Right as rain

There are many more pressing matters, but few things bend a woman out of shape more than needing something and not being able to find it.  

For around four years, I looked for a functional "city" raincoat. I searched from boutiques to department stores, e-tailers to eBay. Some looked good but didn't breathe. When I walk in a non-breathable raincoat, I feel like I'm in a Ziploc bag.

Last spring, I gave up. Then I remembered advice from Geneviève Dariaux in "A Guide to Elegance": Don't buy a raincoat; wear a light coat and carry an umbrella. (In case of a deluge, just nip into Ladurée and wait it out.)

I bought a can of Scotchguard, sprayed my J. Crew cotton twill peacoat, and voilà! If you have a soft field jacket or light cotton coat that you already own and enjoy, you might do the same. Re-spray after laundering, or once a year. (Similar fabric waterproofing products are made by Nikwax, Wood, and Rust-Oleum.) I was thrilled when raindrops fell off the peacoat.

The peacoat suits our cool Montreal spring, but for upcoming jaunts to milder locales, I needed a light, breathable layer to stash in a day pack. I found some useful choices by Montréal-based performance-wear label, Lolë.

Lolë's "Piper" is light (like a softshell), breathes, packs into a pouch: ticked all the boxes. I chose "Riverstone", a luminous pearl grey. The "Rainey" has a partial overlayer  at the chest and upper back, so it's warmer, and has a two-way zipper, too.  (It would fold into a suitcase but I wouldn't want to carry it all day.) I also tried the jacket length, the "Lainey", sportier but packable.

Sizing runs from XS to XL; the cut is not skimpy and tight. I also like Lolë's quality zippers and fastenings. Free shipping and returns, too.

I looked at many candidates, including two hip Swedish brands whose pieces cost two to four times Lolë's, but they were too heavy. Several models were "unisex" cuts which make me look like I'm in those raincoats provided on the "Maid of the Mist", to chug right up to the Niagara Falls.

When I visited the boutique on a quiet Monday morning, a woman about my age was buying a capsule wardrobe for a mid-May trip. I could see the sense: everything co-ordinated and washable. She told me about her walking tour in Italy; seventeen days of easy hikes, great meals, charming hotels, shoe shopping.

I wanted to book on the spot and test that raincoat in Ravello!


Jewellery reno: Moons, shining

Laura had inherited one of the two diamonds from her mother's engagement ring, but this avid gardener is not a "ring person".

She had earrings in mind, and because she lives in my former home city, Toronto, I suggested she visit my favourite jewellers there, Artwork by Collins and Chandler, as a start. Habituées of the tiny shop on Avenue Road call it "Pam and Don's".

Laura seemed a match for their designs, which I consider world-class.

When thinking of a commission, the first thing to do is take a close, leisurely look at a jeweller's work. Ask yourself if you'd wear much of what's on display, because that is the sensibility from which she will create. Laura liked what she saw, so she returned with her mother's diamond, a pair of earrings she received from her parents when a young adult, a small diamond from her maternal grandfather's bar tie pin, and some old gold to recycle.

I was intrigued by the shape Laura wanted: two phases of the moon. She explained, "The moon had a special significance to my late husband. I also used the crescent moon as the basis for my garden design—there are two moons facing in opposite directions. So the earrings are meant to reflect those two very important parts of my life."

Here's Laura's garden, with one moon in the foreground:

She treats me to close-ups of her beautifully-conceived and maintained beds as they move through the seasons. When she travels, it is often to visit renowned gardens.

When Pam sent the cast, Laura was uneasy; she thought that largest diamond was... big. (Laura may be the only woman I have ever known who fretted about a diamond being too big.)

Cast of setting

She sent me the photo above to ask what I thought; the diamonds are not yet set. (At the top are other Artwork earrings, which made me want to get on a train immediately.) Tricky, because she'd be wearing them, not me—but I had a hunch and offered it to her.

Laura loves colour, but she's understated. Like her garden, she's lovely in a natural way. Placed centre stage on the crescent moon, the largest diamond (about .60ct) had a presence Laura wasn't accustomed to; it looked as if it were saying, "Well HI THERE!"

I said, "Now is the time to deal with any reservations, and it's not too late." I mentioned  the phenomenon of diamond shrink. What seems like a honkin' big stone calms down; it literally seems to shrink before your eyes. You get used to it, in a good way.  I thought she'd find it perfect once she wore them awhile.

She wanted some time to think, so called Pam to ask her to hold off on the setting.

If still uncomfortable, Laura had some options: move the biggest stone to the full-moon earring, which would then mean buying new diamonds for the crescent; recut it (resulting in a smaller diamond with a more modern cut) or use a mix of diamonds and other stones. Any option would have to be carefully considered to retain balance in the design.

She decided to go ahead, though understandably felt both anxious and excited. First, there was matter of handing over family heirlooms for melting. She wryly mentioned "WASP guilt". But having inhabited WASP families, I've seen that while they revere tradition, they also abhor waste, and those stones and fiddly gold chains had no life as they were.

The scariest part, she said, was in trusting Pam and DonLaura is a world traveller, but with this project, she was in uncharted territory.

Instead of making drawings, the jewellers used other pieces as reference points, and discussed details. For a deliberate and detail-oriented person, this is a leap—but she made it, and says she's glad. And, she added, she would not have wanted to do it with someone less experienced.

Laura's moons honour her husband, mother, grandfather, and reflect her abiding connection to nature; they are really "her". She enjoys how she can move them around, with the full moon on either ear, and the crescent turned to either direction.

I'm looking forward to doing a little moon-gazing when Laura visits Montreal in May!

Customer service: The watch experiment

In need of a battery change, I entered a jewellery store in my neighbourhood with two non-running watches in hand. I was not drawn to the store before; its fortress-like façade plastered with big-brand advertising didn't reassure me about their bench skills. But, watch batteries, how hard is that?

Someone buzzed me in, none of the three saleswomen on the floor made even eye contact. (Two were with customers, one was on the phone.) I waited, and passed a dozen minutes surveying cases of mediocre jewellery. After a quarter hour, tired of being a ghost, I left.

Have you ever been invisible in a nearly-empty store? 

I found their behaviour misplaced. There are few more pathetic attitudes than snobbery issued from a merchant who offers nothing distinguished. I was reminded of our Parisien friend Roland's parting words when he ran into such treatment: "You have too much money; you don't need mine."

I have been served warmly at haut de gamme boutiques like Fred Leighton and Cartier, so was flummoxed by this freeze. Why did I not merit even a be-with-you-soon nod? I wondered: Was it my jeans-and-car coat outfit? My age? The fact that I was unaccompanied by a (wallet-carrying) man? I'll never know, because I shall never enter Crèation Paul H again.

At that point, I thought I'd try an experiment. I walked a few blocks to the chic Bijouterie Italienne, whose windows gleam with Rolexes, Pomelatto and Gucci rings, ropes of South Sea pearls. Let's see how the high end serves the grey-haired woman with two watches she had not bought there.

A young Italian salesman received me like a duchessa. The replacement would cost more than a standard installation, because, as he explained "the design of one watch means the change is not simple." (I knew that.)  As I left, I noticed a small sign indicating that the boutique was open sur rendezvous on that day. "Oh, I didn't realize I should have called first", I said. "For you", he replied with a wide smile, "we are open!"

Oh, charm the grandmother. But I actually look forward to picking them up.

I told the story to my neighbour, a man familiar with the best. He said,"I took Lou's watch to (a luxury downtown jeweller), and said, 'Please show me your diamond rings, I want to buy one for my wife. She showed me some, and I said, 'Do you have anything bigger?' She was falling over herself to serve me. Then I said, 'I have to go home and talk to my wife, but in the meantime, can you change the battery in her watch?'"

"And when you returned?", I asked.

He said, "I told them, 'Oh, she tells me she doesn't like diamonds!'"

Chub Chat: Shedding an old reflex

Spring's tiptoeing in on little rainboots here in Montréal. You'll see women's bodies again, not just a head above a muffler and puffy parka.

When I meet Paula without my winter gear, she says, "You look terrific! Have you lost weight?"  I reply, "Paula, I've been the same for five, six years." This ritual is such a sure thing that I'd bet $500 on it.

Paula cycles up or down a size or two, depending on whether she takes daily walks or burrows into her business. She's a conscious eater, but an unconscious Chub Chatter.  She means well, but there's something in it that, uh, eats at me.

Chub Chat is either self-initiated criticism, e.g., "I'm an elephant in this skirt!", or a call-and-response, the compliment ("That top looks fabulous on you!)" answered by deprecation: "Yeah, but look at my back fat."

A paper published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, and reported on Time.com, studied university women and found that "nearly all women engaged in fat talk with their friends, and over a third did so frequently". (The Time.com article did not define 'frequently'.)

Over-50s have not left Chub Chat behind like a tattered poster on the dorm wall.  We just smoosh it together with Old Talk, so now we say, "Oh god, I can't wear shorts anymore, my butt is the size of Cleveland".

But it's not just us, it's also

  • The salesperson who tells you that dress makes you look slim—and even if you like the other dress better, guess which one you're going to buy?
  • The friend who mentions her weight every time you see her, so you automatically mention yours—even though you'd rather not
  • Your sister: sees every ounce and will tell you so
  • The bloggers who posts their OOTD and wonder, Does my (fill in body part) look big in this?  I have only once read a commenter who had the candor to say, So what if it does?

Is that chat really about weight? For mature women, I believe the focus on the number (scale or hang tag) is a diversion. We evade the examination of losses more troubling than our waistline: the shift of our identities as our work selves step off the stage, the infirmity of parents or beloved elders, or our own health concerns unrelated to body size, and a lot scarier.

Chub Chat is the woman's "How about those Canadiens?", a conversational gambit called "passtiming". And it's reflexive. I watched a film awards broadcast this winter and heard myself saying that Elizabeth Moss looked chunky in her red-carpet dress. Guilty!

I want to change. I'm not gonna snipe about someone (famous or not) who's bigger than she used to be, or envy the star who has remained sleek as a seal for forty years primarily for her stunning figure. (You're right, that's Helen Mirren.) Not gonna make self-deprecating remarks about my size or shape, the Girl Guide badge of Chub Chat. We learn early to put ourselves down.

In 1993 I read an essay, originally published in Harper's by Sallie Tisdale, "A Weight Women Carry" that changed my life, but obviously in a more minor way that I wished. Near the end, Tisdale writes, "The pursuit of another, elusive body...is a terrible distraction, a sidetracking that might have lasted my whole life long."

That's why I'm dumping Chub Chat: there is not all that much time left. Why be co-opted into anxiety about the precious, glorious, and inescapably imperfect human body?

Spring Hermès scarf sale

Today, the windows are dressed with authentic Hermès scarves for sale. Three are 35-inch (90cm) silk twill carrés, three are 16-inch pochettes. No snags, stains or sale stamps; from my smoke and pet-free home. The hand-rolled hems are plump. 

1. Sale is open to buyers with US or Canadian postal addresses.
2. Payment: Prices are in $US and do not include shipping and any applicable duties and import taxes.
US buyers: Payment by PayPal. 
Canadian buyers: Interac also accepted and I'll convert the price to $CDN. 
Final sale; payment due within 24 hours.

2. To buy a scarf, use the e-mail address under the "Welcome" sidebar at right to contact me. Sorry, no holds.

3. Shipping is via Canada Post XPress insured and trackable, which is $25 to most US locations for the carrés and $20 for the pochettes. (Quebec and Ontario by Canada Post is $CDN 15.)  UPS option available.

CARRÉS: 35-inch (90cm) silk twill squares

1. Vol Amoreux des Azures; SOLD
The essence of spring: butterflies flit through blossoms and branches. This luminous scarf lightens any neutral. The design extends right to the border, as shown top left. In mint condition with care tag still on.
Colourway: Emerald green border, off-white ground; orange, green, robin's egg blue, pale blue, buttercup yellow.
Designer: Laurence Bourthoumieux, signing as "Toutsy"

SOLD to P.!

2. Les Cléfs; SOLD
One of the iconic scarves, a feminine assortment of antique keys and locks. The corners have key detail; the centre is a large pink medallion with tassels. You can see another view of the same colourway here
Colourway: Ivory ground, soft pink, greys, bronze.
Deisgner: Cathy Latham

SOLD to L.!

3. Grand Apparat; SOLD
Parade horses in their magnificent saddles and livries, an hommage to Hermès' history as a renowned French sellier
Colourway: Off-white ground with deep red-burgundy (top left looks most accurate), gold, and a touch of navy. Very versatile and fresh, ideal scarf for spring if you do not care for pastels.
You can see the colourway here.
Designer: Jacques Eudel

SOLD to R.!

POCHETTES: 16-inch (42cm) silk twill squares
Use for neckerchief, pocket square, or tie on a bag.

1. Musée; SOLD
A musuem's trove of nautical and equestrienne treasures, look closely for the cheeky model-ship coiffure (centre photo)! "Musée" is framed in a rope motif in mid-blue.
Colourway: Camel border; lighter camel ground with pink, ivory, soft blue.
Designer: Philippe Ledoux

SOLD to D.!

2. Belles Amures; SOLD
A nautical theme; the centre compass with four of Brittany's heritage lighthouses points to eight ships in full sail. The corners have detail of ships' tackle. 
Colourway: Soft mauve-pink ground; a light teal border encloses seascapes of lavender, celadon, dark teal, mauve, a touch of grey and blue-gray; black.  
Designer: Loic Dubigeon

SOLD to S.! 


Spring tees and the colour problem...and Hermès sale notice

Spring means fresh tees or tops, or at least a look at what the Pantone prophets have decreed as current colours.

Women for whom "budget" is not just a car rental company choose their price point and hope for colours they like, but the butter yellow tee offered last spring may have been replaced by nearly-neon lemon this year.

The hardest thing to find in mid-priced clothing is appealing colour, which is created by good dyes applied to good fabrics. Many women stack black, grey and white into drawers in a default strategy generously called a "neutral base".  We do love neutrals, but hey, it's spring.

And besides, if you have sensitive graydar, even that colour is suspect. You may long for luminescent dove grey or that mysterious grey-with-a-wisp-of-blue, but 90% of mass market retail delivers Parking Garage.

Some women wear the spring 2018 colours below superbly, but to me, and therefore on me (since colour is potently psychological) these dyes look either harsh or flat. If you like cool hues and colours more on the desaturated side, you'll have to search this spring.

Left to right:

  • Talbot's scalloped-neck tee in "Deep Periwinkle": I actually like periwinkle, but this is more towards a blue on steroids.
  • Talbot's Everyday tee in "Nectarine": pretty colour, especially on a blonde, but when I saw it in person, dull—maybe because it's a cotton blend.
  • Land's End tee in "Burgee Blue": muddy turquoise with none of the island appeal.

Private-equity firms own these companies, and they use jobbers for fabric for all their lines from super-cheap to mid-priced. I think they don't care about colour and cut corners every way they can. Do you have an alternative reason for the glut of harsh magenta?

So,  is it another one in... navy? You might find an interesting green at the Gap, or 'your purple' at Target; that's luck. I'd like to find a refined, interesting colour selection in one place, and then, refresh every year or two without a search.

Clockwise, left to right, some vendors with a decent colour choice (but not always provided in a range of styles and sizes.)

Three Dots
Very good colours, but too often sold out. The reds are impressive, because most makers offer only one. TD have several, from claret to tomato. Above, their "Tide" tee, less strident than the "Burgee Blue".

Boden have been called "a kid with a box of crayons, run amok"; there is a fondness for harsh primaries, and some of the prints look juvenile—but this is not Etro. Even so, they offer some non-generic hues, like Rosebay, shown in a boat-necked tee.

Their men's polos have always incited my craving for the same choice for women. No such luck, but they offer eleven colours in a tee, if you can wear the narrow cut. Above, Lacoste tee in a washed-out red they call Sierra, which you can sometimes find at LL Bean, too, in a boxier cut and more sizes.

ça va de soi
Expensive, but of elevated quality. The colours, always subtle, purr on fine fabrics. Shown, "Tatiana" tee, Egyptian cotton and raw linen, in Palmier. Now available online.

If you love saturated colour but in unusual hues, such as twilight blue-purple, or that pink like the inside of a brick, you are doomed to being a colour sleuth, hunting all over the place.

Just give me a scarf!
I hear you.

On Thursday, April 5, 7:00 a.m. EST
 I'll offer a selection of spring-y 
Hermès carrés and pochettes for sale*. 
These are my from my collection—and the colours are sublime.

*for buyers with Canadian and US postal addresses


Buying jewellery: Beyond the Big Four

On my mind lately is a jewellery-marketing tactic, that of offering low-grade precious stones, especially the "Big Four" status gems (diamond, sapphire, ruby, emerald), at very low prices.

Women fall for the idea like Tom Hiddleston in a dinner jacket: Wow, sapphire earrings for $100! But the stones will be dull and muddy; they have nothing of the velvety depths of a beautifully-cut quality gem.(Shown, earrings from Macy's.)

When I first started buying 'real jewellery' I was like that—it was Le Duc who would lean over my shoulder to say, "But those rubies are lifeless!", or "Wait to get a better stone." But saving for even a small, fine ruby may be unrealistic.

This is why I love high-quality secondary (or semi-precious) gems: you can have clarity, rich colour and very good cutting at decidedly gentler prices. However, that stone can actually cost more than a low-grade precious gem—and in fact, it should. 

I wonder why so much inferior Big Four material is on the market, but suspect it is a result of an emphasis on status rather than workmanship, and the flood of low-cost manufacturers in the online sector. Don't get me started on the junk women will buy because it is diamond!

Let's look at the same earring in three versions: a graceful, classic 7mm round dangle with an accent stone, from Gemvara. (Prices in $US.)

Left: Royal blue sapphires, emerald accents, set in 18k yellow gold; price, $12, 410. 

(This is what a pair of good sapphires of this size should cost, and tippy-top sapphires could be double.)
Centre: Tanzanite, emerald accents, 18k yellow gold setting; price, $2, 230.
Right: Iolite, London Blue topaz accents, sterling silver setting; price, $435.

I've never bought from Gemvara (and receive no commission from any vendor), but checked out a plump pair of 7mm martini-set studs set in 18k yellow gold.

Left, the ruby version, $22, 845. Right, rhodolite garnet, $445.

The rhodolite garnet is more raspberryish, but because rubies (which are the same mineral as sapphires: corundum) also exist in that violet-pink hue, I'd think hard before paying the precious-gem premium for my earrings. Rings are another story, because corundum is much more durable than garnet.

These alternatives are less costly because they are neither as scarce nor as hard as diamonds, sapphires and rubies.

A few tips if you are interested in build-your-own pieces:

1. Do not confuse weight, expressed in carats, with size, expressed in millimetre. Because each mineral has a different density, a 1ct sapphire looks smaller than a 1ct diamond. Focus on size; this chart gives an idea.

2. For better results, speak to an associate who is a gemologist. Ask, "Is the stone I see on my monitor the same colour and brilliance as your current stock?" to learn whether the photos online are enhanced to make the colour look more vivid. Or you might seek advice: "I want a lively, sparkly stone; how are those iolites looking?"

Talking to a senior person at the vendor's makes a difference when you are ordering a custom-made piece, because there is a packet of stones and someone is pulling yours. If you need several conversations, have them, because made-to-order pieces are usually not returnable.

3. If you set secondary gems in 18k yellow gold, they look more luxurious. White gold is fine too, and will be a matter of preference, but regardless of metal, artful setting in precious metal really makes a difference. 

Silver or brass shifts the look to the casual side, which is still chic when well-designed, as shown in Beth Orduna's aquamarine and abalone earrings set in brass (price, $US 418 at TwistOnline).

Don't even browse the deceptively-labelled "fine jewellery" made with low-grade precious gems. Head for the alternatives, the best of the topazes, garnets, tourmalines, peridots, spinels, tanzanites, amethysts, and many others. 

Save your money, and be smart as well as beautiful—not that you aren't already!

Gems: How to wear fakes with style

Today, fake gems in the windows, an exception. 

Situations where fakes make sense:

1. Big bad security worries. Not many women I've met live in that world, and those who do have custom copies made, hire private security (which, as Kim Kardashian knows, can fail) and develop close relationships with specialty insurers.

2. A taste for arresting, often flashy pieces that you are not even going to think of passing off as real.

Kenneth Jay Lane "aquamarine" and "peridot" necklace, a copy of one that belonged to the Duchess of Windsor; price, $700. A woman can wear this frothy number and have fun, if she is of the "What, this little thing?" style.

Whee! I enjoy the exuberance of voluptuous pieces like this. What I can't stand is fakes that take themselves seriously.

No one would mistake the KJL Duchess of Windsor copy for the sumptuous original, and a first clue is that you're not stepping out of a Bentley when wearing it. You might be by the pool in a crisp white shirt and this baby, but after your iced tea, you are probably sticking the glasses in the dishwasher yourself.

In Florida, I met a woman in a pair of iconic shell earrings; she told me they were by Seaman Schepps. I could see they were replicas. I'm not sure that she herself knew that; you'd be surprised how many women are given copies and accept them for real.

Can you tell which are the genuine pair of Seaman Schepps Turbo shell earrings and which are the KJL replicas?

Well, yeah, I thought you could! The Schepps earrings, at right, are about $US 4,120 at Betteridge; the earrings at left are $115 at Kenneth Jay Lane. Besides the clear difference in materials, the woman was not dressed in anything remotely at the level of the Schepps earrings.

Let fake be fake!

Below, three brooches that would not get the "Oh, is that real?" question, but stand on their own as alluring examples of the costume world, fake gem division.

Left: Alexis Bittar's safety pin brooch ($150 at Saks) set with small Swarovski crystals: great little drop of dazzle. You'd get a lot of wear from this; it's not too heavy to pin on a tee's neckline, or on a hat.

Top right: & Other Stories is an H&M spin-off. The ribbon brooch is €29. The riot of "pearls", "sapphire" and "diamond, tied with regimental ribbon, will pick up a navy blazer and spin it it till it giggles. 

Bottom right: Butler & Wilson vintage art-deco style dog brooch, rhinestone and enamel; price, about $45 from thecherishedweb. Who's a good boy?

Fake diamonds vs honest CZs

When I see a twentysomething in a simulated-diamond engagement ring, I cringe, not because it isn't pretty, but because she's wearing it everyday, and it won't hold up. Shown: Trilogy Petite ring with 3ct simulated diamond set in 9k white gold; from Carats London; price, $345.

Despite the sites which position them as the smart alternative to diamond, once CZ rings have some waltzes on them, they look listless as an empty ballroom. Better a simple gold or silver band, or, if she longs for a diamond, a small stone in a beautifully-designed setting.

Would I suggest that anyone buy one of these multi-carat fakes? Certainly not for regular wear, but if a woman needs a glittering accessory and does not have—or does not wish—to wear a diamond, they have a place. 

A former colleague attended her 25th university reunion and bought a ring like that to broadcast that she had made it, but she also wore the whole kit: sleek, one-shouldered red-orange silk cocktail dress, Louboutin sandals, evening bag, all borrowed. To look OK in a simulated gem, the ensemble has to be as if the jewellery were real—but even that will not ennoble garish high-polish fake gold or badly-set stones.

Hip sparkly pieces 

Once you leave the big, fake rocks aside, there is a very cool way to use cz: in a piece that is not trying to be other than what it is. But well-designed cz baubles are like Russian oligarchs living in London just now: not all that easy to locate. 

Crystal is easier to find and cheaper, but well-made cz will offer more brilliance because it can be cut with more facets, therefore giving superior dispersion of light.  

Left: Butler & WIlson cz chain necklace, (detail shown) which, worn with a simple shirt, would deliver above-the-table chic worn out to dinner, or zhuzh up your leather jacket. (Price, £98.) Because necklaces get a gentler ride than rings, this will hold up decently, and it's classic enough to enjoy for years.

Centre: Galaxy earrings: White czs set in rose-gold plated silver; diameter, 2.3cm; from Ciro; price, £395. The airy, spherical setting studded with little twinklers will animate your face.

Right: What I said about rings? I'd change my mind for this rhodium and black rhodium cz ring by Freida Rothman because it's an interesting pavé design accentuated by the contrast metal finished, and it's on sale for about $125 at Nordstrom's. 

Fake gemstones have their place, fake pearls do not, but you know I'd say that. If you want reasons, click here. And every word is still true!


A gun in the family

Sometime around 1980,when we were visiting my parents, my then-husband said that he was going to take a gun to the police for disposal. I remembered the rifles, kept in a basement cupboard. My parents had shot skeet; my brother hunted game birds, which Mom roasted and we ate even though we had to discreetly spit shot out of some bites.

But I was astonished to see W. unwrap a towel to show me a sleek leather holster. He opened its brass snap to remove a an ominous-looking pistol that suggested noir detective movies. The barrel was long and slim, the stock, carved wood.

The gun, a prized Nambu semi-automatic, had been given to Dad by a Japanese officer at the end of World War II, as a gesture of thanks for saving his vision. (One of the terms of surrender was care for Japanese officers; my father was part of a team of medics posted to Tokyo for months following VJ Day.)

He also gave Dad a Japanese flag, inscribed with his name, the date, and his wish for peace. The gun began as an instrument of war, but ended as a symbol of amity. I had seen the flag, a war souvenir I carried to show-and-tell at school, but had never known of the other, more disturbing gift.

"Where was it?" I asked W., figuring it had been buried in the attic among ratty fur stoles and crumbling scrapbooks. "In his bedside table", W. replied. "There have been some break-ins in the area, and he was scared."

W. saw how Dad's fear of an intruder made the gun seem a workable idea. W. told him that given its age and condition, the gun could misfire, and that it was far likelier to be used against him than to protect.  He offered to turn it in, sparing Dad questions about what he was doing with an unlicensed firearm.

This memory rose when I read my friend Beth Adams' post, "On Men, Guns and Fear", on her blog, The Cassandra Pages. In her searching piece, she quotes from an article that captures the characteristics of the kind of man who stockpiles guns.

Other than being white, my father fit none of the criteria, nor was he stockpiling. However, he, a life-long pacifist, kept that pistol at hand, loaded. I still wonder how he reconciled the Nambu and its purpose with his beliefs. The distance from fear to bullet is shorter than I ever imagined.

In December, 2012, when the memory of the Nambu was all but lost, Dad's great-granddaughter was born, less than a week after the Sandy Hook shooting. Her father, an elementary-school teacher, and her mother named her Grace, in memory of six-year-old Grace McDonnell, one of the children killed.

Uneven aging: Bright moments

One of my friends quotes Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who said to his audience, "People, you got to have those bright moments."

When uneven aging invades a couple's life, bright moments seem to recede, because health challenges drain all concerned. I was reminded of this when sitting in J.'s antique store. A woman of about sixty came in with a friend; they puttered about until a stack of vintage linens caught her eye.

She took over forty-five minutes to choose two hand towels for her kitchen, using a wonderful old French-Canadian word to announce her choice: "Celles-ci sont moins maganées" ("These are less destroyed".)

While paying, she told us that her husband had cancer and was presently unable to go out, and added, "So I buy myself things, to feel better—because we do not know what is going to happen."

I understood immediately, because I've seen friends do the same, whether on a grand scale (major landscaping) or small (buying the expensive oranges). Uneven aging means one person needs more support, even if temporary. Promises are often made for the life that will be resumed "when I am better", or "if the doctor gives the go-ahead".

Sometimes the less-afflicted partner knows that recovery is not possible. A neighbour cares for both her chronically-ill husband and 93-year-old father, who still lives alone in his own apartment. In past years, she was restored by an annual three-week get-away, travelling with a small group of women friends. No more, she told me last week. Her husband can't be on his own for even a full day. She takes a book to a café to read for an hour and a half.

 "Je fais mon deuil maintenant", she told me: I am doing my mourning now.

She is calm, but still exhausted. If I could wave a wand, I'd do that Oprah move: every person giving abiding care would receive bright moments, from the free—a glorious, colour-shot sunset, time to listen to a favourite podcast—to those that can be bought: real hot chocolate, a new lipstick. I'm Oprah? Everyone gets a free massage every month!

Eyebrows might be raised (typically by heirs) should big-ticket options come into the picture, but it's the couple's business. I confess I'd probably say something if the bright moment meant serious debt.  And "moment" is relevant. Rob took his infirm wife on a trip that was too ambitious. He said a week would have pleased her, or even a long weekend, but the two-week journey, with long flights, was a mistake.

As  J. wrapped the towels, I glanced at the customer's girlfriend and saw that she had tears in her eyes. I read her face: not great odds. The customer took her package, squared her shoulders and walked out to the winter-weak sunlight, her friend at her side. It may have been but a moment, but that moment carried her back into her home and the tasks at hand.

Pearls: The unconventional coin

In the windows today, coin pearls, the shape of a luminous, full moon. Unusual, not that easy to find in the finer levels, and capable of stopping traffic with their nacre extravaganza.          

Coins—round, flattish, sometimes smooth, sometimes rippled—are Chinese freshwaters implanted with a disc-shaped  rather than a round, bead-type nucleus. Though most are exactly as the name implies—some are as thicker than others. "Baroque coin" refers to coins with irregular circumferences, like this strand from Pacific Pearls:

There's a glut of dull white coins in the bead-store market; like lifeless, grayish diamonds, they share nothing but the gem name.

Look for lustre; as Pacific Pearls explain, "Coin pearls exhibit some of the hardest lustre seen in pearls, simply because a flatter area of nacre reflects light more intensely, like a mirror, rather than scattering it, like a convex or irregular shape."

Choose the coins with overtones (the noticeable play of shifting colour on the surface), from subtle soft  rose to rich bronze or metallic pink.

The surface may have bumps or wrinkles but the finest are smooth, to show off that iridescence. For a knowledgeable summary, read Pacific Pearls' article on the composition and history of coin pearls

Sometimes, one side will have excellent lustre, but not the reverse. This matters if you buy a design where both sides can be seen, so inspect the pearls closely, or if you order online, ask the vendor.

Reader Royleen owns a coin with all those qualities, and graciously permitted me to show it. Thirty years ago, her husband gave her a delicate white pearl pendant, but it was never her style, so though sentimental, it wasn't worn often. Royleen took it to Kojima Company's studio in San Rafael, CA, where she and Sarah Canizzaro played with an array of pearls. (Jealous! Someday, I'm going too.)

Below, the new pendant (not on Royleen): a huge coin set in gold, accented by her thirty-year-old round pearl and diamond. Now that's a gorgeous example!

The main thing is, you want big ones, to show off that swath of nacre. Oh stop that! I mean the pearls. Let's window-shop some lush coins.

To tune your eye, two pairs of white coin earrings from Gump's. Here is quality: overtones, smooth surfaces, perfect match—what you'd expect from a status merchant's house brand. (Prices are high, but they do have sales.)

Left: 10mm white coins set in 14k gold, price, $150. Super-wearable.
Right: 17mm white coins in 18k gold; you're wearing some luxurious real estate for your $1, 500. And they are made in pierced or clip.

My eye is drawn to colour, maybe because the season's turning, and colour shows brilliantly on the coin's surfaces.

Check this 18.6mm Kojima strand; shown, a section of its lavender and peacock hues. The pearls are dyed, which I don't mind when the colour exists in nature (not red! not teal!) and the rippled surfaces give them an organic look. The 16" strand will string up to another inch, at least, and a rectangular clasp such as a bean or s-hook will maximize length. Price, $108. Free stringing and simple clasp included in the price.

Stacked coins: a graceful mix of all-natural pink, peach, gold, lavender; 11-12 mm size (diameter). An spring bouquet of shades wear yourself, or for a special gift; they are June's birthstone. Price, $209 from Pacific Pearls.

Coins set with with stones make best-of-both world pieces; I love this style.  I've seen "I'm not a pearl type" woman have an instantaneous change of mind when she finds these.

"Inner Petal" ring stars a very large 25.4mm (one inch) pink coin. The green, pink and gold overtones on the pearl echo the deeper pink of the rubies. Rhodium plated silver band. Price, $243 at Kojima Company.

Ring of 20mm coin pearl inlaid with a 7mm rectangular peridot, on a very cool printed silver band: a one of a kind, casual piece I'd wear with everything. By Marc Gounard; price, about $US 200.

Let us pause before parting to ogle a Russell Truro diamond-inlaid coin-pearl necklace. He has made his signature diamond and pearl pieces using many varieties, but I especially like the starry twinkle of diamonds in coins. Over four carats are sprinkled here, so you'll need plenty of coins in your pocket, too: $16, 250 at Gump's.

I want to dress like Robert Mueller

Adroit readers might have noticed that last Thursday, I put up two posts, by mistake. The Passage was in disarray. Several weeks ago, a longtime client called, ignored my retired status, and asked me to work on a project.

The old skills clicked into place, but so did demands on my closet; he said that I would attend several meetings. That meant formal business attire, not business casual. I had to shop, in the middle of tight deadlines. Even under pressure, I did not want to buy something I'd never wear again.

One evening, I read Troy Patterson's New York Times piece, Robert Mueller, Style Icon, which parsed the image of the current Director of the FBI. Words used for his "uniform" (white-shirt-with-American-cut suit) included, "elegant in their reticence", "an unostentatious grace in its polish", "compromise of poise and ease", and "smart without seeming excessively smooth". My most-wanted list!

If you told me I'd draw style inspiration from the Director of the FBI—well, book me! Now, those words would serve as my shortcut for business-world re-entry.

Something died within when I thought of buying a skirt suit. A dress felt more capable of that "poise and ease". I had additional criteria: no big bucks for something I wouldn't have needed if not for this gig. I wanted sleeves at least elbow-length, and a long-enough skirt for my height.

I gave myself one hour, two max, to find something that could be delivered quickly. I was sailing straight into the Perfect Storm of Shopping Mistakes: out of one's zone, pressed for time, tired.


Left: Boden Kassidy jersey dress, shown in navy-white pattern but also comes in a red version of the print, or solid navy, and black. I could full-Mueller in a dark, but I liked the pattern. (Hey, Mr. Mueller wears a foulard tie.) I fretted about the jersey's weight: would it look flimsy in early spring, here?

Centre: I also liked the Siobhan ponté dress, probably more substantial. Biggish baroque pearl earrings, navy shoe: done. I preferred it, though, in green and pink, so much more fun—but wait, this not for a garden party. And what shoes do you wear with pink and green? I don't own them, that's for sure.

Right: Lafayette148's Tory dress would be perfect: a simple shape and elegant smocked-sleeve detail, shown. But I'd get limited wear from it, and wondered, Why make a synthetic that mimics wool crepe (one of the best fabrics ever), in dry clean only poly-acetate? I suppose g-men in their wool suits don't care, but I do. It's twice the price (on sale) than the Boden dresses and looks it.

My plan: order the Boden dresses first, then, if I had to, the Lafayette148. But the next morning, my client said that I wasn't required to attend the meetings. I dropped this investigation.

Still, the praise for Mueller's unvarying, perfectly-suited style struck home: resist the "wearable art" (which is never, ever artful), the badly-cut, the indifferently-finished.

I will testify: finding your look and sticking to it is no crime!

Polymer clay jewellery: Not just kid stuff

I got so excited about announcing the draw winner that I mistakenly published this on Tuesday. Here it is again... but I still posted twice today! Oh well, worse luck.

In the windows today, polymer-clay pieces, which in certain hands becomes very cool, and very affordable. Yes, there are a miniature ice cream cone and cute puppy earrings out there, but polyclay can rise above juvenile themes and twee miniatures.

In the hands of a talented maker, the clay or gel-like material (a form of plastic) transforms into gorgeous beads. It is fairly light, durable (given proper finishing and care), and allows effects impossible with minerals or glass.

The trick is finding adult pieces; for some reason, European designers make some of the most striking grown-up designs. (Prices shown in approximate $US, and do not include shipping and handling.)


Left: From Madrid, an exuberant one-of-a-kind necklace by Silvia Ortiz De La Torre, in Madrid; price, $120.
Centre: Grey, white and mustard bead necklace by Melbourne-based Rubybluejewels; price, $30. What a whimsical gift this would make!
Right: Turquoise, grey, black and gold barrel pendant on 25-inch cord, about $15 from Wildchild708, in New York.


Left: Stretch bracelet of carved beads; different colours available. Price, about $35 from MomentoComplimento, Almeira, Spain
Right: Wide dragonfly bangle by WildOnionArt, Omsk, Russia; price $50.


Left: Polymer clay and tassel earrings by Rubybluejewels; $18 (sold); similar here.
Right: Silkscreen-print earrings, about $15 from Couquetteriecreations, Loury, France.

Beads: Easy DIY project

Left: Beginner
You can make a simple necklace in under an hour by threading a single focal bead on a silk, linen or leather cord, making sure the bead's hole is big enough for the cord. (2mm is standard.) This carved and hand-painted 37mmx25mm focal bead from TalaruTribu, Brisbane, Australia, is $15, and makes an intriguing accent for a tee or dress.

Right: Just beyond beginner
Feeling more confident? I keep returning to admire JBDRusticOrganic, in Norwich UK, who transfers his own images onto the polyclay to make earthy and original beads. String these tube beads (price, about $12 for six beads) with a smaller bead at each end (as shown in the centre necklace above). It could be for yourself or for a gift—and expect more requests.

Polyclay pieces are are some of the best jewellery bargains out there; I don't understand why more boutiques don't carry them! But we can buy from these exceptional makers, or venture into beading, which has a way of blooming into a creative passion. Worse luck!

Learning a language: Seeking that 'second soul'

I tease Le Duc that I pay a man $35/hr to do for me what he should be doing. No, not that! But the cheeky implication is not missed by my husband.

Charlemagne said, "To have a second language is to have a second soul." My nascent second soul is being built by my tutor, Hugues. I imagine it as a pearl, forming over time, luminous, imperfect, but there.

Even though French is Le Duc's mother tongue, and he speaks it daily, he doesn't with me. I wish he would, because attaining a solid, intermediate level of fluency is important for life in Montréal, and it's also fine exercise for my brain.

The problem is, my efforts mean work for him. When I skid to a halt while my brain tries to navigate three tenses (I would have bought linguine, but I saw they were out of it— so next time I'll make sure I stock up), he loses patience, as would most mortals. Also, Le Duc is hearing-impaired, so listening to anyone is difficult; when I mangle irregular verbs, that burden increases exponentially.

Hugues speaks slowly and clearly, listens closely, and has gradually nudged me from simple declarations to more complex expression.

I have a new neighbour. Mike moved here from Pennsylvania last fall, and thought he spoke "some French". (Always a shock to those with university French learned some forty years ago to be greeted by our Quebec French.)

Mike said he wanted to take a class and learn "about 50 useful phrases". I pointed out that he could learn those, but when he uttered them, all he would hear back is "blah blah blah, non?"  Fifty phrases is for a visit, living here takes continual study, exposure, and wine. I made up the last one, but Mike seems onboard.

(If you're not in the workforce, you can live in Montréal without speaking French, especially in certain areas of the city. If you work, fluency is essential for nearly all jobs.)

For adults,  learning any new language is not an ascent up a climbing wall, but a long trek over hills. "One day" teachers have told me, "there's a 'click' in your brain". After six years, I'm still waiting for my click, but sometimes an entire French conversation enters with sunny, sparkling clarity. That's intensely rewarding, but then someone else speaks and I can barely make out a word—and both events can happen in the same day.

Next month, I'll visit another American friend, K., who spends part of the year at a language school in Quebec City, and the rest in the US, where she and her husband, both retired, live in the country. She's learning French for the love of the it, and inspires me to keep plugging. She doesn't have someone to speak to her daily, either, so hires a Skype tutor and commutes about forty miles to a regular practice group in the city. "Come on!", I tell myself, slogging thorough my devoirs, "K. has made major trade-offs to do this."

Are you learning another language? Tell us about it: what drew you to it, what does it do for you?


Winner: Kim! (Kim @ Feb. 27, 9:43 a.m.)

The winner of the perfumeniche draw for the Passage des Perles "Naturals" decant pack is Kim!
Kim, please e-mail me with a postal address so that Gwen and Kay can send your package. (My e-mail addy is under my photo at the right.)

Winner: Frances McDormand!

"We all have stories to tell and projects we need financed."
For her remarkable performance, for teaching millions of viewers the term "inclusion rider", and, when acknowledging the other nominees, for inviting Meryl Streep to stand first, in a c'mon, sister move that was at once both respectful and adroit.

Winner: You! Me!

I wish I could just keep giving goodies away! We can have the "Naturals" fragrance pack anyway, by ordering from perfumeniche, here. As they say, we're worth it.

Spring means indulging in new beauty bauble or two (and throwing out the funky old stuff.)

I get that itch as soon as the light changes, so a shout out for a New York Times article on the best drugstore makeup. I am a huge fan of drugstore products, ever since I worked with fashion editors who had a lot to say about the quality vs. price for the luxury level.

Off to buy a bunch of tulips, see you Thursday!