Tuesday, December 15, 2009



By Polly Guerin
The Fashion Historian

Genuine pearls are truly nature’s gift from the sea and as such have been valued throughout the ages not only by royalty, but as accessories in important works of art. However, before the 20th century, the hunt for genuine pearls was more or less by chance. Pearl divers dove into the depths of the sea to manually pull oysters from the ocean bottom. It was a laborious and difficult process, and it could take nearly one ton of oysters to produce only three or four perfect round pearls. Pearls were traded as a valuable commodity and people paid astonishing prices for a pearl necklace. Morton Freeman Plant (son of railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant) knew the value of a pearl necklace and in 1917 he traded the Plant’s Neo-Renaissance mansion in exchange for $100 in cash and a double-strand natural pearl necklace valued at the time at $1 million dollars. This mansion is the site of the New York branch of Cartier at 653 Fifth Avenue.
Like Venus rising from the sea a natural pearl can take many years to achieve near-perfect condition and for them to grow in size. The birth of a natural pearl begins when an oyster is invaded by a foreign object. An oyster’s natural defense to the intrusion of this small foreign object, lodged in its mantle tissue, (a grain of sand or parasite) is to encase the object in layers of ‘Nacre’ (nay’ker), which forms a smooth, iridescent mother-of-pearl protective coating. It can take from two to five years for a quality pearl to fully develop in the oyster. Many are not perfectly round and their odd shape has given rise to a style called ‘Baroque.”
In ancient times it was not uncommon for slaves to be anchored with a rock tied around their leg and thrown into the sea to collect precious pearls from oysters. It was a treacherous business. However, traditionally in Japan pearl the process was more civilized and diving was done by women who were called “Ama,” a word which literally meant “sea woman.” This Japanese tradition dates back 2000 years and as recently as the 1960s, Ama divers wore only a lioncloth. They are known to have incredible “free-diving” and “breath-hold” skills. Even today, Ama dive without scuba gear, using these free-diving techniques and can descend to depths of over 100 feet on a single breath. Today, a bit of modesty prevails and divers at tourist attractions wear, white, partially transparent suits to dive in. The harvesting of natural pearls continues to be a costly process. The difference between “Natural” and “cultured pearls” is man’s intervention or to put it more simply, by artificial insemination.
If you own a pearl necklace today you are wearing ‘cultured pearls,” a result of pearl farming. Modern-day cultured pearls are primarily the result of discovers made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Japanese researchers. They discovered a specific technique for inducing the creation of a round pearl within the gonad of an oyster. They simply inserted a foreign object into the farmed oysters and waited for their production to increase. The first harvest of rounds was produced in 1916, but the technique was patented by Kokichi Mikimoto in the 1930s. Pearl farmers cultivated large numbers of quality pearls in the Akoya oysters under controlled facilities in the shallow ocean waters of Japan. It takes two to three years for pearls to develop in pearl farming. You could say that cultured pearls were designed from the start to be round and flawless. Most importantly by producing thousands of pearls in farming facilities, it brought their cost down to a point where pearls became accessible to large numbers of women throughout the world. Only an X-ray can tell the difference between a cultured and natural pearl. Pearl variety includes Mabe pearls, Tahitian Black pearls, South Sea pearls, and small Biwa and seed-like Keshi pearls.
Many legends surround the value of owning pearls as they contain the power of love, money, protection and luck. Ancient legend says that pearls were thought to be the tears of the gods and Greeks believed that wearing pearls would promoted marital bliss and prevent newlywed women from crying. The pearl is the official birthstone for the month of June. It is also the birthstone for the Sun signs of Gemini and Cancer. Freshwater pearls are given on the 1st wedding anniversary and also on the 3rd, 12th and 30th anniversaries. Pearls seem to have a beauty and a versatility all their own. They can be worn with equal ease with daytime business fashions right into evening with a jeweled clasp, and even compliment casual sportswear. Their luminous light compliments most every woman’s complexion and they have that special quality of quiet elegance as personified by celebrities and royals as their signature accessory.
Bio: Polly Guerin taught Product Knowledge at the Fashion Institute of Technology and pearls were a favorite topic. Earlier as an accessories editor, she wrote about cultured pearl jewelry for the venerable trade newspaper, Women’s Wear Daily and also for Art & Antiques magazine. Her tenure as a vice president of RWA/NYC ends in 2009, but she will continue to regale you with fashion history. Visit Polly at www.pollytalk.com and her other blog http://www.amazingartdecodivas.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


By Polly Guerin, the Fashion Historian

Hermes wasn’t always a kingpin of scarf makers. This global purveyor of luxury good’s first customer was the horse. When the company was founded in 1837 by Tierry Hermes it was a saddle and harness workshop in the Paris neighborhood known as the Grand Boulevards, in close proximity to the wealthy clientele whose majestic carriage teams frequented the Champs-Elysees. Soon he provided aristocratic stables all over the work with saddles and harnesses. However, as the 20th century got underway and with the advent of the automobile, Emile-Maurice, who succeeded his father, perceived that the demand for saddlery was bound to diminish, and wisely steered the firm into “saddle stitched” leather goods and trunks for the growing number of customers traveling by car, train, ship and eventually airplanes.
The silk used for jockey’s jackets gave rise to the first scarf, “Jeu des Omnibus et Dames blanches,” which debuted in 1937. The design was inspired by a parlor game similar to the “Game of Goose” from the 19th century, with the “Dames blanches” in the center of the scarf surrounded by two circles of the first horse-drawn buses. Today this silk twill scarf is a mainstay of the product line. Originals of the Omnibus scarf fetch high stakes at the auction block, however, the first Omnibus is housed in the Hermes museum at their flagship store in Paris, 24 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore. This petite museum is only open to Hermes’ design staff and by special permission. Passionately interested in everything equine, Emile-Maurice attend sales at the Paris auction house Drouot and eventually acquired a collection of exceptional pieces that serve as inspiration for Hermes’ craftsmen and designers: antique saddles, rare paintings (such as an equestrian portrait of Louis XIV, one of seven replicas ordered by the king for his foreign ambassadors), 16th- to 18th century equestrian books, toys and objets d’art. Menehould de Bazelaire, the curator of the Hermes private collection says, “It is still being added to with exceptional finds brought in by members of the Hermes family.” On a rare occasion and with special permission, which I acquired, several years ago I took a group of fashion students from the Fashion Institute of Technology to visit Hermes and we had a brief visit to the famed museum.
Every year, approximately 20 new designs are added to the silk twill scarf collection, and earlier models are frequently reinterpreted in fresh styles and colors. Ever wonder why a Hermes scarf is so expensive. Well, just consider this--each scarf is crafted using a multi-step process that can require up to 800 hours of engraving and thousands of colors in a single scarf. Since 1987 Hermes conceived an annual theme for each calendar year. The highly collectible silk scarves include “Year of the River” (2005), a river theme of blues and greens; “Paris in the Air” (2006), a celebration of Paris that included a historical map; and “Shall We Dance…?” (2007). In creating new scarf designs Hermes often partners with independent artists. At an art fair in Waco, Texas Jean-Louis Dumas-Hermes, who took over the reins of management in 1978, discovered Texas painter Kermit Oliver and commissioned him to create printed scarf designs, including “Les Mythologies des Hommes Rouges,” which reflects the spirit of the American Indians, their culture and the horse. Special-edition scarves have commemorated many events in American life. In 1986, the centennial of the Statue of liberty was marked by the production of a “Liberty” scarf. “Envol,” issued in 1995, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. Le Salon Dore was issued in 1996 for the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Responding to popular demand, in 2007 Le Salon Dore was reissued, with proceeds benefiting the rebuilding of the New Orleans’ historic City Park carousel, which had been demanded by Hurricane Katrina, which was yet another Hermes nod to its equine roots.
There’s something “je n’est ce pas” special about how Parisian women seem to instinctively know how to wear a scarf, and there is no doubt that a quality silk scarf is easily recognizable on the wearer. Replicas of the famed Hermes and other couture makers have been made to mimic their celebrity, but their quality is never up to the standards of a luxury brand. When you invest in a quality silk scarf it can become a collectible, so much so, that some people even put an especially beautiful design in a large glass protected frame and exhibit it on their wall. Far from being limited to wear a scarf on your head, one can also belt it around the waist, tie it onto a quality handbag, buy two and make a blouse or a skirt, buy one and tie it around your neck halter style. If your imagination fails, books are available that give directions how to extend your scarf into a fashion item. A BIT OF SCARF TRIVIA The evolvement of the silk scarf into a fashion item also had its incarnation when the dancer Isadora Duncan captivated audiences with her long white silk scarves floating on the air of breathtaking movement. However, when she wore one of these long scarves around her neck whilst driving her convertible, long flowing scarf flew in the wind and caught in one of the wheels of her car and “yes” it strangled her. Let not forget those “Rosie the Riveter,” women who during World War II worked in the munitions factories to aid the war effort. They made practical application of the scarf and wrapped it around their heads to protect their hair, and prevent their hair getting caught in machines. Movie stars, models, women of rank also did their bit to promote the scarf. Who can forget Jackie ‘O’s iconic look wearing a quality silk scarf or when Sophie Loren covered her locks with a scarf, Grace Kelly called it her own and Brigitte Bardot knotted a small scarf under her chin it became the rage. If you like to wear silk scarves may you find the perfect quality silk to build a collectible collection.

Bio: Polly Guerin indulged and purchased a Hermes silk scarf in Paris and still wears it decades later. As a fashion historian and former professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology she taught “Product Knowledge,” and accessories were a major topic. Early on she was an accessories editor at trade newspaper, the bible of the fashion industry, Women’s Wear Daily.