Realistic Fiction

The Jeweler’s Hands

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The jeweler was in her late forties, with hair that had been dyed blonde and was shortened in a cropped, modern hairstyle that looked very flattering on a woman her age.  She had flawless skin, like many women in Spain, and her complexion was fair.  She was smartly dressed, with a touch of elegance, and she wore just the right amount of makeup.  Every aspect of her appearance was constructed in a purposeful, attractive manner.

However, when you are a jeweler, there is nothing more important than your hands.  After all, it is the hands that reach into the glass case and extract the jewelry, that lay the jewelry down on the counter or place a delicate bracelet across the templed bones of a wrist.  The jeweler’s hands are always in the frame, in the sight lines of the prospective buyer.  A jeweler can afford to wear blemishes anywhere but on their hands, and she went to great lengths to make sure she took excellent care of them.

Some people spend their whole lives searching for their calling, but she knew she wanted to be a jeweler for nearly as long as she could remember. She wanted to be a jeweler ever since she was a little girl growing up in Barcelona. If Barcelona wasn’t the economic center of Spain, it was certainly the creative center, where the presence of Gaudí loomed large, the Sagrada Familia soared, and style counted for as much as substance. If ever a city embodied the ethos of “freedom” it was Barcelona–from its Catalan core to its immense pride in being one of the great, distinct cities of the world. Even the language, which Franco worked to repress during his tenure, had survived here. This was a modern, cosmopolitan city, where culture would not give way to conformity, and the arts could thrive here, breathe here.  Growing up in Barcelona influenced the jeweler very much.

She could remember the first time her mother took her to a jewelry store. Her family was not wealthy, but her mother dressed up for the occasion. She had her hair done earlier in the day, and she wore a new outfit. Although she was a relatively young girl at the time, the jeweler vividly remembered her mother’s excitement that morning as they walked out the door of their small flat.

The jeweler could recall that her mother had also picked out a dress for her to wear as well. They stopped for breakfast at a small cafe, and her mother reminded her to try not to spill on her new dress. She had never seen her mother so preoccupied with their outward appearance, but this didn’t make the girl nervous.  She was very comfortable with acting refined and proper.  It was all very sophisticated, and this appealed to her. It appealed to her very much. It was entirely different than the manner in which they led the rest of their lives, and it was almost as if they were setting out on a great adventure, away from the mundane quality of their daily lives, just the two of them, mother and daughter, inhabiting personas that didn’t really belong to them but were on loan for the day.

Her mother took them to a jewelry store in the center of town, not far from Cataluña Square, where many of the expensive shops were located in Barcelona. When they arrived at the store, they took a moment to admire the storefront before entering.  This was important to her mother. She wanted her daughter to stand there for a moment and just stare. And so they stood in the most dignified fashion, dreaming, as they stared at the floor-to-ceiling elegant, glass window frames and transparent cases with just the right amount of jewelry on display. This was very important, her mother told her, to have just the right amount of jewelry on display. If there was too much on display, the store was considered gaudy and cheap. If there was too little, it was likely stuffy and limited. “Jewelry stores want to have just enough to entice you to enter,” she said “while concealing just enough to ensure you stay.” This window had just the right amount. Her mother liked the window very much, and she was very excited for them to go inside. Her mother then walked to the heavy glass door and pulled it open so that her daughter could walk through.

As soon as she walked through the doors, she immediately felt the warm light, which was different from the natural light she felt on the street. Inside, the place was aglow, with lights filling the room for the sole purpose of displaying the jewels that filled the glass cases–diamond necklaces, rings, earrings, bracelets,brooches, decorative pins, and elegant watches, crafted in platinum and gold, bejeweled and decadent. It was magnificent, the daughter thought, something of a fantasy land cut from every fairy tale ever conceived. It affected her deeply and spoke to her, the utter beauty of it all, tucked inside, warm and safe while the cars and people rushed by on the busy street outside the window. There was something just so refined and pristine, like being in a museum, only the artists were craftsman. It was truly stunning, and she never forgot the feeling she had that first moment she entered the store.

After they had spent a few minutes looking interestingly in the glass cases filled with jewelry, a woman approached her mother and inquired politely, “Señora, would you like to see a piece of jewelry?” The young girl watched her mother very carefully, the way she had garnered the salesperson’s attention, and the manner she responded which was interested but not overeager.

“Perhaps in a bit” said my mother. “Thank you for offering. I may want to look at a piece or two.”

The salesperson appreciated the mother’s response. It had been respectful and grateful and showed enough serious interest for the salesperson to remain observant but not pushy.

“What do you think of this place?” the mother whispered softly to the daughter. “Do you like it?”

“I love it, mother” replied the daughter. “It is beautiful.”

“Yes, it is” replied the mother. “It is beautiful. It is a beautiful store, with many beautiful things. Beautiful is a perfect way to describe it. I agree.”

The young girl seemed very happy with this response, and they looked around the store, gazing into each case, for quite some time. The mother asked the daughter which pieces of jewelry she liked most, and she pointed to a yellow gold bracelet that was thin and rectangular and shined brightly with small diamonds crafted all around the outside.

“That is a good choice” said the mother. “You have very good taste.”

Upon learning this from her daughter, the mother turned to the jeweler and said, “Can you please show me one of the bracelets?”

The jeweler moved swiftly but calmly towards to two of them. She opened the glass case below and reached in to get the bracelet for the mother to see. As she brought the bracelet out from underneath the glass, the girl noticed the jeweler’s hands were absolutely flawless, like a porcelain model. She had never seen hands like this before. They looked smooth and soft and without a single mark, almost as if they had gloves around them. The jeweler took the bracelet and laid it across the bones of the mother’s wrist in the most delicate, elegant fashion. It was an act so simple and yet it appeared so royal. The mother looked down at her wrist wistfully while her daughter nodded approvingly. It was a very beautiful bracelet, and it looked even better on the mother’s hand with her fine clothes and new haircut.

“How do you like it?” asked the woman with the impeccable hands.

“I like it” said the mother. “I like it very much. It is an exceptional bracelet. But I am not sure if I am going to purchase it today or not.”

“Either way, you should try it with the matching ring, earrings, and necklace” said the woman at the store.  “Here, let me just show you the three pieces all together.”

The woman brought out the other pieces of jewelry.  Each piece was very expensive and, truth be told, the mother had no intention of purchasing them much as she would have enjoyed doing so. But she knew how to work the room, and she knew that she had the jeweler’s attention. The scene was all very well crafted with her daughter looking on intently.

“I am just not sure” said the mother.

“It’s no problem at all” said the woman at the store. “Let me show you.”

With that, she assembled the expensive pieces of jewelry in perfect order. She lined them up with her perfect hands and her impeccable manners and she adorned the girl’s mother in diamonds and gold. She closed the clasp of the necklace around the mother’s neck as if she was royalty, and the mother looked absolutely ready to walk the red carpet draped in the extravagant jewels. She was stunning, absolutely stunning. There was no other word for it. She really was exceptional, and on that day, her daughter saw her mother differently.

The daughter saw her mother as she had never seen her before.  She watched her face light up, the years roll away, and a thousand dreams (that she must have had at one time) return in an instant. She saw an elegant debutant, ready for the ball, who would turn every head that passed by, and she was inspired by the transformation of body and spirit that the jewelry could perpetuate. She even saw her giggle, the way a schoolgirl might.  The daughter had never seen her mother giggle before, and she had only witnessed a grown woman giggling in the movies, when a leading lady knew she had the upper hand and was holding all the cards.

It was at that moment that the girl knew definitively what she wanted to do when she was older. One day she too would be a jeweler. She would go to work each day surrounded by diamonds and gold and platinum. She would dress proper and professional and she would have perfect, porcelain hands that lifted the jewelry and fastened it with the utmost care. Although she had decided at that very moment that she wanted to be a jeweler, the young girl did not tell her mother at this time. She just looked on, in awe, while her mother shined brighter than she had ever seen in all her years.

When they returned home that night, the mother asked her daughter if she enjoyed their day together. “I enjoyed it very much mama” she said. “You looked like a movie star, and I liked seeing you in all of the jewelry”

“I am no movie star,” said her mother. “But I am so glad you enjoyed it.  I had fun too.”

Although the vision of her mother had been incredibly striking, the young girl couldn’t stop thinking about the jeweler and, most noticeably, the jeweller’s hands.  She had never seen hands like that before, and she wondered how they came to be that way.  Was she born with perfect hands? How did she care for them? It was clear by the shape of her fingers that she had never broken any bones, but the skin seemed even more remarkable.  How was it so impossibly smooth and clean and soft?  What did the jeweller do to take care of her hands?  They were clearly important to her, and there was no question she went to great lengths to maintain them in such a pristine manner.

All these years later, the experience the girl had with her mother continued to resonate.  The impact of that day at the jewelry store was lasting, and she thought about her mother each day when she went to work.  She thought about her when she watched a woman walk through the doors of her store and particularly when that young woman was accompanied by her daughter.  Was the woman actually a potential customer or was she merely out for a day with her daughter, a day to feel like a queen, to be pampered and doted on?

Although this question crossed the jeweler’s mind, she treated each customer the same–by showing them the most exceptional care.  They all received the royal treatment.  They all deserved the royal treatment, and it was her hope that when they walked out of her store, they felt like they had obtained an experience different from any other they had ever received in a jewelry store.  She went to great lengths to make sure she was attentive but never obtrusive.  She knew the specific details of every piece–carat, weight, clarity, etc., and she was even well versed in the origin of the materials.  There wasn’t anything she didn’t know about her jewelry, and she prided herself in being an expert regarding every aspect of the items she sold.

When she thought of that day with her mother, she could easily recall just how beautiful her mother looked wearing the jewelry.  She had hoped that one day her mother would, in fact, be able to own a piece of jewelry like the ones she tried on in the store.  Their family didn’t have that kind of money, and she was sure her mother never gave it more than a brief, passing thought. But she had thought of it a great deal.  She had thought of the way her mother looked at herself in the mirror, and she wished her mother could feel that way, really feel that way, beyond simply a moment playing a charade in an elegant jewelry store.

It wasn’t so much the pieces of jewelry that stood out in her mind so much as the way they had made her mother feel, the attitude inside her which the jewelry had brought out.  It could be seen in the way she stood up straight, arched her back, and peered out from behind her eyes with a coolness she had never witnessed before in her mother.  These aspects weren’t just a charade, but a part of her mother’s being that had been suppressed for all these years.  A part that had been subdued in the unflinching face of reality. Quelled in the long shadow of what was possible.  But they were there, dormant, deep down on the inside, and it made the jeweler sad to think of the lengths her mother must have had to go to in order to conceal them.

It was Tuesday morning in early November.  The holiday season had yet to arrive, and the city was quiet.  The summer and fall tourism had dissipated, and people were back to doing their daily jobs, going about their daily lives, and enjoying the slightly dulled senses that come with those brief periods in our lives that feel impossibly normal.  The weather was beginning to turn, and the skies were now gray.  It was a moment in time when the entire city just felt exhausted and in need of catching its collective breath.  Even those Catalans who so desperately pined for their independence had called a temporary ceasefire.  The city was quiet, at least as quiet as Barcelona ever got, and the jeweler didn’t have many customers enter the store.

However, she was a perfectionist, a real perfectionist, and she had been this way ever since she had gone to the jewelry store with her mother. Her job, after all, demanded it, and there was no margin for error.  There wasn’t even a little room to be “less than” or “sufficient” and everything about being a jeweler centered around being prepared, every day, at all times, to offer someone an experience they would never forget.  She took this responsibility seriously, and there wasn’t anything else that meant more to her.

Since the store was so quiet on this day, she put gloves on her perfect hands and took out the glass cleaner.  Although the cases looked immaculate to the naked eye, there was always room for improvement, and she carefully ensured that every partial fingerprint or smudge was removed.  Once this task was complete, she moved to the pieces of jewelry in the store and began polishing them, one piece at a time, carefully, while people walked past her door and the sky remained gray outside the large, glass windows of the store.  She performed this entire process with her reading glasses sitting atop her nose.  Ever since she had turned forty-five, she needed reading glasses.  It had become difficult to read words up close. They weren’t as clear as they once were, and polishing her jewelry was much like reading a book.  Every detail was important, and she couldn’t afford to strain her eyes, much less miss something of monumental importance.

Once she finished polishing the jewelry, she reached up with her right hand and removed her glasses from her face.  She placed them inside a cloth case and tucked them back into her purse.  Then she pulled the gloves off her hands, revealing her long fingers and her porcelain skin, now wet with sweat from having been inside the gloves, working. She wiped her hands gently, locked the store temporarily, and then disappeared into the back to wash her hands thoroughly, put lotion on, and care for them as she always did.  This was her routine, particularly when the store was not busy, and she liked to stick to her routine.  It made her feel good to stick to her routine, and the store looked spectacular, with the jewelry gleaming inside the glass cases.

The jeweler’s store would only be open until lunch today, which was 2 o’clock in Spain. People ate lunch later in the day in Spain, and the jeweler decided she would not open the store in the evening. Besides, she had plans for lunch.

Just before she was set to close the store, her mother walked in with another woman.  She was an old woman now, and she now walked unsteadily but still with more than a hint of dignity.

“This is a beautiful store” remarked her mother, looking around at the glistening jewels.

“You are very kind to say that” remarked the daughter.

“Would you mind if I try on that bracelet?” asked her mother, pointing to one inside a case.

“It hasn’t been one of her good days” said woman, who was her mother’s caregiver, with her mother not seeming to notice. “You know how it is.”

“Of course,” said the jeweler as she reached into the case for the bracelet. “It’s fine. I understand.”

“Here you go, Señora” said the daughter, as she fastened the bracelet around her mother’s wrist. “It looks absolutely lovely.”

Her mother didn’t say anything for a few minutes. She looked at her face in the small mirror on the counter almost in search of herself. She had to be in there somewhere.  She then dropped her head and gazed down at the bracelet stretched out elegantly across her wrist. Her mother smiled.  Eventually, the caregiver reminded her mother that they were going to lunch with her daughter today and that they could come back to the store another time if she wanted.

The mother then placed her wrist on the counter, while her daughter delicately opened the clasp and removed the bracelet.

“You have such beautiful hands” her mother remarked. “They are smooth and soft and look like porcelain.”

Her daughter blushed a little and then offered. “That is very nice of you to say.”

“Well…it is absolutely true” stated her mother. “They are the most beautiful hands I have ever seen.”

 

 

David Joseph (SPAIN)

David Joseph’s writing has been published in The London Magazine, Wall Street Journal, and Rattle. A recipient of the John Henry Hobart Fellowship for Ethics and Social Justice, he spent two decades as a nonprofit executive. He lives in Spain with his wife Karen and sons Jackson and Cassius.

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