Fashion

The glitter is the message

Barbara Amiel December 25 1978
Fashion

The glitter is the message

Barbara Amiel December 25 1978

The glitter is the message

Fashion

Barbara Amiel

When Sheila Turner of Toronto, an Air Canada purser, went looking for a Christmas present this year for her husband Art, an industrial-arts teacher (sheet metal, auto mechanics), she skipped the recommended male gifts: no automatic pants’ presser, no electric saws, not even a glance at the cable-knit Irish wool sweaters. Sheila went directly to Oliver Jewellers in the plush Yorkville shopping district of Toronto with a Phoenician coin she had purchased during a holiday in Greece.

After a conference with resident jewelry designer Skip Kellogg, a heavy 14-karat gold setting was planned to turn the coin into a pendant for Art to wear on one of his own two gold chains. The cost: $350. By the time Sheila had left the store, y she had also commissioned t Kellogg to design a ring for => her of two grey baroque “■ pearls. The design would be a surprise. “Trust me,” said Kellogg. Explained Sheila: “We can afford a bottle of wine with our dinner and very occasionally we go out to a restaurant or movie. Jewelry is our one luxury. Ten years ago my husband wouldn’t be caught dead wearing it. But now he loves it.”

So, apparently, do increasing numbers of Canadians, male and female, and never more obviously. Underneath the traditional winter camouflage of quilted storm coats and earnest-looking rubber overshoes, the December season

of glit and glitz is in full swing. And even if for most partygoers the treasure trove strung around wrists and dangling from earlobes is more often an

affordable gleam of rhinestones and cut glass rather than rubies and diamonds, the urge to buy, give and wear real jewelry is on the upswing (1978 jewelry sales showed a 12-per-cent increase in the first six months of this year over last year’s $61.5 million). In these gloomy days of decreasing real income there seems to be a corresponding urge among Canadians to buy a real some-

thing. Explains Brook Ellis, national merchandise manager for Henry Birks & Sons Ltd., with 94 jewelry stores across Canada: “The big increase in our market is at the lower end of the fine jewelry sales— pieces ranging from a couple of hundred dollars to $1,500. It’s as if all this talk about jewelry as a hedge against inflation has made people think, ‘Well, if I’m going to spend a thousand dollars on anything, it may as well be an item that will still get its money back in a few years time.’ ”

The mini-boom in jewelry is certainly sparking an increased interest among young Canadians in jewelry-making as a career—as well as attracting foreign craftsmen to Canada. But from the customer’s point of view, the purchase of jewelry has little investment value—unless one has the skill to detect inclusions (flaws) in precious gems, access to legitimate wholesale markets, and enough cash to buy good-sized (at least one carat) stones either loose or very simply set. Design in jewelry adds to the retail price but not the investment value. Given the skyrocketing cost of a good one-carat diamond these days—now about $16,000—or an average threecarat ruby—about $15,000—investing in jewelry is clearly a market for a very limited clientele. Canadians may be soothing their exhausted pocketbooks by assuring themselves that splurging on gems makes economic sense, but the reason for the urge to buy jewelry prob-

ably has more to do with an urge to be in fashion and purchase something that has a life-span a little longer than the perishable chic of clothing and coiffures.

The jewelry market divides neatly into two: fashion jewelry (which is the frankly fake stuff as well as imitation good jewelry) and fine jewelry. Fashion or costume jewelry embraces the outrageous designs that are the complement to trendy clothes and high-style chic. Currently big on the fashion beat are enormous grotesque confections of rhinestones and cut glass, dangling earrings and huge paste brooches. Ten or 20 years ago the Canadian fine jewelry market was a closed preserve. Except for the rigorously enforced trip to the jewellers to choose a matched engagement and wedding band set, most purchases either fell into the little string of pearls for a wedding anniversary or the frankly obscene display of wealth by a few. Recalls Jack Bunting of the carriage trade Secrett jewellers in Toronto: “I remember the English woman who came in demanding a heavy gold bracelet. She kept putting them on and waving her arm up in the air and insisting on a heavier bracelet. Finally, when we had loaded her down with a bracelet that must have weighed about 270 grams (today’s price, about $9,000), she waved her arm over her head and declared ‘I’ll take it.’ I asked her why she was waving her arm around. ‘Well,’ she replied, ‘I’m a salmon fisher and I want something to strengthen my casting arm.’ ” Though such customers may well exist today, the purchasers lining the counters at Secrett’s are of a broader-based socioeconomic class. The designs in the jewelry cases include many pieces designed by employees, two of whom are young graduates of jewelry courses at Toronto’s George Brown Col-

lege, one of the two or three major centres in Canada teaching the art of goldsmithing and jewelry-making.

The urge to decorate oneself is as old as the human race. As jewelry-making developed it embraced every society and every social bracket in one form or another. Even those countries that eschewed obvious displays of wealth managed to compensate by making a fetish out of military jewels. (Yugoslavia’s President Tito, for example, decked out in full military regalia, has scarcely a protrusion left on which to drape, pin or affix another ribbon or medal.) Jewelry, too, became the barometer of a society’s development, flourishing best in either its nouveau riche acquisitive periodsuch as last year’s Cartier-catered goldand-diamond coronation of Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the new Central African Empire—or in its final decadence, as in the fantastic creations of the great Russian jeweller Fabergé for z the decaying world of the 19th-century ¿ czars.

I “I can give you 30 reasons,” says Toùj ronto’s York University social psychology gist Charles Marino, “for the current o popularity of jewelry, including the £ statement jewelry makes about sexual Œ preference (symbols reflecting availa-

bility or homosexuality), economic status, superstition, beauty, religious devotion, even humor and so on. But I think it’s more an aspect of identification, a means of decreasing one’s anonymity.” Professor Marino himself is something of a jewelry fan. “I have two or three watches, chokers and rings and I wear my jewelry to make a statement. If I’m teaching at York I’ll wear an expensive watch. When I’m consulting I’ll choose a less expensive one. When I wear casual clothes I like to wear a gold choker, it says something. And I’m really pleased when someone notices my Rolex watch.

It’s a status symbol and I’m not afraid to admit it.”

The new enthusiasm among young Canadians for a career in jewelrymaking is cramped by Canada’s lack of craft schools and an apprenticeship system in the European tradition. Still, such institutions as Toronto’s George Brown College and, particularly, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design have impressive faculties that include experienced Swiss and German craftsmen. “The real problem,” says teacher Christel Kloeke of George Brown College, “is that young people think they can take a two-year course and go out and become prima donnas in the business, when in fact it takes years to learn. And by and large the Canadian jewelry business isn’t interested in

helping. They want us to turn out students from 10-week courses who can do one aspect of the business, polishing or ring-mounting.”

All the same, Canada is home to some world-ranking jewelry designers. In Vancouver, three-time winner of the De Beers’ international diamonds awards Toni Cavelti has been designing and selling his jewelry since 1956. Among those wearing Cavelti creations: Margaret Trudeau and Queen Elizabeth II. Down the street from him, adding credibility to the claim that Vancouver is the creative heart of Canada’s jewelry business, is award-winning designer Therese Lander, like Cavelti, Swissborn. In Montreal, the sedate-not-tooshowy image of Birks is being jolted by the expensive designs of Montrealer (and Swiss-born) Peter Schoch, who is keen on such rare jewels as the virtually impossible to get Kashmir sapphire ($49,500 for a ring) or a rhomboid-cut golden-green natural diamond ring at $7,600. In Toronto, the baroque fantasies of Skip Kellogg at Oliver Jewelers include a malachite tree of life with full-cut champagne and white diamonds and also coral, bloodstone and gold necklaces of heavy balls. “I like weight,” says Kellogg, originally trained as a sculptor and artist who draft-dodged to Canada in 1968. Kellogg’s latest design coup is a set of hand-carved “owl” spoons for actress Deborah Kerr, who roams the world in search of owl motif jewelry. Germanborn Peter Cullman began his apprenticeship at age 14. Now 37, he designs for the crème de la crème of jewelry boutiques, Gabriel Lucas Ltée., and works out of their Toronto store. “His work is excellent,” says Lucas President Jean-Claude Baudinet, as he fondles an exquisite $25,000 gold and diamond necklace, bracelet and earrings set, handmade in Montreal, “but we found it sold better in the Toronto market than in Montreal. The Montreal market is very stone and quality conscious. In Toronto the Anglo-Saxons look at the price before anything else.” Baudinet himself gives a jeweller’s forecast of the prospects for Canadian unity: “After the election of the Péquistes, business was a disaster in Quebec. But in the last few months since July, there has been a great resurgence. We’re selling important pieces again, a canary diamond yesterday for $45,000, Piaget watches on a daily basis. Things are getting back to normal again.” Of course, “normal” depends on your point of view. JeanClaude Baudinet is the man who has the Canadian franchise on the sale of Elizabeth Taylor’s diamond bauble. “She’s asking $3,555,000 Canadian. But I think it’s negotiable. There have been a couple of serious offers. I think it will sell.” When business gets back to normal.