28 Feb About reproductions and the murky underbelly of the jewellery world
Jewellery reproductions are great when done well and done honestly. Many antique elements that I own, and which I love and treasure, are one-off pieces. I know that I will never see another one, yet I want to share them with my customers. The best way to do this is to have a reproduction made. I believe in ‘sharing the love’ – not in squirreling away and maintaining my own private museum of antique treasures that only I can visit.
All of my reproduction pieces are made by highly experienced, ethical and professional casting specialists.
- They are cast from moulds I own exclusively – only I can order from them.
- These moulds are made using original antique pieces that I own, and which are used as a master pattern to create the reproduction piece.
Moulds made from the original physical item, when created by an experienced professional, produce a high quality reproduction of exceptionally fine detail as good as the original.
My philosophy is – why go to the trouble and expense to reproduce something if it is of lesser quality than the original?
A good repro and a bad repro – the moral side
It is important to differentiate a seller who owns the original master pattern from someone who might have had a reproduction created using a photo they took off the internet or from another source. This CAN be done, and it DOES happen.
The former – where the mould is made from the original physical piece that the seller owns – means that the reproduction piece is legitimate. It comes from an honest seller who treasures the original and wants to share it with others. I keep all of my master patterns – those little charms, pendants or medals that I search long and hard to find, that I negotiated on price and paid a fair agreed price for. I took ownership of these treasures and continued the chain of love and care for items that have been valued over the decades, and maybe centuries. If you believe in karma, the good karma continues when a seller works in this way.
The latter – where a photo is ripped off and used to reproduce the item in order to make a master model – means something has been copied without the knowledge or permission of the original owner. It’s theft, pure and simple.
Irrespective of the fact that antique designs are generally out of copyright and there are often no reproduction restrictions, ownership and basic human respect need to also be considerations in how a seller makes a decision to develop reproduction pieces.
None of us want to support a thief, no matter how nice or knowledgeable or talented they might seem to be, or how attractive their products are.
Old and new living in harmony
In my opinion reproductions complement antique originals. Most antiques that pass through my hands cannot be easily reproduced in a financially viable way. Some antique pieces could be damaged in the moulding process, and should not be replicated. For a select few items, they are unique enough and appealing enough to warrant the time-consuming and costly process of reproduction.
I keep my reproduction pieces separate from my antique supply. I have my antique shop – La Comtesse de Talaru – where you will find only antiques and vintage items. I have my handcrafted jewellery shop – L’Atelier de Talaru – where you find antique assemblage designs made with mostly antique elements, hybrid reproduction/antique designs, and also designs made only using reproductions.
I do not want my customers to be confused about what they are buying, so I make it very clear in my listings that they are looking at an antique or a repro. I also add credibility to my items by writing about the story of the piece (if I know it), so the buyer can understand its authenticity and provenance. Not all antiques come from ‘a monastery in the south of France’.
Unfortunately the very same people who steal images to make reproductions also tend to sell the reproductions in a deceptive way – either as antiques, or claiming they own the original master pattern. This is bad for the customer, and bad for the honest sellers.
Reproduction does not = cheap
Reproduction pieces are sometimes more costly than the original. When you add up the original purchase price, shipping, moulding fee, casting fee and metal content charge – it can be higher than the cost of the antique from which the reproduction is made. This is not a bad thing.
I do not make reproductions to offer a ‘cheap alternative’. I offer reproductions so that more people can enjoy beautifully crafted works that they might otherwise not have had access to except to admire from afar. Why would anyone adorn themselves with cheap junky fakes?
A cautionary tale or five
I meet a lot of kindred spirits on Etsy – both buyers and sellers. We swap notes, engage in mutual admiration and share stories about our experiences as online vendors. Inevitably, I learn about the horrible things people do to each other in the pursuit of making a buck and grabbing a competitive edge.
Here are some stories I have been told. I will not name names as I was not a party to most of these incidents, and I have gone to great lengths not to make any sort of identification of those involved; on all sides of the story. I trust and believe that those who told me their stories are telling me their truth, and these are not complete fabrications. As for the other side in these stories, I know of many of these people – and hearing these tales this has either reinforced a previously held suspicion, cemented a view based on known behaviours or surprised the heck out of me and led to disappointment in the individual concerned. As with any such story, there is more than one side. Whilst it’s a well-used cliche, ‘there are three sides to the story’ – yours, theirs and the truth. Telling these stories is intended as a catalyst to thought and discussion in this article, not as a witch hunt or moral crusade. I’ve written openly in the past about how I started out designing and how I tried copying the styles of other designers as I was developing my own style. I’ve also honestly written about how I felt in doing this and why I evolved away from such practices. Some people do not evolve away from copying to develop their own styles, and they continue to make a living from copying what other people do.
Apart from Case 1, I expect that many people have experienced similar things – friendships betrayed, styles copied, and this happens in so many different contexts – remember those girls who copied your dress style at high school? I bet you hated them, right?
So often I hear ‘imitation is the highest form of flattery’. Actually, it isn’t to many people. It can be devastating and damaging and hurtful. We all deal with such experiences in different ways, and this article is about me telling how I deal with it. I’d love ot hear from others who have their side of the story as well.
Case 1: Design stolen from photograph, cast into metal and sells like hotcakes
There is my friend (A) who is a seller of antique items on Etsy who had a fellow Etsy seller (B) contact her asking for details about, and photographs of, some beautiful sculptures that were used as props in A’s product photos.
These particular sculptures, if true antiques and high quality, are incredibly scarce and very popular. If I wanted to buy such an item to reproduce it, I would need to spend a lot of money, and it might not be financially worthwhile to do so.
My friend A sent the requested photos to B, showing all sides and angles of her sculpture. It’s nice to know someone admires your aesthetic so much that they want to know every detail of the things you own. Or is it?
A few months later A saw that B was selling necklaces in her Etsy shop with pendants in the exact design of the sculpture in the photos she had sent to B all those months earlier. It is alleged that B had used the detailed photographs to get a digital render of the piece made up. From a digital render the design can be made into a physical model (possibly using a process to laser carve resin), moulded and then cast in silver*. B sells quite a few of these necklaces, making money from an image she deceived to get access to and stole.
Now, if this were me, and I had such a degree of admiration for an item owned by someone else that I wanted to reproduce it somehow, firstly I would see if I could buy it. If that is not an option I would openly approach them and ask if we could collaborate somehow. If either party was not keen on the idea, then it would not happen. I’d move on, morals intact.
By the way – you might think that this is a coincidence; that A’s piece was not the only one of its kind in the world and B was lucky enough to find another one exactly the same and buy it to make her repro models. I might think that too, except that A shared photos of around 10 different items with B, and all 10 items were copied and offered for sale in B’s shop. Some were even listed as original antiques, even though they were just nasty knock-offs.
I don’t think that’s a coincidence, do you?
Case 2: Befriending someone to steal their business secrets, then competing directly with them
Another friend, we’ll call her (C), is a successful seller of jewellery and jewellery-making supplies on Etsy. She’s been around for some time and established herself as an expert in her field – she knows her stuff. My friend C befriended another Etsy designer of jewellery, (D), whose business was fledgling and not going anywhere. C took sympathy on D and helped her out with some aspects of her business – advice, moral support etc. They became good friends and spent time together, visiting flea markets and each other’s homes.
One day C noticed that D had set up shop selling jewellery-making supplies that looked exactly like the ones C sold. D started presenting herself online in a manner similar to C, started selling finished designs similar to C and used a similar packaging design as C.
It turns out that D had snooped around C’s house and stole supplier contact information and other ideas so she could set up her own supply stock, go into business and directly compete against C. Apparently D was baffled when C ended their friendship…
Case 3: D’s been a bad girl
Another story involving the above mentioned ‘D’ that was told to me is a situation where D allegedly began copying the designs of another designer called E. E is an original and talented designer but noticed that each of her weekly collections was being replicated very closely by D. E even wrote a long and heartfelt letter to D asking her to stop the copying and come up with her own designs. D ignored E’s pleas and kept up the copying.
Case 4: Beware accusing a retailer of carrying counterfeits of your work
A well-known case of institutionalised copying is that of Jamie Spinello. She makes unique jewellery that is her living, and she does great work. She found out one day that a large national fashion retailer was offering one of her original designs for sale, yet she had no knowledge of this. When she approached the retailer about the alleged design infringement, she dived headlong into the murky world of corporate lawyers and winding trails of design thieves.
You can read her story:
- here: http://www.eastbayexpress.com/CultureSpyBlog/archives/2014/01/09/nasty-gal-rip-off-see-how-one-company-responds-to-copyright-theft-allegations
- and there is more here: http://www.eastbayexpress.com/CultureSpyBlog/archives/2014/01/08/corporate-copyright-theft-see-how-large-companies-rip-off-independent-artists
Case 5: An ironic twist
The seller, B, mentioned in Case 1 has complaints of her own about being copied and ‘ripped off. She claims that other designers used to buy her unique assemblage jewellery designs and pull them apart to salvage the components to use in their own designs. She also claims that when she sold reproduction jewellery-making supplies on Etsy customers bought up hundreds of pieces from her, went out and had them reproduced, then came back to Etsy and started selling them in competition with her.
I know this happens with my work (the pulling apart, the copying) – but I don’t focus on it too much because I don’t care to know. If it bothered me so much I would not sell my works. If someone is harvesting my creations what difference does this make to what I create? If I worry about who might copy my work, then I am not making from the heart, I am making simply to thwart would-be imitators.
There is often a fine line between inspiration and derivation, and outright theft. If someone else has such a lack of talent, initiative and ability that they have to make a living out of copying what I do, my attitude is ‘I am glad to help’. It’s better than them being unemployed, becoming a drug addict and breaking into my house to get some $$.
Summary: Because the thing is this…
I primarily pursue my creative activities to feed my urge to create, to connect with others and to continually challenge myself. I feel fortunate that I don’t have to do it only to ‘make money’ (though I have to make it financially sustainable so it keeps going) – I have a day job that pays the bills. Is this where the pressure comes from to copy and steal, when a person is feeling desperate that they won’t make enough to pay their bills and put food on the table?
Somewhat perversely, I am greatly inspired and even more challenged (in a positive way) when people start copying me. This spurs me on to find something new to create and stay one step ahead of the pack, because I’d rather be the lone wolf leading the way, than part of the pack following. You never really stand out in a crowd. What I have noticed on Etsy is that many of the people I would say are true innovators, inspirations and naturally creative individuals are not apparently as financially successful as those who are copying and following. Their turnover is low and they are not highly productive. It’s a cruel irony, but it also begs the question – ‘what is success’? We all have a different definition of success – some people think it is the number of sales their shop generates, some think it is having 100% positive feedback. Others think it is hanging on as long as they can, getting away with copying and stealing.
Since I joined Etsy in 2009 I have seen my own customers start-up businesses making jewellery in the antique assemblage style. I’ve seen burgeoning reproduction shops, and I’ve seen my antique suppliers coming to Etsy in droves to sell the same things I do. How I deal with this is a matter of attitude – I choose to see it in a positive way and recognise the way I can inspire and influence people by sharing what I do online.
This competition is not a bad thing, in my view. But I do think there are people out there who would sell their grandmothers to get ahead.
As the Etsy marketplace grows, and more buyers visit and make Etsy their place of choice to buy unique products, more customers will be exposed to my work. Honest competition is good, and I would not have it any other way – especially because I could not possibly service all the customers out there by myself – I need help 😉
How to stop thieves, protect buyers and maintain the credibility for sellers?
This blog post is not meant to be all about ranting and sordid stories of wrongdoing. I want this to be constructive, and hope that some of the offenders I wrote about above might see it and take a second to reflect. (OK, maybe that’s hoping for too much.)
It does make my blood boil when people treat others in such a shabby way as there is always more than one victim in these situations. A selfish seller thinks that they’re only ripping off their victim; not realising that they are also ripping off their customers, the platform they sell on, their peers…
As a seller
- We can educate our customers and followers about what they should be looking for, and what questions they should be asking, when considering reproductions or antiques. Use blogs, social media or product listings to help buyers discern the good from the bad.
- Learn from negative feedback and make it an opportunity to improve and be better placed to meet the needs of customers. It’s almost always never personal in business.
- Make product listings clear, honest and open about what it is we are selling, how we came across it and whether we have altered it in any way. Being vague or ambiguous in describing a product can still be deemed an act of deception.
- We can connect with other sellers, help them out, support them or mentor them. Even if they are a ‘competitor’ and you trust them. The buyer will make the final choice and the buyer should not choose a seller because they were tricked.
As a buyer
- Always question the seller if there is anything you have doubts about. When I look at B’s shop I can see that some of her customers have left feedback reflecting their dissatisfaction with their item – some allege deception through vague and ambiguous information in listings, or outright misinformation. These buyers should have asked questions to settle their suspicions before they clicked the ‘buy’ button, so that they could then make a decision to purchase based on facts, not smoke and mirrors.
- Do some research on the item you are interested in and test the seller’s claims about it. I had once listed an item that I believed to be antique. I could not find any reason to think otherwise. A buyer wrote to me and asked a few well educated questions that made me think I was in fact selling a contemporary copy, despite my best efforts to verify the item’s origins. I said I could not sell it to her, removed the item from sale and never offered it again. At the very least, if a seller does not know anything about what they are selling then they should say so, not make it up. Not everything comes from ‘a monastery in the South of France’ – believe me.
- Demand a refund if you feel you have been misled. Most western countries have laws that protect consumers and allow refunds in certain circumstances. No seller on Etsy has the power to deny those rights to a buyer – you are entitled to a refund if the item was wrongly described and it does not matter if the error occurred due to outright deception or an over-zealous spell checker.
- Use feedback** – a buyer’s honest and genuine feedback, even if it is not 100% positive and glowing, can make a difference to the seller and future customers. I have seen shops where the seller received scathing feedback, often well deserved, but then they have lifted their game and started to operate more ethically. Everyone wins in this situation.
I work on a ‘customer for life’ philosophy, where I want people to come back and buy from me again. Not just so I can sell more stuff, but because I like my customers. I have made some great friends through selling on Etsy and I value the opportunity to connect with people all around the world through topics of mutual interest and shared passion.
I welcome your comments and questions on this story, plus any more tips for buyers and sellers. All comments need to be approved before publication, so they will not show up immediately. If you think something has gone wrong,please contact me at the email address below.
You might disagree with me, and that’s fine. All fair comments will be published and responded to. If you have a story you would like me to share (under anonymity only), then please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
* I am assuming this is the process B followed- it certainly IS possible to generate a physical model from a digital render. There are a number of ways to do it, but B’s not going to tell us her secrets, is she?
** there is such a thing as ‘feedback extortion’, where unscrupulous buyers threaten a seller with negative feedback if they don’t do something; usually provide a full or partial refund but allow them to keep the item. I DO NOT recommend such a practice and when this HAS happened to me, I have not given in.
EDITED: the case studies have been updated to reflect the important point that there is more than one side to every story.