Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Diamond shopping in Antwerp

One of the best things about living in Europe is the breadth of different experiences you are exposed to with a much lower entry barrier than back home. I can't say I grew up dreaming of buying a diamond ring in Antwerp, but if I had, it would have required meticulous planning, a month off work, days of flying, and thousands of dollars of expenditure before you even got to the diamond itself. Here, it was more like, okay so we're going to buy a diamond? Well, obviously we'll drive 45 minutes up the road to a city which has been synonymous with the diamond trade for centuries. I couldn't find a definitive answer on whether it is actually cheaper to get diamonds in Antwerp (and a lot of the online advice was based on people having to travel to and stay in Antwerp for the purchase, thus inflating their budgets), but the amount of diamonds you have to choose from is unparalleled anywhere else. According to Wikipedia, as of 2012, about 84% of the world's rough diamonds passed through Antwerp's tiny "Square Mile" diamond district, with US$16 billion in polished diamonds going through the Antwerp exchanges annually. So whatever you're looking for, chances are you can find it here, and if you can't, they'll make it for you.

What I don't think I've ever heard anyone say about buying a diamond ring is, holy hell it's intimidating. We first went on a bit of a dry run in Brussels, trying to get an idea of what things cost and what our budget should be. (I know that's not the way round you're meant to set a budget, but hey.) I wanted first to go to sort of chain or mall type jewellery shops, as I thought that would be less intimidating. Turns out chain jewellery shops don't really exist in Brussels. We found a few larger places in the middle of Brussels and circled nervously, gathering the courage to go in.

Once inside, the service wasn't great and the selection wasn't great either. They seemed to have only a couple of different models of diamond solitaires, which seemed strange. Plus I asked to see diamond solitaires in French and the woman brought a tray of wedding bands. We looked, confused, for a few minutes wondering if you first chose the metal you wanted, and then they made you choose the setting, and then the stone, but no, she just didn't understand. So we tried again, and she brought out weird dress rings. "Oh no, I just want something plain with one diamond", I said. "Oh, you want a solitaire" she replied. Um, yeah.

The second place we tried was an "Antwerp diamonds" place, which seems to be the Belgian way of indicating a shop that has a lot of different rings and different grade diamonds and you just put two and two together and they set the ring for you. This place had some pretty rings but it was a warm late summer/early autumn day and the shop was tiny and overly hot and I just spent the whole time in there dripping with sweat and feeling like the frumpiest mess on the planet, and so I couldn't meet the jeweller's eye, let alone concentrate on the glamorous business of diamond purchasing when I felt like my face was melting off. I've yet to see a movie where the dashing heroine goes diamond shopping with her foundation dripping, but trust me to make the occasion as unromantic and unaspirational as possible.

We retired defeated from the field of battle, and between the trauma of our first attempt and being busy with other things for a few weeks, it was over a month before we tried again. I did some further research online, locating specific places in Antwerp with a good reputation and drilling myself on haggling techniques and the fact that they're not better than me just because they work in a shop that sells expensive things. (They're not worse than me either, of course, but just trying to buck myself up.)

After a walk up and down Vestingstraat, a drab street currently undergoing roadworks but probably not very fancy at the best of times, we finally felt ready to move from window shopping to going into our first store. We started with Adin, which sells antique and vintage jewellery, partly because I thought it would be kind of cool to end up with a piece with a history and a one-off design, and partly because either you love it or you don't. You're unlikely to end up fussing around for ages trying to find what specific combination of the 4 Cs fit your budget and heart's desire. Luckily for us on our first attempt, the woman who helped us was super sweet and friendly and very patient with showing us everything, and the owner (I think) also came over and explained how diamond cuts were different in antique jewellery. We saw some beautiful pieces, but in the end I decided they weren't quite my style for something I'd be wearing day in and day out. I tend to go for plain jewellery, and was sure I would end up with a classic solitaire. But it was fun to see the vintage pieces just in case.

If I was going to go for something out of left field, this would have been a strong contender

The emerald Art Deco one was pretty, but I couldn't see wearing it every day

You really notice all the little cat scratches when you go ring shopping

These used a sort of illusion setting to make the centre stone look bigger. You could definitely get some decent-value rings if you committed to the vintage route
There was no hard sell and we left with a lot more confidence than we came in with, so I'm glad that was our first port of call. We went a couple of doors down to a place that wasn't on the list, but had some pretty designs in the window, Diamonds on Vesting. Again, there was no hard sell, and there was no problem writing down all the different specifications and prices and taking photos. There was a lovely twisted "coquette" ring, which really highlighted the diamond without being too obviously twisty.

It was kind of frustrating that many of the rings didn't fit on my fingers, but oh well.

We went to one more place on Vestingstraat, where they didn't let us take photos, but where I tried on a blue diamond (kinda cool), and then went to Diamondland, which has the biggest diamond showroom in Antwerp. A lot of reviews online said they took the time to really explain all the different diamond information to you, and so this was a good place to start. We actually went here first but they were too busy to see us, and I'm glad they were. They didn't do a hard sell, exactly, but this was the only place that made me feel uncomfortable out of all the places we visited. Rather than an aggressive approach, they took the buddy buddy "what's your name? wow, that name's so popular in my country! where do you come from? you look so much like my daughter it's amazing!" tactic. I did like that when she "swore", she said "corpus Christi!" though, which gave an agreeably medieval flavour to proceedings.

She took us to an upstairs room and started pulling out little envelopes full of different diamonds, from tiny .15 carat up to a carat. It was kind of cool to see the sparkly little beggars rolling around (and I actually managed to drop a one-carat diamond (supposedly) worth about 10,000€ which she had put loosely into a setting for us to look at), but it didn't take long for us both to (silently) be quite sure we wouldn't be buying here.

The sales technique was also not cool. She took a diamond which, according to the envelope it came in, was worth around 4,200€, and put it together with a ring that apparently she didn't know the price of, but guessed was worth around 300€. Put those figures together in the calculator and magically came up with 5000€. I didn't bother pointing out that you didn't need to be a maths genius to see that didn't add up, but she next assured us that she would go and talk to her boss and see if she could get a good discount for us. Normally they could give around 8-10% and she wasn't sure she could get that much, but she would really try hard for us. We had barely time to stifle our eye rolls before her boss "accidentally" came in, found a price tag of 200€ on the ring (yay! it's already cheaper!) and did some sums on the calculator, which ended up reading 3955€, although she said 3900€ out loud. Our original saleswoman cooed over what an amazing deal it was, and once her boss had left, wrote down the price of 3950€ for us, pointing out that she was even taking an extra 5€ off. In the store, we both politely said thank you very much, we'll have to think about it, yes, 5000€ down to 3950€, that is quite the discount, we'll sleep on it. But once outside, we were both like "geez, trying to take us for a couple of country rubes?!?"

So, drum roll... What did we end up getting? As I said, I was always sure that I would go for a plain solitaire - timeless, elegant, classic. But the more I researched and thought about it, the less sure I got. Maybe it would be better to go for something with a slightly less icky reputation than diamonds, both in the blood diamond sense and in the monopoly cartel sense (although apparently the monopoly has been broken/weakened in recent times)? I'm certainly not going to start accusing people of being sheeple falling for the slick marketing of Big Diamond, but I started to think more about the possibility of getting a coloured stone, even in the diamond capital of the world. Our reason for going into the aforementioned Diamonds on Vesting was actually some "sapphires" in the window (turns out they were tanzanites). Tanzanites are a rare gemstone (much rarer than diamonds) only found in a small part of Tanzania, with a blue-violet hue which can change depending on the angle. They are also one of the birthstones for December, which is a fun coincidence. Jules made me sleep on it - for longer than I would have liked, since the jeweller went away to China in the meantime - but we finally decided on something that I would not have imagined but I absolutely love!

Two tanzanite and diamond rings to choose between

Final choice! Thought I'd better get a manicure for when we actually got to bring this baby home
Transformed to a vivid blue in the early morning light
And, you guys, guess what??? I bargained! Me! Who's scared of everything! The ring was in platinum, and on our first visit the guy mentioned that it would be cheaper in white gold. So Jules and I fixed some numbers between ourselves that we would be willing to go to for the white gold or the platinum setting, and then I said to the guy, "our budget was X" (about 2500€ cheaper than the sticker price), "how close could we get to that figure with the white gold setting?" He didn't want to go quite that low for the white gold, but he offered us the platinum setting for basically the secret price we had agreed beforehand we wanted to pay for it, which saved almost 1500€! Possibly we could have haggled harder and got more off, but I was pretty damn proud of myself and pleased we got to the price we wanted, so I'll take that as a big win :)

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Is this the Monreale life? Is this just fantasy?

You know who loves massive, gaudy, ostentatious displays of gold? In honour (choke) of the stumpy-digited madman, here's another of Sicily's bling-tastic sites. Except this one manages to be tasteful, a word Trump wouldn't know if he tripped over it.

Monreale Cathedral, the second of the great Arab-Norman sites I visited in Sicily, is located in a suburb of Palermo about 20 minutes away from the centre. Getting there took a bit of research online and some wandering around the Piazza Indipendenza (outside the Norman Palace), but was otherwise straightforward. The larger scale (102x40 metres) makes it harder to see and to photograph the mosaics than in the Palatine Chapel, which is my overall favourite, but the incredible number and quality of mosaics is still unforgettable.

The history of the church in Monreale goes back to the Arab invasion of Sicily in the 9th century. The Arabs converted the Palermo Cathedral into a mosque and exiled the Bishop, who settled nearby on the hill of Monreale, overlooking Palermo, where a small church was built. The Normans conquered Palermo in 1072 and re-consecrated the cathedral. However, the story of the exile to Monreale was not forgotten, and in 1174 King William II ordered a new cathedral to be built in Monreale. Amazingly, the cathedral was consecrated in 1182. I don't know how the Normans managed to move so fast on these things, considering all the cathedrals you hear of taking hundreds of years to complete.

The interior consists of elegant columns, an elaborate wood and mosaic roof, patterned marble floors and walls, and most importantly, more than 6500 square metres of glass mosaics which mostly depict Biblical scenes and figures.

The relatively plain cathedral façade

One of the side entrance towers

Christ Pantocrator

The back wall 

I suppose this is Lazarus? Quite the belly, anyway

Ornate Baroque chapel. This is in a roped-off section you have to pay to get in to

Chapel ceiling

The inlaid marble floor

William II, founder of the cathedral, offers the building to the Virgin Mary

Noah's Ark
Top: Adam and Eve being driven out of the Garden of Eden. Bottom: Rebekah giving water to the camels

St. Peter

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Cloistered away

So far, the Palermo trip has been church-heavy, I know. Good news! It's going to continue to be pretty much just as church-heavy, because that's basically what I did in Palermo. Luckily enough, they are gorgeous and amazing churches, but I know probably not everyone's idea of a rocking holiday time.

To break up the churches a bit here's something... church-adjacent (literally and figuratively). The cloisters of the cathedral of Monreale date back to 1200, originally part of a Benedictine abbey attached to the cathedral. They are made up of 108 pairs of columns, with alternate pairs covered in beautiful mosaics and each column boasting a carved capital, many of which show Biblical and other scenes.

You need to pay separately to go in to the cloisters (I thought it was included with the roof ticket, which it's not), but the extra 6€ or so is well worth it. The Arab influence can be clearly felt, with the central garden complete with palm trees and corner fountain/cistern.

The cloister as seen from the cathedral roof

The Monreale cathedral seen from the cloisters

The bright sun made it hard to photograph at times

One of the elaborately-carved capitals

Crocodile attack!

Not sure, but looks like this could be Cain and Abel on the left

 Dog attack and two knights

 The corners featured these amazing columns carved all the way round


Animal carvings on the columns

The corner fountain