LONDON--Thirty years ago, while Erika Lee was an undergraduate student, she made her first visit to her paternal grandfather’s village in Guangdong Province in southeastern China. Her grandfather — who had not been back for six decades — and other relatives organized the trip and took her along to see where his home once stood.

“To be able to stand on this plot of land and think — how many generations forward — where everyone has gone and what they have been able to do, that is gratifying,” said Dr. Lee, now a professor of Asian American studies at the University of Minnesota and the director of its Immigration History Research Center. “It was a life-changing trip for me and set me on this path to becoming a historian.”

So this past summer, when she had a chance to do some research in China, she took her two teenage sons. She planned the trip with My China Roots, a bespoke ancestry research company based in Beijing that works with Chinese diaspora clients. It helped her with language issues (she does not speak Mandarin or Cantonese) and traced her family’s ancestry back to the end of the Song dynasty, in the late 1200s.

“As a mother myself, I wanted to bring my sons to the village and allow them to experience what that was like,” she said, adding that her sons now often discuss the family’s immigrant experiences. “A few years before, we had gone to Ireland, where my husband’s ancestors were from, and we stood on the site of his great-great-grandmother’s house. So we, as a family, are interested in doing that for all ancestral roots.”

For Dr. Lee, her sons and many others, a bespoke trip to an ancestral home is the kind of gift that will never be forgotten. And such journeys have become increasingly popular in recent years, thanks in large part to television programs like “Who Do You Think You Are?” from the BBC, whose American version returned to NBC this year; genealogy websites like Ancestry.com; and genetic testing services like 23andMe, which offers DNA kits that were big sellers last year on Black Friday in the United States.

As a result, more companies — including My China Roots; the British company Ancestral Footsteps; and Ancestral Attic, which is headquartered in Michigan and Poland — are focusing on bespoke ancestry travel. They can turn what might have been a general sightseeing trip to an ancestral homeland into one that includes a visit to the church where your great-grandfather worshiped or the factory where your grandmother was a seamstress. You might even be able to meet some previously unknown relatives.

“It makes sense people may look to use a specialist company, as the barriers to getting anything tangible out of a trip like this can be formidable,” Tony Hall, Lonely Planet’s vice president of experience, wrote in an email. “I have struggled through basic mistakes while exploring areas of London my ancestors come from; I can’t imagine the complexity of doing the same in India or China.”

TCS World Travel, the Seattle-based company that for decades has offered private jet expeditions around the globe, is one of the latest businesses to jump on the bandwagon.
For several years the company arranged customized ancestral trips, like a private visit to a castle in Germany once owned by a client’s relatives. But “a lot of our clients come to us over and over again, and we were getting requests,” said Elisabeth Nelson, the managing director for TCS’s luxury custom travel. “So we started looking at ways to expand this opportunity.”

This year the company officially partnered with Heritage Consulting, a genealogy company in Salt Lake City, to offer high-end personalized trips for customers wanting a deep dive into their family roots. After clients pay an initial $5,000 fee to TCS to get the genealogy research started — with experts looking at everything from birth and marriage certificates to military and naturalization records — it generally takes six months to a year to organize excursions, which can include a professional photographer to document the experience.

The cost of such trips can vary widely, depending on the type of travel, accommodation and services required, but TCS estimated that the average range for its kind of high-end travel was $1,500 to $2,000 per person per day.

“The holidays always bring more interest in people wanting to provide their spouse or their uncle or their mother a gift that no one else can give them,” said Stan Lindaas, the owner of Heritage Consulting. “None of your neighbors will ever have this same gift, everyone is unique. It is custom made for the individual, and there is a great power in that.”

Some companies, like TCS and Ancestral Footsteps, will organize trips anywhere in the world. Sue Hills, the founder of Ancestral Footsteps, said that most of her company’s trips are given as gifts. Separate from the cost of any travel, for 5,000 pounds ($6,445) it can produce a coffee-table book highlighting stories, documents and photographs of specific ancestors along with the social and historical context, said Ms. Hills, who is also a producer of the BBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?”

Other businesses, however, focus on particular regions. My China Roots needs just the ancestor’s name in Chinese characters and where the family originated. “With these two specific bits of information, we can start a search,” said Chrislyn Choo, the company’s multimedia content officer.

It also is gathering Chinese records and clan books (called zupu), which contain extensive family trees, maps, photographs and biographies that can date back thousands of years, to build an accessible database online.

Ancestral Attic, which creates 30 to 40 trips a year across central and Eastern Europe, said it could be difficult to find documents in state and church archives to trace family lines because of the many border changes in Europe over the centuries.

William Henrichs Cannon of Chicago, a retired computer executive, has arranged several trips with Ancestral Attic and said its extensive knowledge of the region was integral to their success.

“We would go to villages in what is now northwestern Poland, and old ladies who knew where the remains of the German cemeteries were would volunteer to take us there,” he said, adding that the women would sometimes even get down on their hands and knees to clean moss off the headstones.

“In the ancestral village of my great-great-grandmother,” he said, “we were led to a half circle of soldiers killed in World War I, and we found several graves” of ancestors.

Overall, Mr. Cannon said, the service had played a “marvelous role” in helping him discover so much of his family’s history.

 


Photographs: 1) Erika Lee, fourth from left, with her family and a village elder, second from right, during her tour with My China Roots. (Courtesy, Erika Lee); 2) Grabbing a selfie with a bagpiper in Scotland during a tour with TCS World Travel. (TCS World Travel)

A version of this article appears in print on Nov. 28, 2019, Section S, Page 8 in The New York Times International Edition

KAREN, KENYA — In this suburb of Nairobi, the ubiquitous rust-red dirt is kicked up and splattered onto the banana tree leaves by the intense rains that sweep across the hills.

Here, away from the capital, there is space for designers to set up workshops and, green and lush, it offers inspiration for artisans. “When you work at your desk, you see in the garden birds and flowers,” said Gus Chaumont, a Frenchwoman who with her mother, Lilo, run the French-Kenyan interiors brand L’Équipée.“You just cannot get that in a normal office in Nairobi.”

 

Karen is green and inviting and offers space for shops and artisans, away from the bustle of downtown Nairobi.
Credit…Nichole Sobecki for The New York Times

Karen, said to have been named for the Danish writer Karen Blixen, who published works like “Out of Africa” under the pen name Isak Dinesen, has become a home to both expats and wealthy Kenyans, with stately villas and a few five-star hotels for travelers who want to be luxuriously situated close to the airports for safari excursions or beach holidays. It is also home to some of the city’s most intriguing and exclusive places to shop, for items like statement silver jewelry, hand-carved chairs and locally dyed and sewn fashion

“Karen is an incredibly inventive place,” said Sasha Horner, the director of House of Treasures. “The shopping aesthetic here is creative and of excellent quality. Most of the artisans are renowned for their attention to detail and the use of local labor in collaboration with imported goods to create their pieces, and a lot are eco-conscious too.”

Ms. Horner and her mother, Janet Hurt, decided to open a shop here 19 years ago. Located in a charming garden at 70 Dagoretti Road, the shop, House of Treasures, is both a concept store — they highlight local design and find items for their shop in places like Bali, India, Mexico and South Africa — and something of a mini-mall, where local vendors rent spaces to sell their designs.

 

One of those vendors is Linda Camm, whose workshop is a stone’s throw from here. She has worked for over three decades with Maasai artisans who create stunning beadwork on leather pillows, ottomans and belts.

Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, wore one of her shell belts on a tour of Canada in 2011. In the last few years Ms. Camm has focused much of her own design on mosaic mirrors and painted mirror tiles.

“Our dyeing and coloring is done locally, all the hardware I source here, aside from zippers, and I work with independent workshops that work with recycled brass,” she said, adding though that because the textile industry in Kenya is so small, she gets much of her cloth from India.

Bush Princess shares its space with L’Équipée, which sells hand-carved chairs with kanga prints and funky sculpted lights in the shape of animals like hippos and giraffes. L’Équipée also does some design work for Kazuri Beads (Mbagathi Road), a nearby shop that employs over 300 women who craft vibrant midsize jewelry.

Across town is the cheery bright boutique and workshop of the designer Anna Trzebinski (94 Tumbili Road), one of the trailblazers here in integrating Maasai beadwork into high fashion products like handbags, suede jackets and Nepalese-woven pashminas. Over the years she has worked with high-end fashion brands like Donna Karan and Paul Smith, and sells her accessories in stores across the United States.

Ms. Trzebinski’s exquisite tiny details set her work apart, with soft- as-a-baby suede bags that include design details like cowrie shells on the handles, or draping shawls trimmed with vibrant peacock feathers sewn onto the ends. “I have been working with the same people for the last 20 years, we are all together still and it’s a bit like a Parisian couture house,” said Ms. Trzebinski, whose daughter, Lana, is also a Karen-based designer and ceramist. “We often have the opportunity and choice to use raw materials that are much cheaper, but we don’t want to because in every single facet of what we do we want to uphold traditional craft.”
The studio also displays jewelry by Ms. Trzebinski’s daughter, Lana.
Credit…Photographs by Nichole Sobecki for The New York Times

Elizabeth Warner, who was born in America and raised in Kenya, infuses a similar vibe into her brand Maasai Collections, which has a small outpost at nearby Langata Link (Langata Road South). Founded in 2002, Maasai Collections sells both the creations of Ms. Warner, who designs jewelry made out of cow horn as well as woven beach bags with beaded straps, but other Kenyan pieces including Kapoeta by Ambica’s feather jewelry and flowing embroidered blouses by Aman Lamu.

Local designers and artisans rent spaces at Langata Link and sell everything from sweet children’s dressing gowns in pastel striped kikoi cloth to velvety skin care products made from macadamia nuts. “It’s pretty cool because you have a mishmash of designers here,” said Ms. Warner.

She was enthusiastic about the high-end crafts and antiques shop Utamaduni, nearby on Langata South Road, which sells hand-carved masks, figurines and statues from across sub-Saharan Africa, as well as items like Ghanaian leather and straw baskets covered in cowrie shells and elaborate antique wooden headrests adorned with silver from Somalia. “They have an enormous collection of things going on at Langata Link. It’s like an African bazaar with eclectic designers all doing their thing.”


A version of this article appears in print on , Section S,

PLAILLY, France — Dressed in a white lab coat with blue piping and sporting a trimmed goatee, Nicolas Guignaud stood in front of an industrial gas hob. He took a plastic bottle of green liquid, squirted some of its contents into an aluminum pot of boiling water and began stirring the concoction with a hard white plastic spatula.

Taking a thick teardrop-shaped piece of clear resin about three inches long, Mr. Guignaud — a tinting technician with Maison Desrues, which manufactures high-end buttons, jewelry and accessories — dropped it carefully into the pot. After a few minutes of constant stirring, he used a colander to retrieve the resin, now a dull green. He dipped it in room-temperature water, put it back in the boiling liquid, added some yellow tint and repeated the same procedure all over again before pulling out the now deep-emerald piece of resin and setting it on a side table to dry.

“The more colors I put in, the more intense the color comes out,” said Mr. Guignaud, who joined Desrues nine years ago after three years of technical tinting training. “I just feel how much I need to add for the color I want. It is intuitive, not scientific.”

That strong sense of intuitiveness and know-how is something that Desrues has built its reputation on since 1929, when Georges Desrues took over a jewelry and accessories company in Paris. In 1984, Desrues became the first of Chanel’s “satellite” ateliers, as Karl Lagerfeld describes them — the more than two dozen businesses that specialize in various métiers d’art, everything from lacemaking to jewelry design, and belong to the fashion giant’s Paraffection subsidiary.

Desrues, with its more than 230 employees, researches and helps design all the buttons for Chanel clothing, although it outsources some of the production for capacity reasons. It also is an integral part of Chanel’s annual métiers d’art show, which this year was scheduled for Dec. 4 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The great majority of Desrues’ output — it says 95 percent to 99 percent — is for Chanel but it also has a small division focused on market development and recently has done work for brands like Marc Jacobs. “We try to work for other houses,” Amandine Pâris, Desrues’ archivist, said, “to bring in something different, to stay innovative.”

Fashion houses like Vionnet, Lanvin, Dior and Balenciaga all came to Desrues over the years, not only because of its quality work but also the company’s ability to produce pieces quickly.

Nicolas Guignaud, a tinting technician for Desrues, demonstrating the process for tinting a resin cast.CreditMaxime La for The New York Times

 

Legend has it that the couturier Pierre Balmain came to Mr. Desrues the night before a collection premiere (the date is unknown), asking for buttons shaped like chocolates.

Mr. Desrues then “rushed out and found a chocolate shop that was nearby but it was about to close, with the register switched off, but the woman gave him the chocolates anyway,” Ms. Pâris said. “He worked all night to replicate the chocolates, delivered them on time to Pierre Balmain and we still have the drawings.”

It was in the 1960s that Chanel began working closely with Desrues on the buttons for its iconic bouclé jackets. By the early 1990s, after it had become a satellite of the fashion house, Desrues found it had outgrown its Paris atelier and moved to a nondescript industrial park in Plailly, about an hour’s drive from the French capital. Much innovation and development has been going on in button making since then.

For each collection, the process begins when Desrues’s collection director, Sylvain Peters, meets with Mr. Lagerfeld and his team to review ideas and themes. “One collection requires three or four weeks,” said Mr. Peters, who has worked for Desrues for 30 years. “That is from absolutely nothing to its presentation.”

Archives at Desrues.CreditMaxime La for The New York Times

 

He works with his team to interpret sketches and to determine the best ways to create the designs.

And if something seems impossible to make? “I can absolutely not say ‘no’; I just have to make it happen,” Mr. Peters said. “I don’t bother them with the technical side or the difficulty either. That is my problem, not theirs — and if, in the unlikely case that there is something we cannot do, I propose something that is within the realm of what they are looking for.”

That discussion begins with his marquetry team, all of whom trained in jewelry making before joining the company. While some of the marquetry experts sit at long tables and make casts by hand, others are in a glassed-off room, using 3-D software programs and electronic sketchpads to create button casts and molds that then are printed out for use in manufacturing.

According to Laure Courtel, the company’s director of business development, one of the techniques — handmade molds or 3-D printing — is chosen, depending on the design’s complexity, the amount of available time and the cost.

“Three-D is practical because, in terms of cost, usually we do several samples for the studio to approve the style,” Ms. Courtel said. “So making an entire sample by hand takes time and when you have to make it again, it’s going to be from scratch. In our context, there are a lot of steps of approval so it is more logical to use this technology.”

Sylvain Peters is the collection director at Desrues. He works with his team to interpret sketches by Karl Lagerfeld and his team at Chanel, and to determine the best ways to create the designs.CreditMaxime La for The New York Times

 

After Chanel approves an initial button design, a master sample is created: Either cut from metal (usually tin or brass) or cast (from metal or resin), it is used to program the metal cutting machine to make button bases. The button tops are lacquered or tinted and the finished product is put together by hand in the assembling workshop, where final touches are added.

Those can include anything from gluing — often using broken cotton swabs — the interlocking gold-plated CC logo onto a button top to using a needle with warm resin to add tiny sparkling crystals.

For each collection, the company presents Mr. Lagerfeld and his team with 50 models and, of those, 20 are chosen for use.

“Each model is going to be represented in eight different sizes and each model is going to exist in many colors,” Mr. Peters said. “And then I will deliver about 10,000 to 12,000 buttons for the show. That is one month of work.”

Innovation is constant, Mr. Peters said, like using Chanel cloth in resin buttons to modifying 3-D technology. “My job is to always find something new, the goal is to present something that makes people think, ‘Wow,’” he said. “For Chanel, the button is a little piece of jewelry.”

A version of this article appears in print on in The International New York Times.

LONDON — Weeks ago, Elliott Kaye-Burns already knew he would be wearing his grandfather’s watch when he went to dinner at an upscale restaurant in the Rose Bay suburb of Sydney, Australia, during a vacation this month. In fact, it’s one of the first things he always packs before heading off to hot-weather holidays.

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LONDON — When the firefighters let us back into the house, I checked on our passports first. (They weren’t damaged.) My jewelry box was next — and wasn’t quite as lucky. Read more