Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Two umbrellamakers: James Smith & Sons and Mario Talarico

Last month I was in NYC and London, which afforded me the opportunity to compare the English and Italian approaches to the handmade umbrella.

Let's do Italy first. Mario Talarico umbrellas appear to have very limited retail distribution outside of Italy. As this StyleForum thread on Talarico umbrellas describes, they can certainly be bought in the original workroom/store in Naples. However, I have discovered a US source for these refined umbrellas. By refined I mean the construction of the shaft, the character of the wood and finish, and selection of canopy fabrics (woven silk). As far as I know the only US source is Worth & Worth (aka Bellucci & Palacios) on 57th St in NYC.

According to Nedo Bellucci at Worth & Worth, the umbrellas have a lifetime warranty and feature a double steel frame. Further, he said that Talarico is one of only two or three handmade umbrellamakers left in the world. The other, he said, is in London, which I believe refers to Smith & Sons. When I visited, Worth & Worth had about ten compact or folding umbrellas in various patterned silks ($180) and five or so full-length umbrellas including a whangee ($315). At the moment, these appear to be cheaper in the US than in Italy.

After my NYC trip, I went to London and stayed in Soho. My hotel was within walking distance of Smith & Sons (see this London Lounge thread). The weather cooperated very nicely for an umbrella purchase - it was grey and rainy most of my time there. I visited James Smith on a Sunday and the store happened to be open because Ian, one of the craftsman working down in the basement, had opened the doors for a work break.

The store (link to photos) is organized such that the racks of umbrellas and walking sticks go up in price/quality as you walk along the right half of the store after entering. The third photo in the link above shows the priciest racks of umbrellas. Ian showed me a gorgeous looking, one piece walking stick umbrella in Irish blackthorn that he had made (185 GBP). Blackthorn is a dense wood with very little give. This particular model had a marvelously rich and dark burnish on the knob. The only problem was that it was a bit long (26 inch length) for me, which meant the tip would be a bit short of the recommended four inches. So in the end I went with a hazel root knob version, which is a little bit lighter and less dense wood but the right length for me (see below).

IMG_0456

I think the differences between the two umbrellamakers could be described in antinomies like rustic v. refined or simple (black) v. richer canopy colors. To me, the one-piece English brolly, as executed by Smith & Sons, conveys solidity and simplicity. The Talarico umbrella is an exercise in refinement, adding color and perhaps a touch of sleekness to the frame.

Incidentally, I opted to bring my Smith umbrella with me and chance the vicissitudes of checking in the umbrella. The alternative was shipping the item, which would have added 50 GBP for California destinations. One of the fellows in the store carefully boxed and packed the brolly in a long reinforced box. Upon arrival, I picked up the box undamaged at the baggage carousel (to my natural relief!).

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