Crap jewellery eats your soul
'Childhood is Last Chance Gulch for happiness," wrote Tom Stoppard. "After that, you know too much."
Pandora jewellery is further down the ravine. That explains its success and why it is so repugnant. We spend so much time trying to know less, are so enamored by youth, that we would rather be dumb than old. We would rather spend $1000 on a lumpy children's bracelet than age into real jewellery.
I was talking to Karin Adcock, Pandora's Australian managing director, when this registered. I realised, standing in the middle of my youth, that what I have now will be repackaged and sold back to me for the rest of my life. I will have the same wants and insecurities; I will just pay more for them. This is a good as it gets.
We have been tricked by Pandora charm bracelets - thousands of us, queued up, buying beads for girls, wives, friends who claim the need to record relationships on their wrists. We have been tricked over and over, as many as 20 times to fill a bracelet with beads.
It is ugly, bulbous stuff, Pandora. Glorified tat on the wrists of Mosman matrons. Children's jewellery passed up as teething rings for the middle aged.
The number of bracelets in Australia is incalculable. They arrived here in 2004 and inside three years had made this country its third-largest market. Sales doubled in the past two quarters and hundreds of thousands of bracelets now cling to the aged arms of the middle class.
Pandora plays a clever game. Women need to see the jewellery on girls to convince them of their youth. But young girls cannot afford jewellery like older women. Pandora brought out grades of bracelets to correct the problem: gold for $2000; silver for $80; a few combinations between; a class system, instantly read, like the slave manillas of West Africa.
In his book, The Conquest Of Cool, Thomas Frank traces this selling of youth to an era of ad men with sideburns and wide ties; to 1966, to a nude woman in body paint advertising the 46th Annual New York Art Directors Show. "Creativity," wrote Frank, "had merged with counterculture."
In that moment, advertising turned youth from a demographic to a product. It would no longer sell to youth; it would sell youth itself.
We have always idealised youth. But at some point in the last century we started using youth to dumb down consumers, to make people want what they couldn't have, to have them spend until they felt close.
In making us crave youth, advertising made us think like youth: bright colours and simple shapes; the broken pathways of the baby brain, the cells all there but the synapses not developed.
Frank, again: "Madison Avenue was more interested in speaking like the rebel young than in speaking to them."
And, so, Pandora. The brand claims its target market is the late-20s. That is where the advertising is directed. That is the age to which women are aspiring. In truth, many are much older.
"It is a product that appeals to all ages," Adcock says. "We often see three generations standing in front of a Pandora window, looking at the product."
There, lined up at the window, are three generations all being told to think the same way - 60 years between them but no development to separate them, all wanting the same thing.
And it doesn't stop with jewellery. Take the Iowa primaries, where pundits seized on the young voters behind Barack Obama. Time used the word "youthquake" - without shame or irony. "Only the students," it said last February, "have kept Obama in contention."
Iowa youth votes were up 135 per cent. But even with 17,000 new voters in Camp Obama, the net gain was shy of what the then Democrat contender needed to win. That "youthquake" had to shake older voters into action before it could have any effect.
And shake them it did. People were used to watching youth for direction, to privileging youth over wisdom, to being dumb instead of being old. People were so used to buying youth, they figured they might as well elect it.
But youthfulness does not make good policy. Youth is not sensible. The whole youth frenzy is as reductive in the White House as it is in the jewellery store.
There is resistance, as youth undermines sense. For all his campaign foolishness, John McCain was at least old. And jewellers were initially hostile to the idea of stocking Pandora. The company struggled for outlets. People would not spend half an hour selling a $30 bead.
Then the market took over: McCain lost; so did the jewellers; so did age; so did good taste.