Dmitri Tymoczko, a composer and theorist who teaches at Princeton, recently published a book titled A Geometry of Music. The book includes some remarkable geometric models (such as the one shown at right) which he uses to argue that despite various stylistic differences, there are enough commonalities in Western tonal music from the late Middle Ages to the present to consider it an “extended common practice.”
Tymoczko himself assumes that anyone who reads his book will already be able to read music and have studied music theory. And without that background his book would be impossible to follow. Interestingly, he recognizes that there is gap between our widespread ability to enjoy music, and the arcane intricacies of music notation and theory. Early in his book he writes:
I find it useful here to consider the analogy with magic. A stage magician uses various tricks to cause the audience to have extraordinary experiences—bunnies seem to disappear, beautiful assistants seem to be sawed in half, and so on. Enjoying a magic trick does not require you to understand how the tricks are done; in fact, understanding may actually diminish your astonishment. Nor is the magician’s “ideal audience” composed of professional magicians: the point is to perform the trick for people who will genuinely be fooled. In much the same way, I understand composition to be a process of using technical musical tools to ensure that audiences have certain kinds of extraordinary experiences. When composing, I make various choices about chords, scales, rhythm, and instrumentation to create feelings of tension, relaxation, terror, and ecstasy, to recall earlier moments in the piece or anticipate later events. But I do not expect listeners to be consciously tracking these choices.
Tymoczko goes on to suggest that consciously trying to track these choices may interfere with falling under the spell of the illusion, just as knowing too much about how a glamorous illusion has been achieved might weaken the illusion. Tymoczko writes that listeners who do try to track the specific means by which the illusions are achieved “are like professional magicians watching each others’ routines—at best, engaged in a different sort of appreciation, and at worst too intellectually engaged to enjoy the music as deeply as they might.”
Another mathematically gifted composer named Milton Babbitt taught at Princeton before Tymoczko, but his attitude was almost the opposite. In contrast to Tymoczko’s interest in listeners who are not “professionals,” Babbitt famously wrote that he didn’t expect laypeople to enjoy his complex music, saying that it was written for a specialist musical community analogous to the specialist community of professional mathematicians.
Tymoczko notes that it was not until the 20th century that some composers (such as Babbitt) began using musical materials in ways that they realized that most listeners find “off-putting.” Geoffrey Miller, in his book The Mating Mind, points out that such a strategy can be an effective way of generating an “elite aesthetic.” Miller writes that elites “often try to distinguish themselves from the common run of humanity by replacing natural human tastes with artfully contrived preferences.” Thus if the vast majority of people around the world prefer consonant sound combinations, then working primarily with dissonant combination is one possible way to separate your work from “common” tastes.
In contrast, Tymoczko asserts that the “traditional strategy—writing immediately attractive music that also contains deeper levels of structure—is as potent as it ever was.” Not surprisingly, composers following the traditional strategy have often been relatively close-mouthed about their techniques. After all, if one of your intents is create works that might cause non-professional audiences to have extraordinary, spell-binding experiences, why would you risk diluting that experience with cold-blooded discussions of esoteric techniques? In contrast, composers keen on impressing other specialists have often taken an active part in pointing out the intricacies of their technical innovations.
Like Tymoczko, I prefer that creative artists, like magicians, use their technical tools to help audiences have extraordinary experiences, and then maintain some measure of mystery about how they managed to fashion their magic spells. Let some sense of magic remain. If I want to know more about their techniques, I can always buy and study the score. But when I attend a performance, I am hoping to be beguiled.
[Other examples from Tumoczko’s book can be found at www.oup.com/us/ageometryofmusic.]
Florentine authorities and residents were appalled when the cast of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” invaded the Tuscan capital for the show’s fourth season, which will debut Aug. 4. What were Snooki and The Situation doing associating themselves with the refined city of Dante and Botticelli (not to mention Ferragamo)? Even New Jersey won’t claim these louts.
The ostensible idea was to pay homage to the cast members’ Italian heritage. But these hyper-American descendants of peasants from Italy’s far southern regions hardly represent the Florentine heritage of art, humanism and elegant style. Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi and Jennifer “JWoww” Farley aren’t even of Italian descent. The cast’s Florence connection is quite a stretch.
But stretching, it turns out, puts them in a great Florentine tradition. Brand-building through misleading images wasn’t invented on Madison Avenue or Hollywood. Many of Florence’s Renaissance treasures are monuments to exaggeration for the purposes of self-promotion. The medium may have changed, but the motives haven’t. It’s a bit of history that today’s Wall Street billionaires, who have a bit of a collective image problem, might want to study.
The Renaissance patrons who paid for all those frescoes, paintings, altar pieces and sculptures weren’t generally funding beauty for its own sake. They were buying status -- building their brands, we’d say today. Their patronage showed off their wealth and piety and, in many cases, advertised their supposed links to the prestigious and powerful. In the process, these patrons often shaded the truth, leaving out unflattering facts and suggesting associations they didn’t in fact have.
Know what to look for and Florentine artworks reveal secret messages that, while not as sexy as Dan Brown’s Mona Lisa fantasies, have the advantage of actually existing.
Take the boys shown walking up the stairs behind their tutor in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s fresco in the Santa Trinita church. What could these kids have to do with the “Confirmation of the Rule of Saint Francis,” the official subject of the fresco? They aren’t friars or church officials.
In fact, their portraits are just good public relations. The patron, a banker named Francesco Sassetti, included them to butter up their father, Lorenzo de’ Medici, and to let the churchgoing public know that he and Lorenzo were tight.
But the painting doesn’t tell the whole story. It “conveniently omits a crucial fact about the patron’s relationship with the Medici,” write art historian Jonathan K. Nelson and economist Richard Zeckhauser in their book, The Patron's Payoff, which uses economic signaling theory to analyze Renaissance patrons’ motivations and techniques. That fact: “By the time he commissioned the fresco, Sassetti had nearly run the Geneva branch of the Medici bank into bankruptcy.” Oops. Maybe the portraits were meant as a distraction or damage control. How could you fire (or worse) a man who had sponsored such fine pictures of your kids?
Nelson and Zeckhauser’s work demonstrates that Renaissance art is full of status signals and calculated image-building -- once-obvious messages that today’s tourists never notice. Nelson, who is the art history coordinator at Syracuse University’s campus in Florence, showed me some examples at Santa Maria Novella, the church dedicated to the Virgin Mary that stands near Florence’s train station. (It was novella, or new, in the 13th century.)
Read the rest at Bloomberg View.
[Strozzi chapel fresco by Filippino Lippi and Del Lama Adoration by Sandro Botticelli from Wikicommons.]
When I went to the 2009 Anime Expo to talk to cosplayers about the appeal of dressing up as anime and manga characters, I was struck by how important posing for photographs is to that appeal. Yet most of the picture-taking at anime conventions happens with lousy lighting and lots of fans in the way—hardly the ideal way to record the costumes on which players lavish so much time and ingenuity.
Fortunately, L.A. photographer Ejen Chuang, whom I met at that same convention, has now given American cosplayers a worthy visual record: a beautifully produced 272-page book called Cosplay in America. The product of a year spent traveling to conventions around the country (and a maxed-out credit card), plus countless hours of selecting and retouching photos, the book features 270 cosplayers.
Naming it the Best Art Book of 2010, Deb Aoki, About.com’s Manga expert, declared that Cosplay in Ameria “captures the spirit of fun, camaraderie and creativity of the North American cosplay community.” Liz Ohanesian of the LA Weekly praised the “slick and beautiful tome,” which “showcases the diversity and creativity within the anime fandom,” later declaring on BoingBoing that “Chuang did what I hope more people will do in the future, portrayed cosplay as art.”
Ejen is still on the convention circuit, selling his book and giving cosplayers a chance to have their latest handiwork immortalized with professional polish. He’ll next be at Anime Los Angeles January 7-9. In between cons—and his regular work as a production stills photographer—he was kind enough to answer some questions about what he's learned from his experience photographing cosplayers. (To see more of his photos, including new shots and web exclusives, check out the CosplayinAmerica Flickr stream.)
See the end of the interview for information on how you can enter our Cosplay in America giveaway and have a chance to win a free copy of Ejen's book.
DG: Your book is called Cosplay in America. What is cosplay and how is it different in America?
EC: Cosplay is short for “costume-play” which is basically dressing up as characters based off anime, manga, and video games, though the term has become mainstream in the past few years and now applies to any source such as films, American cartoons, music icons, even products—I’ve seen a few Nintendo Wiis running around conventions.
From what I gathered (as I’ve never been to an event in Japan), Americans have a very do-it-yourself attitude. While there are shops in Japan to purchase cosplays, that necessarily isn't so here in the States. You almost have to be MacGyver to pull together many disciplines from sewing to prop making. Some make it from scratch, others purchase parts and put it together. It is the process of creating the outfit that is part of the fun and not necessarily just wearing the outfit.
DG: What inspired you to do a book of cosplayer portraits?
EC: I haven’t really seen a book done specifically done about American cosplay and I thought I'll tackle it myself. The culture has been growing for the past 20 years and is definitely getting larger in thanks to conventions and the internet.
DG: What’s the difference between cosplay and dressing up for Halloween?
EC: Cosplay usually refers to a specific character. For example, dressing as Capt. Jack Sparrow is cosplaying. Dressing up as a pirate is just.... dressing up as a pirate! In the broadest sense, you can say that when your father dresses up as Santa during Christmas, he is in fact, cosplaying.
DG: What’s the relationship between photography (whether professional or amateur) and cosplay?
EC: There’s an interesting relationship between the two. Obviously from a photographer’s perspective, the extravaganza of colorful costumes and makeup of the cosplayer is attractive to the lens, while on the cosplayer side, it is a chance to be in the limelight and have their work appreciated.
DG: How do cosplayers decide what characters to portray?
EC: Cosplayers generally portray characters they feel very strongly about. Talking to many, I understand they felt if they were to put that amount of work into a cosplay, they rather pick characters they feel a strong emotional response to. As many cosplayers tend to be in their teens to mid-20s, my thoughts are in addition to having fun, stretch their creative skills and hanging out with friends at cons, cosplay can be a way for them to try out different “personalities” of their source characters wherever if either male or female. Obviously it is easier for women to dress as male characters than males to dress as female characters.
DG: You took more than 1,600 photos. How did you decide on which ones to publish?
EC: In my youth I was into anime but until I embarked on my project, the last convention I visited was Anime Expo in 2000. In the years between then and 2009 when I started the project, I had been out of the scene so perhaps 90 percent of cosplayers I’ve photographed, I don’t know which series they are from. In a way, it is liberating. I have no bias or preconception about any series or character. I could choose based on their personality and pose. I specifically looked for something about that cosplayer that grabs me. From an edited collection of around 1,000 cosplayers, it took six months to narrow it down to the 260 cosplayers in the book.
DG: One of the cosplayers you interviewed called cosplay “a chance to escape that which binds us, holds us down in our everyday lives, and [it] gives us chance to let our imaginary spirits soar high above all that makes us feel weak. We can shed our everyday lives and feel free to express ourselves.” Another one said it’s “just a dorky little hobby where people play dress up.” What would you say is the appeal of cosplay?
EC: For the younger attendees, it is a chance to let loose and have fun, another layer to add to the convention experience. As a teenager, the need to fit in is strong and so in a way, this allows them to join a community.
For those older ones, it is just a release mechanism. Obviously in life we have our jobs, relationships, school and so forth and to take a vacation from that for one weekend is to take a moment out of the worries of bills, and other adult concerns. I spoke to several cosplayers who have graduated college and move to their working life—and use conventions as a chance to meet up with old friends—similar to a reunion.
For others, it is a chance to test out their abilities to create and personalize to their own individual tastes. For example, at one convention in Florida, I noticed a character whose outfit was filled with beads. The original character’s outfit did not include that large amount of beads but because the cosplayer so loved beads, she weaved her passion into it. In the end it still worked—the character is identifiable and the cosplayer has a chance to personalized the work.
DG: You’re still taking photos as you go to conventions to sell your book. Do you have any favorites to share with our readers?
EC: Truthfully, my favorite photos are the ones where I’m interacting with the cosplayer. So many folks have photos of themselves standing next to a cosplayer. For me, I like it if they point their weapon at me, or they are jabbing me, or something of that nature. Here I am at AnimeFest in Texas getting hammered by the gals of Street Fighter.
This was taken at Otakon, the largest anime con on the East Coast where Bender from Futurama chokes me—I didn’t have any beer with me and you know Bender loves beer!
This one is from Miami where Red Skull, a supervillian from the Capt. America comic books is about to execute me.
Despite all the work that goes into the book and the tour, it is definitely a life-changing experience! I plan to be at another 20 conventions next year and after that start working on other books related to cosplay but not necessarily about cosplay. Thanks for the interview!
Order your own copy of Cosplay in America here.
We're happy to offer a free copy of Cosplay in America to one lucky reader. To enter, please leave a comment telling us a character you'd like to dress up as and why. (Don't worry about practical considerations; we won't make you model the costume.) The contest deadline is midnight Pacific Time on January 10, and the winner will be selected using Random.org. Contest open to U.S. residents only.
[All photos copyright Ejen Chuang and used by permission.]
Reminded by one of Roger Ebert's tweets that yesterday was Philip Larkin's birthday, I thought the occasion would be a good excuse, even a day late, for resurrecting a post featuring one of his poems. "Come to Sunny Prestatyn" is so deceptively plain-spoken that you can easily miss the rhyme scheme: a beautiful example of carefully crafted effortlessness.
This poster, up for auction next week from which sold for $2,160 at Swann Galleries, calls to mind a different (and possibly fictional) British tourism poster from the same era, the one in Philip Larkin's poem “Sunny Prestatyn.” The poem perfectly captures both the commercial glamour of travel posters and the urge to puncture the illusion.
Come to Sunny Prestatyn
Laughed the girl on the poster,
Kneeling up on the sand
In tautened white satin.
Behind her, a hunk of coast, a
Hotel with palms
Seemed to expand from her thighs and
Spread breast-lifting arms.
She was slapped up one day in March.
A couple of weeks, and her face
Was snaggle-toothed and boss-eyed;
Huge tits and a fissured crotch
Were scored well in, and the space
Between her legs held scrawls
That set her fairly astride
A tuberous cock and balls
Autographed Titch Thomas, while
Someone had used a knife
Or something to stab right through
The moustached lips of her smile.
She was too good for this life.
Very soon, a great transverse tear
Left only a hand and some blue.
Now Fight Cancer is there.
With its aggressive cynicism, the graffiti destroys not only the model’s beauty but the poster’s promise of escape to a sunny, joyful world where satin stays taut and white. By defacing the poster, making the portrait ugly and ridiculous, the vandals remind viewers that the picture is an illusion, an image “too good for this life.”
To buy Philip Larkin's complete works, go to Collected Poems on Amazon.
Today is the 75th anniversary of Penguin Books and the company is celebrating by giving away Penguin books to blog readers all over the internet - including here, at Deep Glamour. The book we'll be giving away is The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan's thought-provoking examination of how the food we eat is grown.
Pollan is part of an interesting trend in the food world, and his work points to the important role of glamour in American consumer behavior. His efforts to help Americans better understand what they eat (and to eat better) are largely about deglamorizing food by taking the mystery out of the food creation process. Hard as it is to imagine now, during the middle part of 20th century, mass-produced foods had a certain allure. They were blessed by the glamour of modernity. Most of that glamour had rubbed off by the end of the century, but mass-produced foods still retained a tiny touch of mystique. By stepping inside industrial farming, showing his readers how the metaphorical sausage is made, Pollan helps eliminate that last little bit of glamour.
At the same time, if you want to change the world (or, in this case, change how Americans shop), it's not enough to simply gross people out at the sight of plastic-wrapped ground beef. For one thing, that beef is less expensive than buying from a small, organic farmer. For another, it's how Americans have shopped for several generations now. We're used to it. If we're going to change, we need a good reason to stop doing what we're doing and a good reason to start doing something else.
Pollan recognizes this. He knows that Americans need not just good food to buy, but a good story behind that food. To get the good story, the people growing the food need to be passionate - and glamorous - themselves. In a 2006 interview with Powell's Books, he said:
You need more people on the land to do it well, so we have to make farming a more glamorous profession. That's one of the great things Alice Waters has done. She's taken that light of glamour and shown it on farmers by highlighting their menus and putting the ingredients in the forefront of her presentation.
Culture has devalued farming for a hundred years. Go back to Jefferson and nothing was more glamorous—not that glamour was the kind of word he would have used, but glamour is very important in a culture. To the extent that we value farming, more people will want to do it and we'll begin to repopulate the countryside. That will be a very positive step.
Pollan said that four years ago. In the time since, sustainable farming has continued to gain supporters and cache. However, it's still outside the mainstream and it's still expensive.
If you'd like to win a copy of Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, please leave a comment below. You can say anything to enter, but we'd especially like to hear about what role glamour plays for you when you're thinking about food. We'll choose one commenter at random to win the book, which will be sent directly from Penguin. The deadline to enter is midnight Pacific Time, Thursday, August 5.
Randall's post about the aging motorcyclists raises an interesting question: What's the difference between being glamorous and feeling glamorous?
Since at least the 1930s, fashion magazines, cosmetics companies, and fashion houses have treated "glamour" as a style or product. "The gospel of Max Factor and [British makeup artists] the Westmores was that glamour could be achieved by any woman who put her mind to it," writes Carol Dyhouse in Glamour: Women, History, Feminism, citing a magazine's 1939 on the makeover of a charlady. (She wiped off her new face and went back to her regular life.) A makeover or special outfit may make someone look attractive, and looking attractive may make her feel glamorous, but is that all there is to actually being glamorous?
In her excellent new book American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture, architectural historian Alice T. Friedman examines mid-century buildings that were designed to make their occupants feel glamorous by framing their lives--literally, with windows and other structural outlines--and giving them a feeling of processing through a special space. Eero Sarinen's TWA terminal, she writes, "offered travelers a vivid architectural experience, one in which ordinary people were given the opportunity not simply to arrive and depart in style but also to process and promenade, to sit, stand, dine, and observe one another in spaces of a ceremonial quality previously reserved for only the privileged few." The terminal was glamorous, but judging from the ordinary-looking crowd in the accompanying photo, I can't say the same about the passengers. Slumping in their swoopy modern seats, they look tired and a little schlubby, hardly up to crisp Mad Men standards. (You can see the photo at the end of this online excerpt from the book.) They don't make me yearn to join their special world.
Real glamour requires a receptive audience. You can only be glamorous if others perceive you that way. Feeling glamorous, on the other hand, means that your mental picture of yourself is one that you would find glamorous. You become the audience for your own glamour, creating a image of yourself that veils your flaws. Defying the ultimate intimacy, you somehow manage to turn yourself into an alluring Other. As for actual others, they may see something different.
[Same Hair Prom Portrait by Flickr user foundphotoslj under Creative Commons license]
Meghan Daum’s new book Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House breaks from a long-standing trend in nonfiction publishing. Instead of a clever title followed by a long explanatory subtitle, it has no subtitle at all. It doesn’t need one, because the title itself so perfectly encapsulates a common, but rarely articulated longing. The book is all about the intense glamour of houses you don't have. I review it in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal. Here's the beginning of the review.
For all the esoteric talk of tranches and credit-default swaps, the recent financial meltdown began with something far more primal: house lust and its accompanying dreams and delusions. "There is no object of desire quite like a house," writes Meghan Daum, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. "Few things in this world are capable of eliciting such urgent, even painful, yearning. Few sentiments are at once as honest and as absurd as the one that moves us to declare: 'Life would be perfect if I lived in that house.' "
The fantasy of a life transformed is what makes the ads and features in interiors magazines so enticing—no fashion or celebrity magazine glamorizes its subjects as thoroughly as Architectural Digest or Elle Decor—and what gives HGTV's low-budget shows their addictive appeal. The longing for the perfect life in the perfect environment can make real-estate listings and "For Sale" signs as evocative as novels. This domestic ideal gives today's neighborhoods of foreclosed or abandoned houses their particular emotional punch. A stock-market bubble may create financial hardship, but a housing bust breaks hearts.
Although Ms. Daum did buy a house in 2004 and watched its value rise and then fall, her self-deprecatingly funny memoir isn't a tale of real-estate speculation. Rather she uses her lifelong obsession with finding the ideal living space to probe domestic desire, a deeper restlessness than the search for quick profits.
Read the rest here. You can buy the book (and read a good author interview) here.
[Los Angeles Craftsman house for sale from Redfin via Curbed L.A.]
I was in the young adults’ section of Barnes & Noble the other day (looking for the third Percy Jackson and the Olympians book – they’re no Harry Potter, but they’re entertaining) and I noticed something funny. Well over half the books in the section had to do with some sort of dark magic.
The observation that vampires (and shapeshifters and wizards and various otherwordly creatures) are hot right now isn’t exactly original. It’s been made – and made again. Last fall, Slate even put together a helpful timeline to remind us that, like sex and drugs, this generation didn’t invent fascination with vampires.
What struck me, though, wasn’t so much the prevalence of vampire-type books, but the absence of glamorous, positive, characters that see the sun. As a kid growing up in the 80’s, I amassed quite a collection of young adult series: The Girls of Canby Hall books by Emily Chase, the racy Seniors series by Eileen Goudge (including a character named Kit), and of course, the Sweet Valley Highbooks by Francine Pascal, featuring SoCal’s own sparkly blonde twins, Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield.
The Wakefield twins – one bookish, the other wild, both beautiful – provided glamorous, yet (mostly) wholesome role models for tween girls. They were anti-Bellas – they suffered their fair share of teen girl angst, but were more prone to action than brooding.
Starting tomorrow, the Victoria & Albert Museum will display the celebrated wardrobe of Hollywood/royal glamour icon Grace Kelly. Kelly, with her icy blonde good looks (shown here photographed by Howell Conant), was a proto-Wakefield twin – all California beauty. The buzz surrounding the exhibition suggests that there still is room in our glamour banks for the pristine-blonde-and-put-together icon.
The question is: is there room on our bookshelves?
Editor's note: With this post, Albina Colden, a psychologist and visual artist, joins DeepGlamour as a contributor.
It distressed me to learn the news of J.D. Salinger's death. The man was 91 years old, so it should hardly have come as a surprise. But in our collective imagination, J.D. Salinger had long ceased to be a man and had become a mythical figure.
The image of Salinger - living in isolation in the New Hampshire mountains, wearing L.L. Bean, eating exotic health foods, writing maniacally, and stashing manuscripts in his secret vault - had become timeless, and it was all we had. This mythological narrative invited our imaginations to sculpt it in any way we wished and to infuse it with our own hopes and desires - or with our own prejudices.
In the media, it was rather sad to see the news of Salinger's death compete with the release of the Apple i-Pad. But nonetheless it did receive some coverage, and the coverage reflects our conflicted perceptions: notions of Salinger as a noble and sensitive romantic who has influenced generations and could hold the key to mysterious truths about the universe, versus notions of Salinger as a controlling, misogynistic weirdo who has made all those close to him miserable.
The New York Times describes Salinger's work as possibly the greatest of our time, but in the same breath remarks that he is mostly “famous for not wanting to be famous”. Bret Easton Ellis declares on twitter that he is happy about Salinger's death. CNN reminds us of his “affair with the teenage Joyce Maynard” (though the wording was later changed), who was in fact a 19-year-old adult when she lived with Salinger. And of course, speculations abound as to whether there really are unpublished manuscripts in the vaults that are rumored to be in his home. Perhaps he produced masterpieces but instructed his lawyer to burn them. Or perhaps he scribbled nonesense in his study day after day, or wrote nothing at all. With his estate as protective of his privacy as Salinger himself had been, we may never know the answer.
In 2005 I had just finished graduate school and began my first job, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. I moved into a house in a nearby town and discovered that I was practically “neighbors” with J.D. Salinger - at least in the rural sense, where the nearest neighbor can be a mile away. I knew where Salinger lived, as many people in that area did. I passed the winding road that led to his house on my commutes to work and back every day. But I never saw Salinger and never attempted to see him - not even to catch a glimpse at one of the local events he was said to always attend. In retrospect, I had wondered at this restraint on my part, especially as he was one of my favorite writers. But now I think I understand: It wasn't so much restraint, as a means of protecting myself against disillusionment. I did not want to see Salinger, because I did not want to know which version of him was real, if any.
In the end, it matters not a bit what kind of a person Salinger was, whether there really are any unpublished books in that vault, or for that matter, whether there is a vault at all. In his existing body of work J.D. Salinger has given us a great gift, and may he rest in peace.
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---