Thoughts on avoiding knock-off designer jewelry for custom jewelers
The subject of whose idea was it anyway is a sore one in the world of jewelry design. Designers throw their life savings and energy into creating a jewelry line, and worry (with good reason) about being knocked off. When they try to get a design patent, it’s nearly impossible. Why? Because it’s difficult to prove an original concept in a medium that has been well-documented for thousands of years. So how do we address the issue of knock-off designer jewelry?
Here’s the advice I give my design clients: Do what you do better than anyone else. Refine your designer aesthetic so it is clearly your own. Design cohesive collections that will work well at retail. Establish yourself as a quality, reliable manufacturer and service organization. And keep innovating – within your specific and identifiable design aesthetic – to ensure a steady supply of new, exciting products. Sure, someone will likely copy you at some point, but your strong business model will protect you against one – or even a dozen – individual knockoffs of your line.
Enter the Custom Jeweler
For the most part designers have come to accept this reality, even if it bites from time to time. They realize the one sure way to stay ahead of competitors is to keep innovating and improving. But there’s another area of possible infringement that is grayer than being knocked off by another jewelry designer, and that’s the design role of custom jewelers, particularly custom jewelers carrying designer lines.
I am often asked by sales staff and managers at retail stores producing custom work to tell them how to handle consumers asking for designer knock-offs. From a designer perspective, it’s a simple answer (absolutely not!). From the retailer’s perspective the problem is more complex; it involves everything from dealing with a tricky customer issue to being able to recognize the request for what it is.
The problem presents itself like this. A customer looks (often extensively) at the designer jewelry in the showcase (or online, or at another showroom). Next, the customer asks to speak with someone about creating a custom design. And she says something like:
“I’d like a ring. I want it to be made of yellow gold, but a really bright, rich yellow gold. And can you give the surface a really textured finish, like maybe with a lot of fine hatchy lines in it, but still shiny? Also, I like those rough looking diamonds, in gray or black. And maybe a lot of the little square gray diamonds set in a channel around the band. And when you set the big diamond, I don’t want those prongy things. I want the metal that comes up all around the main diamond like a tiny wall, matching the shape of the diamond.”
Oh, you want a Todd Reed ring?
The customer is often a lot less subtle. “I have an antique locket. Can you clean it up and put it on a chain like those lockets from Just Jules, and maybe add a few gemstones to the chain like she does?”
When the request is a blatant attempt to knock-off a designer at a lower price, a jeweler with integrity always says no. A good jeweler usually knows – or can find out – what their client has been looking at prior to the request – their jewelry inspiration. If it’s clear that the customer wants a custom-made designer knock-off, the response must be clear. “That look is the result of a designer pouring his heart and probably all his finances into creating it. My store will always honor that and will never copy it.”
Sometimes the request is less cut-and-dried. For instance, maybe someone absolutely loves the hammered look on the Pamela Froman jewelry, but doesn’t like the scale or design style. On the one hand, Pamela’s finish is a deeper, somewhat chiseled finish – in my opinion more distinctive than most hammered metal finishes. On the other hand, history is filled with examples of hammered metal finishes. As long as the jeweler seeks to create something entirely different, with the only similarity being a hammered finish, this can be an ethical choice. I view this as an example of a customer using a designer’s technique to express an element that they appreciate but for which they do not have the words (i.e., “hammered finish”).
I Made That Years Ago
If there’s one thing I hear over and over in retail stores – and which I admit sets my teeth on edge – it’s a custom jeweler looking at a piece of a designer’s collection and saying, “well that’s not original. I made something like that 10 (15, 25, 30) years ago!” (if you’ve said this, don’t cringe too much – I’ve heard it from at least several dozen custom jewelers by now). Well, that may be so, but one item with a similar element or look is hardly an example of preceding a designer’s entire design aesthetic. Most people who have made jewelry for any period of time will eventually create a version of just about everything.
So what’s the difference between a having on occasion designed with byzantine elements (mixed precious metals, mixed colored gemstones, scrollwork, granulation, talismans) and, say, Chanel’s 2010 Paris-Byzance collection? Well mainly, it’s the word collection. The Paris-Byzance collection is the result of a very intentional act of using Byzantine elements to create a cohesive and entirely self-contained grouping of jewelry (and apparel in this example). So to knock-off a piece of jewelry from that collection isn’t simply to draw a similar page from history. When a designer creates a cohesive collection using historical elements, they augment history.
What’s a Custom Jeweler to Do?
One of the most important things we can do is create a strong sense in our communities of being trustworthy. Even if the occasional customer doesn’t appreciate being told no (and will invariably find a less ethical jeweler who will accommodate them), word will get around that your jewelry store is the one that can be trusted. That’s worth more than any one commission. But that just addresses the risk of saying no.
What about the more challenging problem of recognizing when you’re being asked to create a knockoff? It’s impossible to know all the designer jewelry lines on the market. But it’s also essential for anyone in the jewelry industry to be particularly curious about and interested in the work that is being created, so one of the best tools in your toolbox is to be informed. Even if you don’t carry designer goods (though why wouldn’t you?) shop the designer areas of jewelry trade shows, look at designer news in jewelry trade magazines, watch particularly savvy designer retailers like Gump’s, Ylang 23 and I Gorman, and study your craft. And at the very least, it’s easy to ask a customer where they got their idea from.
Learn to distinguish (and make sure your staff knows how to distinguish) the difference between a request for a knock-off and a request for an element using a designer’s work as an example. You’ve chosen to be in the jewelry business, so let’s all be serious about jewelry. If you can’t immediately think of other examples of a particular technique or design element, do some research. If something is truly unique, be prepared to say you won’t copy it, and suggest to the customer that they invest in the real deal.
Most of the custom jewelers I know take immense pride in creating custom jewelry that fits within the design aesthetic and standards of their own shop, and wouldn’t be at all satisfied with simply knocking of someone else’s work. And perhaps this overview of how to think about the designer/knockoff issue will prove to be useful as you continue to refine and promote your very own designs and brand.