What The Smart Red Cross Volunteer Of 1939 Wore: The Hope Diamond

Red Cross volunteer wearing Hope Diamond 1939As part of my book research, I've been going through every issue of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar from selected years between 1929 and 1974. Although I'm looking for specific imagery, I've found a lot of interesting other items in the process, including this 1939 Vogue photo of Evalyn Walsh McLean packing kits to send French soldiers. ("Each kit is packed with comforts: sweater, shirt, gloves, handkerchief, socks, pipe, tobacco, cigarettes, soap, towel, and chocolates.") To see a larger version, click on the photo.

Perfectly Charming

There’s something about charm bracelets.

People love them – and love to talk about them. In her book Charmed Bracelets, jewelry designer Tracey Zabar says that nearly every time she wears a charm bracelet (and that’s almost every day), women stop her on the street to ask about the jangly bracelet on her wrist.

They want to know the story of the charms and how the bracelet came to her. All jewelry – even costume stuff purchased at the mall – tells a story. Why it was purchased, who gave it to the person wearing it, how it makes her feel.

But with charm bracelets, the story is more overt. Charms are typically selected not just because they’re pretty, but for what they mean. They describe the bracelet’s creator.

Charm bracelet

My own charm bracelet, pictured on the left in its original box, was a gift from my grandmother. She compiled the charms while living in Europe during the 1950s. My grandfather was stationed in Germany - the bear and Brandenburg Gate represent my grandmother’s time in that country.

Other charms were souvenirs of trips – Rome, London, Paris, the Netherlands and Switzerland all have spots on the chain.

When I wear the bracelet – and I do, frequently – I have the same experience as Zabar. People, even those I don’t know, compliment the bracelet and ask questions about the charms. I get to tell them about my glamorous grandmother and her years in Europe, when she had two small children but still managed to travel and live in style.

Vintage charm bracelets are popular these days. Jewelry stores and sites like eBay and Etsy burst with them. The allure of the story-in-a-bracelet is so strong that for some, it doesn’t even matter if they don’t know who first created the bracelet, or why the charms were chosen.

They know that there’s a story behind it. And that’s enough.

DG Q&A: Jewelry Designer Sandy Leong

Sandy Leong jewelry designerJewelry designer Sandy Leong has lived in Manhattan for nearly two decades, but she still exudes the fit, outdoorsy vibe of her native Pacific Coast (Portland to Anchorage to San Francisco as a child). So it's not surprising that she brings a combination of urban refinement and subtly organic shapes to her line of jewelry--a business that grew from a hobby she developed while looking for a creative outlet once her kids were in school. Now her designs are turning up on such stylish celebrities as Fergie and Gabrielle Union and in the pages of magazines including O, Lucky, and People. (Having followed Sandy's business, I was excited when, during an American Airlines upgrade, I spotted some of her teardrop earrings in the pages of Celebrated Living, American's magazine for its first-class cabin.) Sandy shared her thoughts on the glamour of jewelry, building a luxury business in tough times, and why she believes in gold.

DG: What's the appeal of jewelry?

Sandy Leong: “The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.” My favorite line from Steel Magnolias. And I think that really applies to the appeal of jewelry. Along with shoes, it really has the biggest impact on your outfit.

DG: How did you get interested in designing jewelry? How did you learn jewelry design?

SL: When both my children were in school full time, I found myself wondering what I used to do before I had kids? A girlfriend and I both received the 92 Street Y catalog and decided to pick a class that we could both take together. It turned out to be Jewelry for Beginners. That was nine years ago and from the first time I held a soldering torch, I was hooked. I’ve been taking classes there continuously and have also taken classes at the Jewelry Arts Institute in NYC.

Sandy Leong Intertwining Wave Earrings

DG: How would you describe your design aesthetic?

SL: It’s easy, simple, modern, and timeless. You can wear my pieces during the day to pick up the kids from school, go grocery shopping and not feel overdressed, but can also wear it out to dinner and evening functions and it adds just the right of amount sparkle and pizzazz. It’s all made here in the U.S. with recycled 18k gold, too!

Although most pieces have a very organic feel in nature, I am also extremely influenced by the cut of my stones and the architectural style that surrounds the stone.

DG: Why do you work in gold as opposed, say, to both gold and silver?

SL: Gold has a very luxurious feel to it. I wanted my jewelry to be timeless investment pieces that would hold their value over time, whether sentimentally or financially. When using 18k gold, the finish doesn’t tarnish and with care, will look and feel exactly like the day you bought it.

DG: Who is your customer?

SL: My customer is a successful woman who has her own money and is not afraid to spend it. She knows quality, is a trend setter, rather than a follower, and loves luxury and beautiful pieces. She’s active, athletic and can’t be bothered to change her jewelry for every event throughout her busy day. She wears her jewelry, but the jewelry doesn’t wear her.

Gabrielle-Union wears Sandy Leong Luminous ring
Gabrielle Union in an architectural square-cut ring
from Sandy Leong's Luminous collection (click for larger view)

DG: What's the most difficult challenge you've faced as a new jewelry designer?

SL: The economy is a huge challenge! I launched my line in 2008 when conspicuous consumption was out of fashion. However, my customer is back and more cautious about making wise investments instead of trendy fads that come and go with the season. Also, most major department stores are consignment based and the financial outlay is tremendous for a jewelry designer trying to make retail presence and with limited resources.

Sandy Leong Golden Pear earringsDG: Jewelry seems like a very competitive industry. How do you stand out?

SL: Perseverance. So many times it seems it would be so much easier to just throw in the towel, but I have a point of view and the response has been so positive. I design each and every piece for myself. If I wear it, I know I have a customer that will too. I have a growing and rabid following, who swear they wear their Sandy Leong earrings, rings, necklaces, etc. every day. That is exactly how I intended my jewelry to be worn. I have a necklace that is a little 18k dewdrop on a very delicate chain that I wear every day, with everything. And I never leave the house without an easy pair of earrings like these.

DG: Aside from your own designs, what are some of your favorite pieces of jewelry, either ones that you own yourself or ones that you've seen?

SL: I’m currently obsessed with my husband’s Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date. I had links taken out of so it fit my wrist. It’s a nice complement to my more feminine pieces.

The DG Dozen

Sandy Leong Petite Dewdrop necklace delicate gold chain1) How do you define glamour? Glamour begins with self-confidence. It’s an effortless way of being. Whether you’re wearing jeans and a t-shirt or a fabulous ball gown, it’s all about your attitude.

2) Who or what is your glamorous icon? Elizabeth Taylor, the early years, and Kate Middleton

3) Is glamour a luxury or a necessity? Glamour is a necessity. It’s the allure of the excitement and adventure that makes life worth living.

4) Favorite glamorous movie? Breakfast at Tiffany’s

5) What was your most glamorous moment? The Boys and Girls Aid Society’s Black and White Ball. I had a fabulous dress by Pamela Dennis and Jimmy Choos, and felt like the belle of the ball.

6) Favorite glamorous object (car, accessory, electronic gadget, etc.)? Right now? My black Hermes Birkin bag! I feel glamorous just holding it.

7) Most glamorous place? Capri, Italy

8) Most glamorous job? 1960s American Airlines Flight Attendant

[9 and 10 skipped]

11) Can glamour survive? Of course it will. Where would we be without it? Everyone can use a little bit a glamour and magic in their life.

12) Is glamour something you're born with? I would say no, but my daughter who is 15 was born with it. She has an amazing sense of style and has so much self confidence that she’s been turning heads since she was a baby. She can command a room and I don’t know how I could teach that.


1) Paris or Venice? Venice

2) New York or Los Angeles? New York

3 Princess Diana or Princess Grace? Princess Grace

4) Tokyo or Kyoto? Tokyo

5) Boots or stilettos? Stiletto Boots!!

6) Art Deco or Art Nouveau? Art Deco

7) Jaguar or Astin Martin? Jaguar

8) Armani or Versace? Armani

9) Diana Vreeland or Anna Wintour? Anna Wintour

10) Champagne or single malt? Champagne

11) 1960s or 1980s? 1960s

12) Diamonds or pearls? Diamonds, duh!

13) Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell? Kate Moss

14) Sean Connery or Daniel Craig? Sean Connery

[Photos courtesy Sandy Leong.]

Carolee's Style Icons: Does Michelle Obama Know They're Equating Her With Evita To Sell Jewelry?

Carolee style icons Michelle Obama Jackie Kennedy Eva Peron Wallis Simpson Walking through Bloomingdale's, I was struck by this sign in the jewelry department. The Carolee jewelry company is pitching its line of pearls with photos of four pearl-wearing style icons: two American first ladies, Jackie Kennedy and Michelle Obama, both Democrats, and two foreign consorts, Eva Peron and Wallis Simpson, who, to put it politely, leaned fascist. (What, no Imelda Marcos? Too famous for shoes I guess.)

Now I realize that jewelry marketers should not be confused with historians, but if I were Michelle Obama I'd be offended. And if I were managing the Obama brand I'd certainly protest. If the White House can ask a noncontroversial windbreaker-maker to remove a billboard featuring a press photo of President Obama in its jacket, surely the first lady's staff can ask Carolee not to link Mrs. O with Evita.

It is, of course, possible that this is a sanctioned use of the first lady's image. To find out, since there's no press contact listed on Carolee's site, I posted a query to @Caroleejewelry on Twitter. (If someone were paying me to write, I'd call the company and the White House.) No response.

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]

---Buy Tears of Mermaids here---

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.]

Improved DG Contest: Orient Japan Automatic Watches

Orient Japan giveaway watchLast Monday, we announced our best-ever DG contest prize, one of Orient Japan’s automatic watches. The one we featured last week was a ladies watch. But when the folks at Orient Japan found out that about half DG’s readers are, in fact, men, they added this model as an additional choice. The winner will get to pick his or her favorite of the two watches.

To enter, just leave a comment below and be sure to give us your email address (not for publication) and website, if any. Entries from this post will be combined with last week's, and the winner will be selected on November 1, using Random.org, and announced on November 2.

And take a look at the Orient Japan site, where you'll find nice looking, but not-so-snappily named, models like the CEX0R001W.

Contest open to U.S. residents only.