Thursday, 14 March 2013


Those of us who make and sell things for our living often talk among ourselves, and we laugh a lot about the descriptions used by people who are perhaps more affected than we are. 

I bought some "amber" chips from a supplier in the US last year, only to discover they were coloured glass. In fact they look like broken beer bottles that had been tumbled. A friend suggested I sell them as "upcycled" beer bottles. They'd probably sell too. But I would feel deceitful doing so, even though it's not actually wrong. 

This sort of thing bothers me, which is why I'll never be rich, but I sleep soundly at night. For me, business ethics includes not just honesty, but being realistic. 

Today I want to alert you to a common practice in marketing costume jewellery that isn't illegal, and not necessarily unethical, but caveat emptor, just be aware. 

A favourite term known to attract interest is "hand-made". All jewellery is hand made, with the sole exception of chain. Chain is made by machine these days (unless stated otherwise, when it becomes chainmail, and you can easily see the difference). 

Yes, the component parts are made by machine. Wire is drawn by machine, metal beads are stamped out, other beads are cut by machine, charms are made in moulds. I can even show you how earwires are made. Here's the gadget:

Of course there are bigger, semi-automatic versions of that.

So, here's the question, if a person uses that gadget, and makes them one at a time, but lots of them, are they hand-made or mass-produced? The answer is both, which really goes to show how useless these terms are.

Having been made by machine, large or small, one at a time or many, the components are assembled. There are certainly tools used, but every aspect of every design involves a human turning, threading, cutting, and most importantly selecting components to create a design.

The photo at the top (please click on it to enlarge it) shows the process involved in making a pair of dangly earrings. All the bits and pieces you see were made by machine. Even the crystals are cut by machine. But having created a design, I select the parts required, count them out and then put them together.

So, when does hand-made become mass-produced? Is it to do with quantity? Speed? I think that's a personal judgement. If I make six pairs at once that seems to be OK. If a girl sits in a factory in China making the same design for weeks on end, as fast as she can, maybe 3000 of the same design, is that NOT OK? Has the Chinese girl become a machine? Even if I only make one pair, what is the significant difference, why would that be hand-made and one of the 3000 not be? It's all assembled the same way. And I assure you, it is no different if she is supplying a dollar store or Calvin Klein.

Perhaps the care and attention to detail involved when I make a few at a time makes it different. It is the only difference I can think of.

When I describe something as hand-made it is because that is significant. For example I use glass beads that have been made by hand rather than in a machine, these are all unique, and rather interesting. Millefiori, lampwork, etc. Some are ceramic, painted by hand.

My daughter often makes her own clasps, to use on chainmail bracelets and necklaces. Again, these are different to those made by machine, and the description is significant.

But if you ever see anyone describe earrings as hand-made, that are assembled from parts that are not of themselves obviously hand-made, it's a good idea to ask yourself why. What are they trying to say? What other misleading information will they give you? How much extra are you being charged for a meaningless "quality" and are you going to allow yourself to be swayed by fancy words?

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