Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Quality, Time.

One of the perks of having a lot of time on your hands is getting to do fun and irreverent things like watching American Idol, hang out in coffee shops and go to farmer's markets. When time is all you've got, you pay more attention to things and notice details on the most mundane objects--like tomatoes.

The most interesting thing I've come across at a farmer's market is a tomato called an 'heirloom tomato.' It was much bigger than any tomato I've seen, plumper and firmer and had ridges like a pumpkin. They were more expensive too. I did not buy any, but did some Googling and found out that they are called 'heirloom' because they come from seeds that have been saved and collected for 50 or more years. Their varieties have been passed down through several generations of families because of it's valued characteristics. Each is genetically unique and inherent in this uniqueness is an evolved resistance to pests and diseases and an adaptation to specific growing conditions and climates.

Project Runway
What's remarkable about the contestants on Project Runway is not really their creations but the sheer speed at which they churn them out. At lightning speed they must transform a concept and a given set of materials into hopefully something spectacular. Even host and longtime fashion designer Michael Kors said on TV yesterday that that alone, puts these contestants in a different league, a statement that makes a lot of sense because usually, 'designer' items of quality are such, primarily because of the considerable time and thought given to to their creation. There was a time when artists from all periods and genres; the Michaelangelos, the Mozarts, the Armanis and the Streisands, had to literally work their way to the top. It took years before people finally stood up and took notice. With the dawn of reality shows in the realm of fashion design, cooking and singing, somebody with enough talent and the luck to land on the right platform can get a speed pass to fame and fortune. As Simon Cowell said to a contestant last night,  "This is a shortcut to success."

Here's somebody who was not willing to take a shortcut. James Cameron started development on this film Avatar in 1994 but it was only released in 2009! The acclaimed, record-breaking film which became the highest-grossing movie of all time in North America took 15 years to complete. The reason? Cameron had a before-its-time, pioneering concept and vision for the film which he was not willing to compromise. The necessary technology was not yet available so he did something that is not virtually unheard of especially in an industry such as his--wait. Well, his waiting paid off and the rest his history. The stereoscopic film making was touted as a breakthrough in cinematic technology.

The Italian Rennaisance
This proves a fact that sometimes the things that take a long time to create and finish are special. If they are of great quality and craftsmanship and stand the test of time, all the better. It's probably a time we shall never see again, but I just marvel at that time when everybody and the world did not think that eight or so years was too long to finish a cathedral, or a painting. Of course a lot of this is due to the fact that they did not have the technology that we have today, but it is also because in those days, they were not nearly as obsessed with the final product nor concerned with the bottom line, as we now are. Sources say that Leonardo da Vinci began painting the Mona Lisa in 1503, and after that, according to painter and biographer Giorgio Vasari, 'lingered over it for four years, and left it unfinished.' He was thought to have finished it shortly before he died in 1519.

We do not typically expect anything bought from a mass-market retailer to be something of an heirloom to be handed down through generations. Most inexpensive items manufactured today are produced in bulk so most of their cost can be attributed to the production, taxes, retail expenses and import costs. In this day and age of fast fashion, a lot of things are not made to last but just to satisfy a craving for something novel. They are churned out in factories at a rate of hundreds per minute, mostly without great attention to detail or quality. The overall goal is not craftsmanship, but rather the speed at which the merchandise can become available at the stores. On a totally unrelated yet relavant note, in the animal kingdom, elephants, which boast of having the longest gestation period of up to 760 days, also have the longest lifespan. Go figure!

Paul McCartney on American Idol
Why are antiques so expensive? Why do people pay for something so old when they can have something sparkling and new? How can a show like American Idol choose to pay homage to John Lennon and Paul McCartney? The answer is based on age, materials and rarity. Antiques are more likely to be made of high quality material. It must first be 100 years old to qualify as an antique, and Paul McCartney who is still on tour as of this writing, is living proof that longevity is a good indication of quality and worth.

Still we should not fall into the trap of equating quality with cost. A lot of things around today that are expensive are expensive because of marketing, or the hype created around this product. Some examples of these are bottled water, Starbucks coffee, and some say, diamonds. The true value of a product lies in the quality and authenticity of materials used, the concept and planning that went behind its creation, and the skill and craftsmanship with which it was made. Not to say that quality is all that we pay for. When a coffee costs $3 a cup, we say that we are paying for the experience (or in my case the privilege to read the books, magazines and the free Wifi. Go figure.

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