Van Cleef & Arpels’ ad on the back cover of the February 2012 issue of Art News is the latest in a sad legacy of the haute couture jewelry design world.  The ad displays an exquisitely crafted platinum and bejeweled “zipper” necklace.  It’s an impressive piece of work, advertised to coincide with the publication’s theme of “Where Fashion Meets Art”.

 

Where fashion meets art these days seems to result in a lot of stolen concepts. We have noticed a growing trend in couture jewelry over the last several years to co-op designs and concepts developed in the art jewelry and DIY arena.  This is driven by luxury goods manufacturers’ need to be seen as fashion forward. But we have also noticed a strong trend of alternative materials, pioneered by art jewelry designers, being adopted by fashion jewelry houses as a way to appear cutting edge and keep their profit margins.

If this trend were confined to the use of a material it would be fair game, but frequently it extends to the designs as well. 

 

The Van Cleef & Arpels Zip necklace is squarely taken from a design concept that was created in the art jewelry world several years ago and demonstrates just how creatively bankrupt this venerable old firm is. The necklace is a dazzling piece of craftsmanship, no doubt. And yes, Van Cleef & Arpels, anything a DIY crafter can do, you can do better – except create an original idea in the first place.

 

The Zip necklace from Van Cleef & Arpels is a gaudy example of yet another couture trend. Namely, taking street fashion, tarting it up with precious metals and gems, and presenting it with the delusion that it has any authenticity whatsoever.  In this particular instance the original concept is rooted in repurposing a common object with no intrinsic value as ornament. The concept’s authenticity is its creator’s vision to see beyond the utilitarian function of a common zipper and reframe it’s context. Van Cleef & Arpels is clearly attempting to hitch a ride on that authenticity, but by copying the original idea in precious materials they show just how tone-deaf and out of touch with the concept they really are.

 

We are reminded of a fashion trend popular during the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. Women of the time would tie a red cotton cord around their necks to symbolize their solidarity with the revolution. The red cord was a symbol and reminder for all who saw it that the guillotine awaited all who opposed the revolution – mainly the aristocracy.

In a panic and desperate to show that they were “with the people”, many upper class women began wearing a red cord too.  But befitting their station, many of them bejeweled their red cords, in effect accentuating the class separation and economic disparity that sparked the revolution in the first place.  In the end this turned out to be the biggest fashion faux pas of all time.

 

Van Cleef & Arpels can clearly bring prodigious craftsmanship to the table. Matching that with authentic design creativity would go a long way towards re-establishing the house as a place where “fashion meets art”.   

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Comment by 2Roses on February 16, 2012 at 11:48pm

Thank you for posting the link to the MICA program Erin. This is exactly the kind of program the field needs. Ultimately this is the kind of progressive thinking that breaks down the artificial divisions and barriers to success that we have imposed upon ourselves. 

I'm glad to see Andrea Kennington from NC Black participating in this discussion too. She is a great example of an artist/entrepreneur who was able to think outside the "artist" box and use her creative skills to build a tool manufacturing business.

We celebrate creativity, be it applied to a material or to a business idea. Its all the same, the only limitations are the ones we impose on ourselves.

Comment by Erin S. Daily on February 16, 2012 at 8:23pm

Here is that link again for anyone who is interested. I will try and see if something works.  Forgive me, I am new to posting here.

http://www.mica.edu/news/mica_jhu_carey_business_school_announce_pa...

http://http://www.mica.edu/news/mica_jhu_carey_business_school_anno...

Comment by Erin S. Daily on February 16, 2012 at 3:54pm

I want to address a few issues here. 

One, I think it is obvious that more people need to know their history.  And I mean all the history.  Not just the studio jewelry, or craft jewelry, or ancient jewelry, contemporary art jewelry, or however you want to phrase it - but all the jewelry, fashion and fine included.  There are some amazing jewelry pieces that have been made by fashion houses in the past.  We do ourselves a disservice by creating this perceived divide when really, we are all making jewelry.   We marginalize ourselves.  Go to Germany to see Schmuck and you see all different types of jewelry as you walk through the exhibition halls, be it bridge, fashion, or art.  If we all existed in the same space literally, people might see what else is out there and widen their views.  This is something I dream American jewelry can achieve someday.   

Also, many of these big name houses employ tons of designers.  A lot of them are young, and have been trained by more schools than just FIT, and probably have a good understanding of art jewelry.  This is probably their day job and they go home to their own bench at night.  Is there a wonder that there might be overlap in their designs?  I am in no way excusing outright theft of design, but influences cannot be denied.  It is also not a bad thing for these traditional houses to want to attract a younger audience.  If that means they broaden their understanding of design, and then their audience, I am all for it.  

 

Finally, on the issue of business and art.  I am looking forward to the day when people understand that to be an artist in this country means to be a small business.  But I think we are on our way. MICA just recently announced their MBA program which I think is wonderful.  I am looking forward to seeing all the good that comes of this partnership.  http://http://www.mica.edu/news/mica_jhu_carey_business_school_anno...

And for anyone who read this far, I thank you for your time.

Comment by Jim Binnion on February 16, 2012 at 2:19pm

One of the best things that happened to me when I was just beginning to try to sell my work was a workshop that Thomas Mann gave at Penland. It was called "Design For Survival" it was two weeks of what really was a boot camp for selling your work and running a craft business. There were at least three of us who took the workshop that were able to successfully apply the concepts and get working business going very quickly. I know he has given abbreviated (3 day) versions in later years but to my knowledge this was the only two week version he ever taught. I think  something like this would be a very useful if it was available to more artists. I have great admiration for what Michelle is doing as I watched my father get his MBA when I was a child and it was a lot of work. But most of us don't have either the aptitude , time or money to do a MBA program. But an immersive workshop of a couple weeks can give many folks what they need to get started.

Comment by 2Roses on February 16, 2012 at 9:56am

This discussion is such a great example of the use of technology to identify problems and define solutions. Early on in the discussion, Harriete posed the question of why artists were so vulnerable to accepted practice of copycating, and what could they do about it?

Its been pretty obvious to a lot of us in the field of jewelry and metalsmithing that we simply are not minding our own businesses. In years past graduates coming out of metals MFA programs overwhelmingly expressed that "teaching" was the intended career path. Very few graduates see that as a realistic expectation today, and we are seeing a much greater interest in entrepreneurship.

Jim, we hear your frustration. We've heard from many educators for many, many years. The good news is that schools respond to the what students want (and are willing to pay for). As more arts students realize that they need to learn how to make a living in tandem with how to make an object they will seek out schools and teachers that provide the best education for success.  The boat turns slowly, but it is turning.

One of the most important aspects of moving things in the right direction is what is happening right here. Jim, when someone of your stature in the field weighs in on something - people take notice, they listen. We are all actively participating in changing the generally accepted notion of what it is to be an "artist". Raising awareness amongst our peers and encouraging more people at all levels of the field to express themselves on this issue will drive demand and curriculum change.  That's what you, me Brigitte, Harriete, Megan, Michelle, Vickie, Stevie, and so many many others in our field can do. That is what we all are doing.

This is perfect lead-in for any educators out there to talk about how they are introducing business topics into their arts curriculum...

Comment by Brigitte Martin on February 16, 2012 at 8:11am

Jim said: "I believe the only way that will happen is if the artist becomes a business person as well as an artist and from my perspective that is not ok with the artists. I have advocated for this for many years and the response is generally pretty negative."


Jim, AMEN to the above. May I assure you, you are not alone in your frustration: Many of your peers (the 2Roses specifically have been very vocal) and me included are completely fed up with the stance that for an artist "money is a four letter word". The good news is, that from what I have seen there is a really strong current going on within the metalsmithing community for a while now to move on the idea that business/marketing skills are not only completely compatible with artistic skills but actually essential.

Touchstone, the Craft Center in my region of SW PA has, for the first time in their history, included 2 sessions this year (run by Michelle Pajak-Reynolds) that are solely dedicated to the business aspect of craft making. You can bet on it that these classes will be very well attended. The need is clearly there. (- As an add on: Michelle has a BFA from Kent and is currently finishing up her MBA with straight A's ! )

The PDS has long been stressing the point already with Harriete being at the forefront with her blog and her incredibly helpful (and free of charge !!) Professional Guideline activities. SNAG has also recognized this, one of the speakers at this year's conference is Megan Auman, a metalsmith who has made it (part of) her business to educate about good business practices.

Change is gonna come. We just have to keep asking for it and put people into leadership positions who are good advocates.

Comment by Jim Binnion on February 16, 2012 at 1:42am

I agree the practice of copying is widespread in both the fashion and the jewelry industry along with the DIY crowd. I wish I knew a way to stop it. We routinely get calls from both people in the jewelry trade and potential retail clients asking us to copy another designers work. We had someone from the trade hang up on my wife today because she told him we would not copy another persons work.

With that said I'm not sure what can be done about it. Even with evidence of what appears to be blatant copying the cost of taking someone to court is many tens of thousands of dollars and these cases are not easy to prove. Often all that is achieved is a cease and desist order with no monetary award so that $40,000 lawyer bill is yours to pay. My own personal belief is the way to deal with rip offs is to keep moving forward with your design work.

The other thing is to try to educate artists to be business people, it is much easier to protect your works if you can pay the lawyers.  But in my past experience teaching college classes there was no interest in teaching students business or professional jewelry skills because after all "we are in the art department".

When you say:

"We're postulating that perhaps the people who create the means of conferring said class, status and power acquire a bit more of it for themselves."

I believe the only way that will happen is if the artist becomes a business person as well as an artist and from my perspective that is not ok with the artists. I have advocated for this for many years and the response is generally pretty negative.

Comment by 2Roses on February 16, 2012 at 12:27am

Jim the issue (and implication) is not that designers at fashion houses lack design ability as much as a general indictment related to design integrity. There are lots of fantastic designers working in the commercial arena, and your point acknowledging the restraints imposed on the discipline is well taken. The issue here is also very much NOT related to materials. For the reasons you point out, that is simply one of the constraints of the market these designers serve.

You can make a case for the idea that all work is derivative, and in a philosophical sense I would agree. What is really at the core of this discussion is:

1. the widespread practice within the fashion industry of knocking off designs. It is so ubiquitous it is considered standard business practice. We point this out just for reference, as we are pragmatic enough to understand that there is not a damn thing any of us can do about it, except:

2. raise awareness among our peers that their designs are being profitably sold by companies that have a better capability to bring those designs to market.

I made a mistake on the Van Cleef & Arpels necklace, and I'm grateful to Michelle for catching that. But that does not negate the basic premise. Yes, jewelry has always been used to indicate class, status and power. We're postulating that perhaps the people who create the means of conferring said class, status and power acquire a bit more of it for themselves.

Comment by Jim Binnion on February 15, 2012 at 9:18pm

I'm going to throw something out there about the difference between jewelry and other forms.  When someone buys a major work of painting, sculpture, glass piece etc . It is often a way to demonstrate to the world or at least ones peers how sophisticated and wealthy one is. I think this applies to both individuals and institutions.  I think jewelry is seen the same way but due to its size the simplest way to show ones wealth and sophistication is to buy precious metal and gem encrusted baubles, to go for the Bling.  So of that wealthy 1% that can afford to spend big money I believe there is only a very small percentage who actually appreciate art and design for its own sake, the rest are just showing off.

Comment by Jim Binnion on February 15, 2012 at 9:05pm

I am always amazed at the implication that designers working for  big name luxury houses  somehow lack in design/artistic ability or sensibility. The reality is that the rich are extremely conservative in taste when it comes to jewelry.  A designer for a big name luxury goods house must design within a severely limited envelope. Constrained by the houses history, their clients limited esthetic sensibilities and material and manufacturing constraints . I doubt many of us could ( I certainly could not) function within those limitations. I also find it interesting how many conversations about derivative designs are done without a great deal of introspection about where our own influences and inspirations come from.  Most of us (myself included) don't have the historical knowledge of our craft that we should as this thread has illustrated.

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