April in … Antwerp!

If Paris is the City of Light, then surely Antwerp can be called the City of Brilliance. In a salute to our brave amis in Belgium, we honor April’s birthstone—the diamond —with a spotlight on the city that is full of them.

Central Station

Antwerp’s Central Station. Photo Credit: deredactdie.be

Antwerp’s Central Train Station is a gem worthy of its own dedicated month. The original station building was constructed between 1895 and 1905, designed by architects Louis Delacenserie, Clement van Bogaert, and Jan Van Asperen. This was not the station in Martin Scorcese’s beautiful film Hugo, but it is equally as charming and fertile ground for stories and fantasies. The clock-wall (pictured) is mesmerizing; now imagine long concourses stretching forever, lined with flower shops, diamond merchants and chocolatiers, and people hustling from here to there, seemingly oblivious to the stupefying beauty encasing them like bone fragments in a reliquary.

Photo credit: factsanddetails.com

Photo credit: factsanddetails.com

Step out of the Central Station and you’re in the Diamond District. Antwerp has enjoyed a thriving diamond trade for centuries, due in part to its inland location, nestled snugly betwixt Northern and Southern Europe yet still navigable by ships of more than 100,000 gross tons. The city’s reputation as Sparkly Carbon Central was cemented in the 15th century when Lodewyk van Berken invented a new tool called the Scaif, which made it possible to polish diamonds from all facets at symmetrical angles. Crowned heads of Europe and their tiaraed consorts began purchasing diamonds from Antwerp dealers in earnest, and their public has followed suit ever since.

Photo Credit: Theguardian.com

Photo Credit: Theguardian.com

You’ll find no shortage of dealers in the Diamond District, and with quantity come variations in the quality of salesmanship. So do your homework. Know the Four Cs, distinguish a natural diamond from an enhanced diamond, and ask to see a grading report from the Gemological Institute of America .


Statue of Rubens in the Groenplaats, flickr.com

Plazas—so much nicer on the ear than the Flemish “plaats”—are seemingly everywhere in Antwerp, overseen by a life-size sculpture of a famous Fleming on a pedestal. Peter Paul Rubens stands at the center of the Groenplaats (Green Square), a convenient meeting place not unlike Big Tex at the State Fair of Texas. The square is bordered by trees, a fancy Hilton hotel, some cafes, shops, and the Cathedral of Our Lady, which is basically a Rubens museum. There are four blockbuster oil paintings of his there, which doesn’t seem like much, until you’re exhausted after studying just one—so much melodrama!

Assumption of the Virgin, Peter Paul Rubens

Assumption of the Virgin, Peter Paul Rubens

For a quieter experience of the Flemish Master, spend an afternoon at the Rubenshuis, the artist’s historic home in Antwerp. A few oil paintings, and a lot of period furniture and some picturesque gardens belonging to an artist who was definitely not starving.

jacob Jordaens

Also worth a walk-by is the Jacob Jordaens Plaats, where a nice statue of the artist holds court at a small city intersection. Franklin D. Roosevelt Plaats, however, is not the Homage To a Favorite President this American was hoping for: just a plaque in a parking lot with lots of bike racks near the Central Station. Fervent Rooseveltophiles had best to go to Washington, D.C. or Hyde Park, NY.

frites waffles

To Eat: Waffles. Frites. Beer. Chocolate. Repeat.

And to sleep? Stay at the Hotel Elzenveld, which was a monastery and a hospital before transforming into a hotel and conference center surrounded by gardens. Any ghosts are guaranteed to treat your ailments, or at least say a prayer for you.

Shine on, you crazy diamonds!

Why we love the Fleur de Lis

Mardi Gras celebrations over the last few weeks have us thinking about a fetchingly French design element: the Fleur de Lis. What’s so special about this tri-lobed symbol, and why is it all over New Orleans, bathroom wallpaper at La Madeleine, and the Boy Scout uniform?


Fleur de Lis

Credit: 123rf.com

First, a bit of histoire. The Fleur de Lis appears in medieval Europe, its three lobes a reference to the Christian Holy Trinity, or the three sectors of French society: those who work, those who fight, and those who pray. The name itself is French: Fleur means flower. Lis means lily. It’s a lily! Or an iris. The symbol looks a lot more like an iris, and the name might actually be better translated as the “flower of the Leie,” a river in Flanders where the early Franks and Gauls lived. And whose banks are chock-full of, you guessed it, iris.


The Fleur de Lis is beloved by France and Franco-philes. It was not officially adopted as national symbol by any French government, yet it still appears on the civic crests and flags of many municipalities in France. Like Paris.


The official coat of arms of the city of Paris

So it’s understandable that New Orleans, maybe the Frenchiest city in the U.S., slaps a few Fleurs de Lis on their architectural cornices and professional athletes And as a centuries-old favorite motif of royals all over Europe, the Fleur de Lis is a natural choice for any modern-day King of Carnival and his court.


The coronation crown of Louis XV, topped with a Fleur de Lis

En fin, the Boy Scouts. They’re neither French nor royal in origin, but they do like maps. The medieval navigator Flavio Gioia is traditionally believed to have perfected the mariner’s compass. “Traditionally believed,” among scholars, is code for “there’s really no proof of this.” Less spurious is the notion that Flavio initiated the practice of overlaying the Fleur de Lis with the north-pointing needle of the compass, in a shout-out to Charles of Anjou, the French King of Naples.


More recently, the three points of the Fleur de Lis remind the Scout of the three points of the Scout’s Promise—Duty to God and King, Helpfulness to other people, and Obedience to the Scout Law.


We love the Fleur de Lis as a repeated motif on a cape, a fence topper, and as a stylish alternative to the ladder-back chair.

Queen Victoria Eugenie, credit tiaramania.com

Queen Victoria Eugenie, credit tiaramania.com

And, bien sur, in a tiara!

Hidden Treasures: A Crush on Caillebotte

I’ve got a crush on Gustave Caillebotte. It began, as so many crushes do, in Paris. Strolling with languorously through the Musée d’Orsay among blockbuster after blockbuster Impressionist and early modern painting, I stopped short in front of his 1875 masterpiece The Floor Scrapers and whispered, not “sacre bleu” but “hubba hubba!”


Les Raboteurs Photo Credit: Sharon Mullerus, Creative Common License

Les Raboteurs
Photo Credit: Sharon Mullerus, Creative Common License

The artist’s name—pronounced oh-so-Frenchly Zhoostaahhv Kya-BUTttt—was unfamiliar then, but thanks to a spectacular show  making stops in D.C. and Fort Worth, his name and oeuvre should become the cultural mainstays they deserve to be. And not just for the eye candy.

Gustave Caillebotte, Self Portrait

Self Portrait, Private collection

Why do we love Caillebotte? On canvas, he was handsome. Off the canvas, he was positively dreamy. Caillebotte was rich: he inherited the considerable fortune of his father’s textile business in his 20s, lived in a stylish flat in Paris and in a country house on the banks of the Seine near Argenteuil. He was educated, having studied both law and engineering. He was romantic: Caillebotte gave up his law practice to pursue art full time. But he was practical: pursuing art full-time included creating his own work, but also collecting, buying, selling, and staging exhibitions of the work of his friends Monet, Renoir, Pisarro, and Degas.

And finally, he was a mensch. Caillebotte paid the rent for his friend Monet’s studio in Paris. He learned to paint portraits with his friends as models. He bequeathed his considerable collection of Impressionist and Early Modern art to the French Government, in an effort to give the most people access to it.

On the canvas, you’ll find just as much to love about the man. Voila….

Caillebotte, Young Man at the Piano

Young Man at the Piano, licensed under public domain

The Lush Interiors: Gorgeous textiles and fashionable accessories of French Bourgeois Living fill every surface in Caillebotte’s interiors. Patterned wallpaper and upholstery, vests and tophats, button-tufted and overstuffed sofas invite you in and, if you linger too long, threaten to overtake you.

Ladies Sewing

Ladies Sewing, licensed under Public Domain

The Bezique

The Bezique, licensed under public domain

The Introvert’s Perspective: Although they may give a whiff of the loneliness that Edward Hopper articulated so well a generation later in America, the men and women in Caillebotte’s Paris exist in an introvert’s paradise. They are (almost) always smartly dressed and going about the business of card-playing, sewing, and strolling the renewed streets of the nascent Modern Paris. There’s no lack of company, but everyone has a Quaker’s respect for thoughtful silence.

Pont de Europe

Pont de l’Europe, Musee de Petit Palais, Geneve

The Optimistic, Proto-Modernist Cityscapes: Paris was in a feverish state of urban renewal during Caillebotte’s adulthood, and his visual record of it is a breath of fresh, photo-realist air amid the gauzy landscapes of his Impressionist frères.

And—can we be a little saucy here?—those Floor Scrapers! Mon Dieu! Go to the show if you can get to Fort Worth before mid-month; failing that, a visit to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris will have to suffice. Ahh, what we do for love!

The Birth of Birthstones

Birthstones are curious tradition. Why do we assign a specific gemstone to each month, and then declare it the gem of choice for everyone born during those 30 days? Before marching to the craft room to paint signs and organize a protest against this affront to our Freedom to Choose A Personal Gemstone (suggested brand: Occupy Tiffany’s), join us for a brief exploration of affinity groups and their talismans.

The whole of humanity is just too diverse and too dispersed to tackle at any one time. So we create smaller communities of shared experience to help us make sense of it all. If the things we have in common are easy to recognize, we’re less likely to glare and more likely to share when confronting strangers. And we brand our groups with sacred colors, spirit animals and symbolic totems that identify us to our paisanos immediately. It’s not oppressive; it’s team spirit!

Eagle from amazon

credit: Amazon.com

Credit: poloyvore.com

Credit: poloyvore.com

We wear our clan affinities – who are your people? – in the family crest on a jacket or the jaunty bat with a top hat on our baseball shirt.


Tartan samples from scottishlion.com

Credit: ultimateyankees.com

Credit: ultimateyankees.com

We express geographic affinity – where are you from? – in gardens lush with the state flower or ringtones that play “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”

Credit: sunborngardens.com

Blackeyed Susans, the State Flower of Maryland. Credit: sunborngardens.com

And even the most ardent skeptic has succumbed to the global affinity group of time – when were you born? – by consulting his or her horoscope.

Which brings us to birthstones. The roots of assigning a specific gem with a specific month are in the Bible. Moses was supposedly instructed to create a breastplate for his homeboy Aaron, and embed within it twelve gems. That’s one for each tribe of Israel. Or one for each sign of the zodiac. Or one for each month of the year. Et voila–birthstones.

Credit: LDS.com

Credit: LDS.com

Today we look to the American Gem Society for guidance on which stone to wear when, and they’re not nearly as strict as the Talmud. Many months are honored with more than one stone, and adding newly-discovered precious minerals like Tanzanite to the birthstone roster is a great way to stir up interest and drive markets.

So wear your birthstone, or your mother’s, or your cat’s, with pride. And if your favorite gem is assigned to another month, remember that, just as it’s always cocktail hour somewhere, it’s always somebody’s birthday sometime.


Elevating the Everyday

This month it seems as though boughs of holly, sugarplum centerpieces, and candles and candelabra fill every available surface in our homes. But too many of us give special attention to home décor only within the context of special occasions or events. Ellen Hoffman Designs loves the twinkle of tinsel on evergreens in December, but we’re chagrined at the idea that, for most of the rest of the year, our tabletops and fireplace mantels and hallway sconces don’t merit attention to visual pleasure and harmony unless we’re hosting a party or marking an observance dictated on our calendar apps.


The search for inspiration on honoring the sublime beauty of everyday life led us to the Netherlands of the 17th century, where hard work and industry were revered in both professional and personal spheres. Outward displays of too much health and wealth were frowned upon by these prosperous burghers , and so they trained their eyes (and those of their artists) on the interior.


They’re called genre scenes, and they depict the not-too-rich and not-at-all-famous doing things like eating supper and sweeping the stairs. And these paintings are beautiful. The serenity of the figures, the care-worn cleanliness of the rooms and their appointments, and of course that luminous, other-worldly glow that permeates even a cloudy landscape give nearly sacramental weight and dignity to the most mundane moments caught on canvas.

The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Milkmaid: Johannes Vermeer, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

View of Haarlem: Jacob van Ruisdael, Royal Picture Gallery, Mauritshuis, The Hague

View of Haarlem: Jacob van Ruisdael, Royal Picture Gallery, Mauritshuis, The Hague

Old Woman Saying Grace (Prayer Without End): Nicolas Maes, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Old Woman Saying Grace (Prayer Without End): Nicolas Maes, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

And that’s the point. Elevating the everyday is less about bedazzling your denim jacket than it is about taking care to afford the routines of daily life – all that space between feasts and fests – the reverence they are due. Now that’s a life of distinction.

Three Ways to Make a Big Difference on Small Business Saturday

Ellen Hoffman Designs gives thanks to American Express for putting some muscle behind Small Business Saturday , which urges shoppers to spend the day (and the day’s wages) patronizing small Mom and Pop storefronts unique to your local neighborhood. It’s a practice that builds community and cultivates individual creativity.

We think supporting small businesses has the potential for Big Impact not just on the bottom line in Q4 of the fiscal year, but on the larger fabric of your life and the lives of others. Thinking small but not small-minded, we came up with three purchases from small businesses that offer big dividends:

  1. Honey offers a perfect opportunity to enact the bromide “think globally, act locally.” Since 1/3 of all fruits and vegetables depend on honeybees for pollination, a purchase of honey instead of sugar or syrup supports the largest agricultural workforce on earth (bees), and contributes to the food supply chain of vegetarians (all those pollinated vegetables) and carnivores (cows eat grains whose seeds are bee pollinated) worldwide. Local honey can help those with pollen allergies to build their tolerance of histamine-activating native plants. Sweet! Our favorite small business for honey? The Honey Exchange in Portland, Maine.
  2. Arts: When date-night comes around, shake things up a bit with a show starring the cantor at your church, or the shy dry-cleaner with a surprising baritone. Small community theater performances have all of the heart and half the parking congestion of national travelling tours. Often the cast hangs out in the lobby for photos and autographs (or a ride home?) after the show. If “art allows us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time” (Thomas Merton), then local art lets us do so “without leaving our own back yard” (paraphrasing Dorothy Gale). Standing ovation for Lamplighters Music Theater in San Francisco.
  3. Philanthropy: Give to your favorite cause, no matter where it is. And just for today, take a look at the people and places within a 1-mile radius of your home, and find out what makes them possible. Is your neighborhood middle school shepherding surly tweens into optimistic and energetic young adults? Give to their PTA. Is the city playground landscaped and mowed? Donate to the municipal Parks and Recreation department. Do dogs and cats roam your street wearing collars attached to leashes and humans? Google “animal rescue” with your zip code, and make a contribution to one of the growing pool of humanitarians who capture, foster, and rehabilitate abandoned pets and find safe homes for them. Four paws-up for Duck Team 6 in Dallas.
Queen Bee! Photo Credit: TheHoneyExchange.com

Queen Bee! Photo Credit: TheHoneyExchange.com

post 11.8 theater

Return of the Deadeye: The Farce Awakens at Lamplighters Musical Theater

Photo Credit: DuckTeam6.org

Photo Credit: DuckTeam6.org

Wishing you Holidays of Distinction,


Three Reasons to Love France

La Mode:

Post 11.7 Fashion Post 11.7 cuisine post 11.7 cinema

In fashion, cuisine, cinema, even child development, the Gauls always bring on the haute.


Post 11.7 terroir

It’s a term typically applied to wine, and it refers to so much more than the region the grapes came from. Terroir is the aggregate of all environmental factors that make a crop–or a culture of people–what it is.

Post 11.7 jean d'arcpost 11.7 winterPost 11.7 croissant

The French terroir includes a long history of freedom fighters from Jean d’Arc to Jean Valjean; ongoing cycles of dark, damp winters defeated by sunflower-y springs; and lifetime commitment of modest indulgence in something wonderful every day.

And finally, Fraternité

Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, courtesy of the Louvre

Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, Louvre

In gratitude or grief, calm or crisis, you are our brothers. Vaillance, mes frères.


November Birthstone: Topaz, or Not Topaz?

Two gems are appropriate for November birthdays – Topaz and Citrine. We discussed Citrine in August,  so today is all about Topaz.

Golden Topaz. Photo Credit: http://www.in.all.biz/img/in/catalog/328880.jpeg

Golden Topaz. Photo Credit: All Biz

I invite you to a topaz
To the yellow hive in the stone,
The bees,
And the lump of honey
In a topaz…

That’s the first few lines of Pablo Neruda’s poem Skytones.

Pablo Neruda. Photo credit: http://mqltv.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/neruda-pablo.jpg

Pablo Neruda. Photo credit: MQLTV

Makes you wish you were born in November, no?

Neruda’s Topaz evokes the warm browns and oranges of late Autumn. Thanks to heat treatments and a process called vapor deposition, blue, red, pink and green varieties are widely available, but nobody wrote a sonnet about these stones.

Natural blue topaz is very rare, and usually pale—if your topaz is deep blue, it’s had a little help from a friend. Blue Topaz is the state gemstone of Texas.

Natural Blue Topaz. Photo credit: http://www.gemstoneslist.com/images/blue-topaz.jpg

Natural Blue Topaz. Photo credit: Gemstones List

The Ancients loved their Topaz: Egyptians likened it to the golden glow of the sun god. The Greeks gave the stone its name: topazos, which means “green gemstone.” We like the connection to the Sanskrit word tapas, meaning “heat” or “fire.” Romans dedicated Topaz to their god-in-chief, Juno. In 1255, St. Hildegard of Bingen, the famous mystic, offered a simple remedy for failing eyesight: steep a topaz in wine for three days and then lightly rub it over the eyes.

We like Topaz better with our eyes open. Preferably on a necklace or, occasionally, in a poem.

Imperial Topaz and Gold Nugget necklace, Ellen Hoffman Designs

Imperial Topaz and Gold Nugget necklace, Ellen Hoffman Designs

Cache or Chicken? What’s Your Treasure?

A scan of what’s showing at the art museums in our beloved hometown this fall…

Treasures from the House of Alba: 500 Years of Collecting at the Meadows;
Tales from the American West: The Rees-Jones Collection at the Amon Carter; and
Masterpieces from the Keir Collection of Islamic Art at the Dallas Museum of Art

… has the Ellen Hoffman Designs team thinking about collecting. It needn’t be museum – or even heirloom — quality. But it’s more than consumption; collecting bears qualities of time and space, as well as self-revelation.

What do you collect? It may be a color – a spot of yellow in every room of your home. Or a theme – musical instruments or vintage kitchen gadgets. Or perhaps the work of a particular artist or design house – Limoges porcelain or Matisse prints or Nike running shoes.

Take a walk through your life with curator’s eye, and you might discover a collection that’s worth sharing. Here’s one collection-recollection with special meaning to one of our team to get you started. Share your collection-recollection with us and let us know if we can help you add to it with something from our collection of distinctive pieces.

My mom collects chickens, or images of them, in all forms: figurines, embroidered or printed on linens or tableware,  clocks, postcards, refrigerator magnets, whatever. On the surface, it’s a convenient framework for travel souvenirs and silly gifts. Dig a little more deeply, and it’s an exploration of a natural life-form expressed in multiple media, with representation from abstraction to photo-realism, and everything in between. Some of the objects are designed for utility (the chicken-as-salt-shaker) others exploit the natural form and beauty of the medium (a chicken-shaped polished jade), and still others are simply pleasant portraits that, thoughtfully displayed, underscore a room’s purpose and signify the security and comfort within (rooster and hen pendant portraits in front of the kitchen table to signify the heads of hearth and home).

chicken shakers


chicken bead


chicken rooster

Five Sapphires that Changed the World

September’s birthstone is the Sapphire—best-known for its brilliant blue, often surrounded by diamonds on the tiara of many a European queen. They’re found in Southeast Asia as well as Montana, not always in blue and, as a favorite of leaders and monarchs throughout the ages, have been witness to some defining moments in human history and legend. Here are five:

  1. The Rule of Law: Neither Cecil B. DeMille nor Ridley Scott included this little gem in their cinematic versions, but according to the Talmud, the 10 Commandments were carved on two cubes of sapphire stone.
  2. The Roots of Wisdom: The archeological record is sparse, but apocryphal stories of Solomon, the third King of Israel are, well, legendary. By various accounts – religious and otherwise – Solomon was able to construct the great Temple of Jerusalem, cast out demons, and dispense his eponymous wisdom thanks in part to a magic sapphire ring.kingsolomon
  3. Noblesse Oblige, Part 1: The St. Edward’s Sapphire is one of Great Britain’s Crown Jewels, and is named for the Anglo-Saxon monarch who wore the stone in a ring. The story goes that, on his way to Westminster Abbey, his Majesty was accosted by a beggar. Finding his pockets empty (the 1-percenters didn’t carry cash in the 11th century either!), the king slipped the sapphire ring off his finger and presented it to the beggar. Two pilgrims returned the ring to Edward, claiming to have received it from St. John the Evangelist, who had been travelling incognito (and posthumously!) as that very beggar. The stone was set into the Imperial State Crown for the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838.St. Edwards Sapphire
  4. The Spread of Democracy: The Ruspoli Sapphire is a flawless, 135.8-carat blue sapphire discovered in Bengal. Its provenance includes 17th-century Italian prince Francesco Ruspoli, who sold it to a jeweler. It eventually landed in the possession of the French King Louis XIV, who placed it in the French crown jewels. The gem was, um, repurposed by the revolutionary government a hundred years later, and now resides in the Louvre.Ruspoli Sapphire
  5. Noblesse Oblige, Part 2: On her way to becoming the Princess of Wales, Lady Diana Spencer selected a 12-carat oval blue sapphire engagement ring from Garrard’s jewelry collection. A cornerstone piece of the wardrobe of the People’s Princess, this ring accompanied Diana on some serious human rights missions, notably for helping people with AIDS and campaigns against the use of land mines.pd


What kind of adventures have your jewels witnessed? Sometimes the right piece can inspire revolutionary action. Let Ellen Hoffman Designs help you find yours!