Nothing reveals the utter ephemeral futility of economic endeavours than the tulip mania that provoked passion, fortunes, and ultimately ruin in the Netherlands during the 1630s. Reckoned by some historians to be the first example of a financial boom and bust, the dour Calvinist denizens of the Low Countries were gripped by the trade of tulip bulbs, with some modestly sized bulbs being worth the price of a large house and many times the annual salaries of tradesmen. This enthralling -and sobering- story is related with a great deal of sympathy by Mike Dash in Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower and the Extraordinary Passions it Aroused. The most prized variety of all was the Semper Augustus, so named because it was a fetching shade of crimson, the imperial colour. Mottled flowers were the most valuable during the tulip boom, and this one was the rarest and most sought after. In a very fitting twist, botanists later discovered that the mottled flowers were actually the result of a virus strain affecting the bulbs. This is a delicious metaphor for what made and broke people was, in fact, a freak of nature, an abnormality, an aberration.
The term bubble began to be applied to such episodes of economic boom and bust following the collapse of the South Sea Company in 1720, a business whose stock rose tenfold during the year of the collapse, then suddenly crashed ruining many of the great and good of British society. A law was enacted that was called the Bubble Act, the idea that artificial inflation would rise to the point where it would burst, leaving behind embers and fragments. Satirists such as Hogarth (in the coloured engraving below) had a field day mocking the greed of those who had invested for a quick profit but found themselves penniless after the insider trading and fraudulent practices resulted, inevitably, in a quick deflation. As subsequent history has shown, we have learnt little from tulip crazes or get-rich-quick schemes.
While bubbles now possess negative connotations as a result of the South Sea Bubble, and we can see this in phrases such as bursting your bubble, it has nonetheless retained some of its positive allure. Someone might have a bubbly personality. We crack open a bottle of bubbly to celebrate an occasion (or simply to imbibe . . .), and then there is the inimitable sound of a bubbling brook. I am convinced that part of the negative appropriation of the word bubble is related to its sound. Many unpleasant terms begin with the letter B: break, bastard (and a host of other swear words), bitter, burden, and the list goes on. There is something about this B consonance that immediately triggers a cerebral negative-thought reaction. I prefer to view bubble as an effervescent, lively word, denoting life, energy, and fun. I associate it with that moment at which, when making porridge, that the oats start to have noisy and attention-seeking bubbles appearing on their surface, indicating that it is not far from being ready.
Today’s cufflinks definitely evoke bubbles and they are a large pair of 2.2 x 2 cm with a slightly curved rectangular shape. I find these quirky dimensions very pleasing. They are made out of sterling silver with some wonderful oxidization that adds much to this item of jewellery. The maker’s mark is GS, a Danish silversmith called Kaj V. G. A. Sællstrøm who worked out of Copenhagen from 1952 to 1988, and these cufflinks have the distinct flavour of the 1970s about them. Some things might come and go, but the beauty of silver is one constant I am grateful for.