Finland has a small population and a large secret.
The population is 4.9 million, all hard-working.
The secret is that this scenic land clad in lakes and forests produces some of the most distinctive and appealing jewelry on the planet.
Styles range from the ultramodern to those of Northern Europe's pagan tribes of 900 years ago. Materials run the gamut from gold to silver to bronze to wood to plastics to ceramics, all used with stunning creativity. Finland is blessed with superb jewelry designers.
Prices start as low as $4, but you could spend more than 2,000 times more for "important" pieces. "Drop dead" items likely to turn heads by the score, they're worth every cent of it and might sell for double the Helsinki prices in U.S. stores.
Many eye-catching pieces are widely available for between $50 and $250 all over Helsinki, the prosperous port and sophisticated capital of this energetic democracy.
Let's start with the least expensive, exceptional costume jewelry that's alive with low-budget chic. Best in the thrifty category is the great assortment of contemporary and colorful necklaces, earrings, bracelets, etc., sold by the Aarikka chain. Aarikka's wood, wood and silver, and wood and ceramic creations are simply handsome and full of verve.
About 90% of them are designed by Mrs. Kaija Aarikka whose no-nonsense manner masks a winning combination of style and wit. Now a celebrity, she began with buttons. In 1954 she was a young textile designer who crated some unusual wooden buttons for her own use. Impressed colleagues and friends insisted that she make some for them too, and she did.
That was the start of a mini-empire that has 75 employees and 15 retail outlets, 10 of the latter in Helsinki. Like the lively lady who founded and still runs it, Aarikka never stands still. The firm adds 100 items to its colorful catalogue each year. In addition to jewelry, it carries charming wooden sculptures and decorative-useful household tools.
Most are priced between $4 and $40, but some go as high as $75. Mrs. A's husband and their older daughter play key roles in the firm, and a daughter has just come aboard as a designer. The company's main asset remains the founding mother's delightful and utterly youthful imagination.
Two Aarikka stores are on Helsinki's most fashionable shopping street, the Esplanade. Divided by a neatly landscaped park that is five blocks long and a block wide, the Esplanade starts at the busy midtown Mannerheimintie named after the late hero-president, Carl Mannerheim. It ends at the bustling harbor whose outdoor year-round market, piers and ships are worth visiting.
There's an Aarikka outlet at North Esplanade 27 and another across the green park at South Esplanade 8. Many fine shops and boutiques are on the Esplanade or side streets feeding into it.
One "must" establishment on a side street is the stylish Finnish Design Center at Kasarmikatu 19. The exhibits include several kinds of imaginative contemporary jewelry.
Some of it is for sale on the premises, while nearby sources for others are offered by a helpful staff. For $16 we bought an unusual choker of hand-knotted macrame and blue ceramic beads. The creators are three rising talents whose full line is displayed at their Helsinki studio; phone 90-627-776 for an appointment. Larger works by the gifted trio of Ahla, Kuuhka and Miettinen sell for up to $80. Low-key elegance is their trademark.
For good copies of the bold, neo-primitive, metal jewelry worn by Finns nine centuries ago, the place to go is on the other side of the Esplanade near Senate Square. That's not far from the central railroad station.
Unioninkatu 25 is the address of the large store of Kalevala Koru, a nonprofit association of women dedicated to celebrating Finland's national saga. That saga, the Kalevala, is a body of heroic songs, poems and legends rooted in the Iron age.
To secure money for this patriotic cultural program, the group began raising funds in 1937 by manufacturing and selling dramatic and precise replicas of ancient Finnish jewelry in museums.
The copies are made of bronze, silver or other metals used in the originals. The rings, bracelets, pins, necklaces, buckles, etc., have the stark strength of the Iron Age, and one can't help thinking of the 11th-Century tribal women and warriors who wore the originals.
Many of these handsome pieces have bird, fish or animal themes, and most sell for between $15 and $45. Kalevala has yet to arrange for U.S. distribution, so these items should appeal to those who appreciate the unusual. Kalevala recently added newly designed pieces of jewelry and unusual weavings and fabrics.