2) Paris or Venice? Venice
3) New York or Los Angeles? New York
4) Princess Diana or Princess Grace? Both!
5) Tokyo or Kyoto? Tokyo
6) Boots or stilettos? Boots
7) Art Deco or Art Nouveau? Art Deco
8) Jaguar or Astin Martin? Astin!!!
9) Armani or Versace? Armani
10) Diana Vreeland or Anna Wintour? Anna Wintour
11) Champagne or single malt? Champagne
12) 1960s or 1980s? 60's
13) Diamonds or pearls? Diamonds
14) Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell? Naomi
15) Sean Connery or Daniel Craig? Daniel Craig
Karol Markowicz's EITHER/OR
1) Angelina Jolie or Cate Blanchett? Angelina.
2) Paris or Venice? Venice is magic but Paris is glamour.
3) New York or Los Angeles? New York.
4) Princess Diana or Princess Grace? Princess Grace.
5) Tokyo or Kyoto? Tokyo
6) Boots or stilettos? Stilettos.
7) Art Deco or Art Nouveau? Art Nouveau
8) Jaguar or Astin Martin? Astin
9) Armani or Versace? Versace
10) Diana Vreeland or Anna Wintour? Diana Vreeland
11) Champagne or single malt? I could write 3 paragraphs on this but single malt all the way.
12) 1960s or 1980s? 1980's
13) Diamonds or pearls? Diamonds.
14) Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell? Kate Moss
15) Sean Connery or Daniel Craig? Sean Connery
My latest Bloomberg View column suggests some ways Amazon might overcome fashionista skepticism about its plans to move beyond its traditional apparel offerings into higher-end fashion. Here's the opening:
When I caught Jeff Bezos's eye at the press preview for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new Costume Institute exhibit, which Amazon.com Inc. sponsored, his face burst into an enormous smile. I'd like to think this was because the Amazon chief executive officer likes me so much. (We see each other socially on rare occasions.)
But I suspect he was mostly glad to see anyone he recognized. We were probably the only two people in the room who could tell you who Linus Torvalds is, or Myron Scholes: two nerds, however grown-up and pulled together, in a crowd of fashionistas.
Amazon is an unlikely sponsor for a Costume Institute event, and Bezos an exceedingly unlikely fashion advocate. "Before we got involved, this event wasn't on my radar at all," he said of the museum's celebrity-filled annual gala.
But his company is trying to get into high-end fashion retailing, and sponsoring the Met exhibit and the fashion world's party of the year is a good way to get attention. If nothing else, it gets Bezos and Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour speaking on a first-name basis.
A cultural gap remains, however. "It could never be cool to shop for fashion at Amazon.com. Geek cooties will come attached to your clothes," an early commenter said about Monday's New York Times story on Amazon's foray into fine fashion. Another wrote, "Do you want to be cool or pay the lowest price? Your decision." The Times story ended with a jab at Bezos for not knowing the brand of his own shirt or shoes -- and for letting a tacky ID badge dangle from his Prada jeans.
Net-a-Porter has already demonstrated that you don't have to be a flash-sale site to sell high fashion online. So have the websites of department stores such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. In the specialized vintage market, so has 1stDibs. The problems of presentation and fit can be overcome.
The real question is the cultural one: How can a middle- brow company like Amazon become a credible source of fashion rather than merely apparel? Here are a few ideas the company might consider:
Read the rest on Bloomberg View. Shop Amazon Apparel.
4) Favorite glamorous movie? Breakfast at Tiffany’s
5) What was your most glamorous moment?
Electra: Living large at the Ritz in Paris
Kristi: My wedding day. I felt beautiful, confident and on top of the world.
Laura: New York City to see my friend, Patricia Heaton’s play on Broadway. I had lucked out earlier in the day when I found a perfect Marc Jacobs 40s style dress and a pair of Dolce & Gabbana Mary Janes with lamb edges!! We had dinner at Babbo, saw the play, had drinks with the actors afterward in the theater district, then ended the night at Marie’s Crisis—I felt so tall and pretty and slender…
6) Favorite glamorous object (car, accessory, electronic gadget, etc.)?
Electra: My old 3.0 CS leftover from when I was swingle.
Kristi: My Missoni silk pajamas
Laura: My gold and pearl cuff from Sonya Ooten that my husband gave to me on Valentine’s Day 2009.
7) Most glamorous place?
Electra: Lounging the Chateau Marçay in my Julian caftan
Kristi: Lunching at the La Colombe d'Or, in St-Paul-de-Vence, France
Laura: Positano, Italy—my Jane tunic with Capri pants, gladiators, big sunglasses and my huge straw hat---I feel like Jackie “O”
8) Most glamorous job?
Electra: Salesgirl at Fiorucci in 1976 with Joey Arais as manager!
Kristi: Being an Electra Lang partner.
Laura: Fashion Designer of course!!
9) Something or someone that other people find glamorous and you don't
Electra: Plastic Surgery
Kristi: Buying only designer labels
Laura: Living in LA, I see young women heading to clubs at night in their ubiquitous uniform: skin-tight super short black dress with stilettos. It’s boring and cheap looking.
10) Something or someone that you find glamorous whose glamour is unrecognized
Laura: A mother pushing her child on a swing in the park, laughing and enjoying the moment.
Electra: How can I top that answer!
Kristi: Agree with Laura, a mother’s love and adoration to her child is priceless!!!
11) Can glamour survive?
Laura: As long as women want to feel attractive, there will be glamour—we can’t help it!
Electra: In spite of children!
12) Is glamour something you're born with?
Electra: Yes, if you were born before 1930. For the rest of us, we have to work at it.
Kristi: For some it comes naturally.
Laura: You can definitely be born with a great eye, but it takes a bit of work to cultivate it.
1) Angelina Jolie or Cate Blanchett? CB
2) Paris or Venice? How can you choose between two lovers?
3) New York or Los Angeles? Los Angeles
4) Princess Diana or Princess Grace? Grace
5) Tokyo or Kyoto? Kyoto
6) Boots or stilettos? Boots!!! (I [Electra] have ten pairs..)
7) Art Deco or Art Nouveau? Nouveau
8) Jaguar or Aston Martin? Aston Martin
9) Armani or Versace? Armani
10) Diana Vreeland or Anna Wintour? Vreeland
11) Champagne or single malt? Some days I need BOTH.
12) 1960s or 1980s? 60s
13) Diamonds or pearls? Pearls
14) Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell? Moss
15) Sean Connery or Daniel Craig? Connery (loyal, handsome, ages well, sense of humor)
[Photos courtesy of Electra Lang: Sensible Chic]
Does a flourishing economy depend on delusion?
Adam Smith thought so. In a famous passage in The Theory of Moral Sentiments he described a “poor man’s son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition.” The young man imagines how much easier his life would be if he could live in a grand home, attended by servants and traveling by coach rather than on foot: “He thinks if he had attained all these, he would sit still contentedly, and be quiet, enjoying himself in the thought of the happiness and tranquillity of his situation.”
The man spends his life striving to achieve his dream. He becomes wealthy, with all the luxuries he imagined, but to get there he has to work so hard that he can never relax.
“Through the whole of his life,” writes Smith, “he pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repose which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquillity that is at all times in his power.” The man is deluded by the glamour of wealth, tricked by an illusion. Yet his achievement is not only real but socially beneficial: “It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind.”
Read the rest at BigQuestionsOnline.
[Photo "Ambition" by Flickr user Ashley R. Good, used under Creative Commons License.]
Tesla Motors Inc., whose electric sports cars combine good looks, high performance, and high-status price tag with environmental correctness, government subsidies, and lots of good media, will go public on Tuesday. The company hopes its IPO will garner about $15 a share, for a $1.4 billion valuation.
Tesla's public offering represents an interesting chance to measure just how much glamour is worth. The business not only lacks profits but has minimal sales. "Glamour and excitement are not the same as a sound investment," warns the WSJ's Brent Arend in a much reprinted post. "Indeed the reverse is more often the case." Newsweek Nancy Cook is blunter, listing five reasons that Tesla will "never make money."
Of course, glamour stocks are nothing new to Wall Street. They have high price-earnings ratios because investors believe they have strong growth potential. Is Tesla such a rational glamour play? Or is buying into its IPO more like funding a movie or an airline startup--the triumph of hope over experience, glamour over good sense?
UPDATE: Tesla's glamour turned out to be worth even more than the company hoped. Shares went for $17 each, and Tesla increased the number it sold by 20 percent.
[Photo courtesy of Skylar Smith, Flickr user squiddphoto, and used with permission.]
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 here, here, and here. 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---
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.
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---
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.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 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---
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.
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.
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.]
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