Pearls, Perfumes and Passionate Secrets
From the women that paved my way.....
Warning: This is really a very old fashioned sort of article. As you begin to read it, you’ll see why I say so. Just keep an open mind, pour a lovely cup of jasmine tea (My grandmas favorite!) go backwards in time for a gentle moment and enjoy.
My mother's natural blue gray pearls were actually her mother’s pearls and her grandmother's and great grandmother’s before her. I inherited them when she died 14 years ago and they are beautiful, longer than opera length and even when wrapped in three strands they fall fluidly way beyond my breasts. These pearls are the loveliest silvery blue, the bewitching shade of the sea before a storm. Because they are natural pearls and at least 130 years old there is a whole other lineage of women that I'm linked to through them, Japanese free divers who often risked their lives to obtain these coveted beauties.
There was no other way to collect pearls before the 20th century and sometimes the divers had to go as deep as 40 to 125 feet into the sea and because of the extremely fickle nature of natural pearl growth, any pearls found were extremely rare.
To harvest the pearls that I now call my own, women that I've never met had to brave uncertain tides, dangerous creatures and hypothermia. More important even than the stories of these pearls are the untold stories that I will never know, but that I can feel. Women who had no other way to feed themselves became pearl divers and were probably paid what amounted to pennies to fashionably adorn my family’s bosoms and as glamorous as they make me feel, I cannot wear them ever without acknowledging their true cost.
In 1983 on New Year’s Eve my mother let me wear them to a fabulous Black Tie dinner dance because she thought that they went beautifully with my silver-toned crushed velvet dress. Somewhere in the moments between the last dance and the dawn I was seized by a bit of nostalgia. I picked up one of the strands, lifted them to my nose and inhaled their sweet/salty perfume. Surprisingly these pearls have never needed to be restrung and even though they are so very old are lustrous still and perfumed with the essence of all of the women who have treasured them before me. Sandalwood, violet, jasmine and rose and my mother’s Shalimar, which she wore until the day that she died. Maybe it’s my imagination but I’d swear to you that they still smell of the bottom of the sea. Even though I’d heard about all of them for so many years it was the evening that I truly met all of my maternal grandmothers and aunties in spirit for the very first time.
I know that it sounds terrifically romantic but I promise that it wasn’t the martinis. Those of us who are truly mesmerized by the art of perfumery can attest to its abilities to conjure visions at the deepest level of the soul. That was the moment that I became obsessed with scent as the catalyst for memories and began looking for other ways of wearing it, ways that were more meaningful to me as a woman than simply just spraying on the latest perfume that was currently in vogue.
Those pearls are among the most wonderful pieces of jewelry that I own, probably because they are forever imprinted with the spirits of the women who wore them before me. My maternal grandmother and my great aunt Frances Rose were beautiful women with lavish tastes and hearty appetites for life.
I loved everything that my own mother shared with me about them and the toiletries that they used everyday. Delicious violet and aniseed pastilles to keep their breath sweet and rose scented lip balm, leather gloves that were perfumed with precious oils so that every touch from their hand was as soft as petal and smelled just as sweet, orange flower and rose waters that were not only good for the skin but softly perfumed so that a cheek offered for a simple kiss became a sweetly scented pleasure for the lucky gentleman.
Gifted botanical perfumers, like my dear friend Laurie Stern who owns the rather remarkable company Velvet & Sweet Peas Purrfumery are exploring this concept, recreating and bringing back age old traditions of scented waters, body butters and balms, exploring the connections between smell, memory, scent and sensuality in a way that is completely familiar and captivating.
These days you can walk into almost any store and find a suitable bottle of perfume, but to me that’s just the beginning. Beautiful fragrance is made to be worn, not the other way around. My interest lies in finding new ways to accessorize myself with scent that are perhaps not quite as obvious.
My maternal grandmother Frances died before I was born and was known to have loved rich oriental fragrances like sandalwood, patchouli as well as single florals like violet , lilac and rose. She is the one that I am said to resemble the most in looks and spirit. She was a painter, one of the original artists in a notorious and somewhat scandalous Greenwich Village colony at the turn of the century, beautiful and very provocative, at least until she married my grandfather, a terribly sweet gentleman farmer from Champaign Urbana in Illinois who was probably a very settling influence on her. Somewhere in all of my trunks and treasures there exists a worn and incredibly provocative and sepia photograph of a woman that I could recognize as myself wrapped naked in a bearskin rug, smiling and holding a long cigarette holder.
Taken over a century ago she is draped in yards of pearls that I recognize as my mother’s pearls... my pearls. As I fall backwards through time the distinct fragrance of her attar of violets, sandalwood perfume and tobacco seems to linger alongside her throaty laughter as she makes herself known to me through this delicious photograph. Her long auburn hair is swept up in gorgeous combs made of sandalwood, mother of pearl and 18 karat gold and is surely scented with the simple single floral perfumes of jasmine and rose that she preferred, nothing too heavy. I am told that she always knew just the right moment to undo the combs, letting her gorgeous hair cascade magically down around her face bringing with it a cloud of soft sweet scent. She must have been amazing.
My mother taught me to do this with my own long hair when I was young. Just one spray of a single floral note warmed in the hand and then finger combed through from the temples back. The simple floral perfume keeps it from seeming too obvious; your hair should just smell clean and pretty, not drenched with scent. Then take some beautiful hair combs and twist your hair up or back in a chignon, pull the front pieces back; whatever you like, but keep it simple, two combs maximum, one is the best. Then at the right moment, just smile, tilt your head, release your hair and toss it gently while never breaking your gaze. It’s an old fashioned sleight of hand but , every time I do this, it makes my husband grin.
After she died, my mother inherited most of her mother’s jewelry and delighted in wearing the beautiful pearls as often as she could. She would always wear them draped against gray silk and satin, nestled against her chest. When I miss her the most I go to my jewelry box and put them on. They still smell a bit of her favorite 4711 eau de cologne and soap, violet oil and Shalimar perfume, a wonderful fragrance that’s lighthearted and giddy; the scent of a woman who was always the belle of the ball.
My mother was one of the original Yardley English Lavender sales counter girls, so she’d been taught very early on that fine fragrance was a magic spell that needed to be wielded powerfully. She had many delicious secrets and her ritual for applying perfume was one that I still use to this day; one spray on the nape of the neck, one spray at the point where the soft flesh of the breasts meet and depending upon what she was wearing, one spray at the ankles. “Remember sweetheart” she’d say with a grin, “Only just enough perfume to be enjoyed by the lucky fellow who is close enough to kiss you, never so much that it tosses you head first into the room.”
Some of you may be reading all of this and find yourself completely disapproving, but my parents were pretty happily married for 67 years. She was a strong woman who ran a very successful business, raised three kids and was a fabulous grandmother.
I loved all of my mother’s beauty rituals and over the years I’ve made most of them my own. For her and all of the women who came before her, baths and dressing rooms were the place where the glamour that they were known for was created. My mother took it all very seriously, this business of beauty. She took baths in lovely oils, forever eschewed showers and she always had scented candles burning in her bathroom. She loved floating feminine hemlines and she would always be sure to put a few drops of her perfume on them so that there was just a subtle scent when she moved through the room. It was she who taught me the easiest scent trick I know; that a few drops of vanilla mixed with a bit of gorgeous rose essential oil rubbed into my breasts has the effect on me of creating almost instantaneous and lasting relaxation at times when I’m feeling anxious. She taught me how to apply my lipstick perfectly without a mirror, a nifty little trick that has never failed to disarm my husband. I mean really…If you’re going to wear makeup, why not have some real fun with it!
When I married Jim she gifted me with a sterling and tortoise shell comb, sable brush, mirror and instructions to never allow him to see me looking ill even if I felt like I was dying, old fashioned advice that I've almost always heeded to this day and here’s the thing? When I’m feeling sick, if I take the time to put on something pretty and comfortable, spray on some great perfume and put on a touch of makeup, it almost always makes me feel better. I realized what she mean’t the first time I tried it…It wasn’t really for him, it was for me. I instantly felt better and was quickly ready to tackle the business of healing!
Someday, I hope to have a granddaughter of my own with whom I will share all of the intimate secrets that my mother taught me. I will love those moments and share all of the family stories with great pleasure, especially the really wicked ones! Continuing the tradition started so long ago, one day the lovely pearls and combs will be passed down to her , along with my collection of perfumes that I hope she will treasure. She will hopefully be blessed as all the women in my family have been with a wicked sense of humor and a penchant for naughtiness, but if not the pearls will probably still fit her like a custom made glove. What a day that will be when I finally get to pass them on!
If you have lovely pearls of your own please remember not to put them on before you apply your fragrance, because it’s not good for them to come into direct contact with fragrant oils, perfumes or hairspray. The little bit on your skin or clothes will be just fine. I store mine in a pouch of soft velvet so that they don’t get scratched.
After every wearing, I wipe them without stretching the thread with a soft chamois cloth. If you’ve spilled something on them, you can wipe them with a barely damp cloth, but be sure to lay them flat and let them dry thoroughly before you put them away.
Now for the two most important rules!
When you are dressing, put your pearls on last and remove them first!
AND..Wear them as often as possible!
I hope that you enjoy this fascinating video about this history of the Legendary Ama Pearl Divers.
Thymeless Quotes :
“As a pearl is formed and its layers grow, a rich iridescence begins to glow. The oyster has taken what was at first an irritation and intrusion and uses it to enrich its value. How can you coat or frame the changes in your life to harvest beauty, brilliance, and wisdom?” – Susan C. Young
Do you have a piece of family jewelry that inspires you with it’s rich history? Favorite rituals for enjoying your life in the present moment? I’d love to know about them. Drop me a note in the comments or DM me on LinkedIn, Instagram or Facebook.