- Associated Press - Monday, August 22, 2011

As hobbies go, laboriously transforming ostrich eggs into one-of-a-kind handbags using dentist’s drills, a finicky epoxy resin and minuscule Swarovski crystals doesn’t necessarily sound like the most appealing choice.

Not unless you’re married to the “Chicken Man,” that is.

It proved the perfect pastime for Mitzi Perdue, the third wife of the late poultry magnate Frank Perdue, of the iconic “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken” TV commercial fame.

The striking blonde estimates that she has fashioned more than 500 of the elaborate handbags out of hollowed-out shells over the past 18 years.

Bedazzled with pearls or draped with delicate chains, sparkling with rhinestones or painted with pastoral scenes, Mrs. Perdue’s creations are like wearable Faberge eggs. There is just one difference: Unlike the legendary Imperial Easter eggs - fanciful concoctions of gold and diamonds made in the late 19th century by jeweler Peter Carl Faberge for the Russian czar - Mrs. Perdue’s so-called EveningEggs are made not out of precious metals but from calcium carbonate, the main ingredient in shells.

Mrs. Perdue stumbled onto the pastime by accident after a 1993 car wreck ruptured a disc and left her bedridden for months.

After reading her way through her backlog of books and absorbing more than her lifetime dose of daytime television, Mrs. Perdue was desperately seeking diversion. Inspired by a how-to arts show on PBS, she decided to overcome her “utter lack of artistic ability” and try her bored hand at painting.

“And then I thought, ‘As long as I’m going to paint, why not do it on an egg instead of a flat old piece of cardboard?’ ” Mrs. Perdue said in a telephone interview from her apartment on Manhattan’s tony Fifth Avenue. “After all, if Frank was the ‘Chicken Man,’ why shouldn’t I be the ‘Egg Lady?’ “

Mrs. Perdue kept herself busy throughout her 17-year marriage to Mr. Purdue by organizing weekly get-togethers with company employees. She estimates that they hosted at least 10,000 workers - half of Perdue Farms’ workforce - at their Salisbury, Md., home.

But it wasn’t until she became the “Egg Lady” that she really hit her stride.

Mrs. Perdue started decorating chicken eggs before moving on to bigger goose and then jumbo ostrich eggs, which she sourced from a Texas-based ostrich meat farmer for $12 apiece.

“I tried to convince Frank to get into the ostrich business so I could have a free supply of eggs, but the math didn’t really add up: On the one hand, $12 for an egg versus $2 million to set up a business,” she said with a laugh. “Let’s just say, I’m still getting them from Texas.”

Mrs. Perdue uses a dentist’s drill to slice off the top of the egg, oeuf a la coque-style. Many a good egg was ruined as she learned how to handle the tool, with a blade that turns at a menacing 450,000 rotations per minute.

Once the insides are scooped out, she covers the shell, inside and out, with a two-part resin. That, too, took a fair share of experimenting. Mrs. Perdue said she tried at least 40 formulas before finding one that goes on smoothly and dries rock-hard.

“I think you could shoot one of my eggs out of a cannon and injure someone and it wouldn’t break,” she said. When asked to identify the miracle resin, Mrs. Perdue demurred - she wouldn’t want to make it too easy for potential copycats - saying only that it’s available on the market.

After upholstering the inside in plush velvet or silk and bedazzling the outside with pearls and glinting rhinestones, she attaches a shoulder strap and fits the sliced-off top back on with custom-made, gold-plated hinges.

Despite her years of experience, the process remains painstaking. It takes at least 30 hours worth of eye-straining labor to make even the simplest EveningEgg, and the more elaborate models can take much longer.

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