The Bells, Bells, Bells, Bells...
First entranced by bells in Austria, she has a chiming obsession
By Merle English
February 23, 2003
Push the gate to Natalia Paruz's home in Astoria and you'll hear the faint sound of bells.
A bell hangs over her doorway. And when she comes to the door, she's wearing a bell pendant.
On the front porch, in her living room, her kitchen, and her study, bells of all descriptions are displayed. In cabinets, on the walls, and on tables. Her dinner plates are imprinted with small depictions of the Philadelphia Liberty Bell.
Her five cats, however - Zagi, Misha, Posi, Goomi and Puffy-Lou - refuse to wear bells.
Paruz, 29, has been a bell collector since 1994, and it's all because of cows.
Paruz, who was born in Israel and who plays the musical saw professionally, got into "belling" - making music with bells - when her parents took her on a trip to Austria in 1994.
"They have a lot of cows with bells on their necks," she said, "and the sound of cowbells is very cheerful."
She learned that different herds wore bells that made a distinct sound, enabling the shepherd to distinguish them if the herds mingled. And cows are believed to give more milk because the sound of the bell around the neck relaxes them.
"I thought," Paruz recalled, "wouldn't it be cool to collect cow bells."
Paruz purchased 13 cow bells, each a different pitch, and tried to beat out the "Happy Birthday" tune on them. She was astonished at the results.
"I said, 'Wow! This actually works!' And I kept on being interested in bells," she said. "I derive so much pleasure from just looking at them," and listening to the sounds they make.
Paruz already had an ear for music. She has performed at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, among other venues, playing the saw. In 1999, she performed with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with renowned conductor Zubin Mehta.
Her husband, Scott Munson, 38, is a vibraphonist and composer. The couple sometimes performs as a duo, or with a cellist as a trio. A CD of Christmas music Paruz and Munson made, titled "Hark! An Angel Sings," incorporates bells, saw music and his orchestration. The CD will be released later this year.
Paruz also plays English handbells as part of a group at Trinity Lutheran Church in her neighborhood.
A former ballet dancer, she had to give up that form of expression after a motor vehicle accident about nine years ago. Belling has been a satisfying replacement.
When Paruz started her collection, "I didn't know there were other people who collected bells," she said. She was introduced to the Bell Collectors Association when she bought an Indian bell that carried a tag with the organization's name. That discovery led her to the American Bell Association. She became a member, ardent enough about bells to attend conventions around the country. (The next session is scheduled for June in Grand Rapids, Mich.)
At convention dinners, Paruz said, bells reign supreme. The centerpiece on each table is in the form of bells.
"Everything is bells. Bell exhibits, a bell auction, books about bells, lectures about bells, T-shirts with bells. It's a convention for ding-a-lings," Paruz said with a laugh. But she added, "It's very educational as well as entertaining."
At her wedding reception in 1999, Paruz, her aunt and three cousins played a Mozart minuet on cow bells.
She also attends lectures about bells, bell sales, bell auctions and bell concerts. She buys bells in antique stores and thrift shops.
Via the Internet, Paruz also learned of people in other countries who share her passion for bells.
"Each person finds their own taste in bells," she said. "A guy in Manhattan collects only animal bells. Some look for bells associated with religion, bells used in churches. I'm into musical-bell sets and brass-figurine lady-bells."
Some bells are decorative; others are functional. In the latter category, Paruz pointed out a bottle opener bell, salt-and-pepper-shaker bells and candle-holder bells.
There are collectors who are mainly interested in the materials from which bells are made.
"There are a potpourri of categories. Some people are attracted to metal, glass or porcelain bells," Paruz said. "Other people collect Christmas bells, school bells, bicycle bells, doorbells," she said.
She has examples spanning the categories.
Her bookshelves are stocked with books on bells, their history, manufacture, and folktales surrounding them related to various cultures. Bells have been said to bring good fortune and ward off evil spirits. For many centuries in China, a bell was hung outside the emperor's palace gate to be rung by citizens seeking redress for an injustice.
A picture on a wall in Paruz's study depicts a 19th-century bell-ringer in a contraption enabling him to operate two bells on his head, two in each hand and one on each foot.
"One day I'd like to try that," Paruz said - and she wasn't joking.
Bells range in price from those that can be bought at a 99-cent store, Paruz said, to at least $1 million. In fact, on Monday, police in Madrid seized a bell purported to have come from Christopher Columbus' flagship, the Santa Maria - just three days before the bell was to be auctioned for a minimum bid of $1 million. Portugal says it has claims to the artifact, which was found in 1994 in Portuguese waters. Some historians had predicted the bell could fetch as much as $10 million.
Paruz' collection also includes antique bells. Among them is a cluster of eight bells "that enables one person to play them together." One of her favorites is a bell used by Tibetan monks in meditation that emits a sharp sound lasting several seconds.
Contemporary noises have pretty much drowned out the sound of bells today, Paruz said. But "in the old days, the milkman had bells, the town crier had bells. Today it's unfortunate, a lot of churches don't have real bells anymore. They use recordings."
She plays the bells at street festivals, historial societies, Salvation Army community centers, senior citizen centers, hospitals, weddings and gallery openings.
Paruz is looking for people interested in bell-ringing for her handbell group. "Anybody can join," she said. "We teach you everything you need to know."
Interested? Call Paruz at Trinity Lutheran Church at 718-278-0036.
For more information, go to the American Bell Association's Web site, www.americanbell.org or Paruz's Web site, www.bellcollecting.com.
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