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  • Writer's picturePaul Richter

Made from scratch. My take on "custom".

As someone who designs and manufactures one-of-a-kind jewellery and relies solely upon this skill and trade to make ends meet, I am often faced with a variety of challenges. Some of these challenges are of a physical nature, in terms of the practical aspect of creating a jewellery item. Other times they manifest as emotional challenges. More specifically, the challenge of maintaining high level of integrity and a strict code of ethics. For an example of the latter, I will use the example of selling a diamond to a client. It would be very wrong ethically to sell someone a cubic zirconia under the pretense that it is a diamond. Yes, indeed this would be illegal, not to mention really stupid. This is however an extreme example I am using to set the stage for the following insight.

Another morality based "challenge" presents itself rather frequently in this business. Those in the business will identify and no-doubt agree with this issue. As much as we strive for the freedom to be able to create unique pieces all of the time, it is not always totally possible. Many of us would relish the freedom of being able to sit every day and create our own designs that are purely statements of our own tastes and expressions. However, as I work hard to ensure that I can pay the bills each month, I'm always at the mercy of how many people appear at my workshop door, to provide me with the opportunity to create the jewellery of their dreams, desires, and needs. More often than not a client will approach me with an idea, a concept, or pictures of designs that they have seen elsewhere. These days it is a lot simpler than even 10 years ago, where clients will "google" a certain aspect or aspects that they are looking for in a ring (as an example) and then email the pictures or links to the pictures. Others arrive with printed pictures. Others will come with a concept that they have come up with and have me help them to develop this concept and bring it into reality for them. This is a normal part of my job. As a designer goldsmith, I will offer opinions and suggestions to help create a piece that is robust, practical, feasible and unique, while maintaining all of the aspects that the client is looking for. This alone is a skill; to be able to take the client's ideas and desires and then bring it to life. The analogy that springs to mind is a direct comparison to an architect and a structural engineer. The architect will design a conceptual structure. It will then in many cases be the task of the structural engineer to engineer the design to create the plan that will allow the design to come to life in a sound, structurally safe and practical way. In many cases I am the "structural engineer" in a way, because I will advise on the material choices, the differences in strength qualities, the different finishes that can be provided and most importantly, the most sound way of creating the piece so as to allow for longevity and low maintenance. A piece that the wearer can wear and enjoy without worrying that it will fall apart, distort under pressure or perhaps wear away in too short a time. This is takes foresight, grounded on insight, stemming from experience. Yes, in many ways the business of creating a piece of jewellery is a lot more technical than many would think. I for one put a lot care and an extensive amount of thought into each and every piece that I create. It's not "easy", yet it is (as with any other trade), necessary and invaluable to put this thought into every project. Why? Because no matter how similar one piece may look to another, I can assure you that each and every piece that is "custom created" from start to finish is, in effect, unique. Similar looks, yes. However, unless specifically created to be exactly the same, each piece remains unique. I speak for myself and my operation here.

I used to feel as if I was morally corrupt by being a craftsman with a superior ability to recreate existing designs by simply looking at a photograph. This skill was honed in a period of my apprenticeship in South Africa which started 30 years ago. Part of my job was to be able to take, for example, an existing earring and hand make a replacement for the one that was missing for whatever reason. Other times over the years, it would be to recreate, as an example, rings that were lost or stolen. For sentimental reasons, the client wanted to have their exact ring replaced. Sometimes this would be a blurry photograph of a hand showing a ring that couldn't be zoomed in on, since these were the pre-digital, pre-google days. This is an acquired, practiced, skill. However some may see it as the same skill that a fraudster possesses to use in illegitimate ways for creating phony bank notes and documents. Illegal, yet highly skilled. In my case, my "pirating" skills can be used for a good cause.

Over the years, I have been approached by many people that have come to me with a specific picture of a specific design that they have seen elsewhere. Seeing as I am eager to understand everything, coupled with my straightforward demeanor, I used to ask prospective clients why they would want me to re-create something that has already been produced and is available for purchase elsewhere. After asking many over the years, I boiled the responses down to a few common denominators. The most common answer was similarly to this: "She loves this design, but I want a custom made ring for her." If I wanted to go bankrupt, I could always say no, I don't perform such operations. The client would happily seek out someone else who would gladly oblige. That would be very counterproductive to paying my bills. So what I do actually do to make sure that I am happy and more importantly, that the client is happy is this: I endeavor to improve on the design. I recreate it to maintain the overall look of the original, but I add a lot of thought into small details that may not always be appreciated by the recipient, but the client who commissioned me to create the piece is left with a feeling that I took extra effort and care to create a truly custom piece, even if it was along the same lines as an existing design. This is one of the areas where I provide value for money when creating a one-of-a-kind item. Even if it is based on someone else's design. You may have already noticed if your were to search on line, for example, "halo diamond ring". There are literally hundreds of different takes on the same style. Some of them are exquisite. Some of them leave a lot to be desired. I always try to finish with a product in the former category.

This leads me to the another factor in the equation in terms of recreating an existing piece. The reality exists that certain clients come to me and ask me to create a piece of jewellery that they saw on my Facebook page or website. This is really flattering. I feel happy that someone would like something I created so much that they want one for themselves. However, the same dilemma exists. Firstly, I would hate to upset anyone that I've made a piece for previously by simply regurgitating an exact copy. I would feel like a cheat. But what if the client really wants me to produce said item. I suppose I could always say no. I suppose I could turn them away and lose that potential business. That would again be very counter productive. I suppose I could also close up shop and go get a job at Macdonald's. Unfortunately I don't entertain such thoughts, due to the fact that I love what I do and this is how I chose to make a living. I am one of very few lucky people that can honestly say that I love what I do and I have to drag myself away from work every day. I also know that if I did turn the client away by declining this request, they would happily proceed to seeking out another craftsman that would happily attempt to recreate the piece for them. I have no control over this. I would be leaving them with no choice. This is what has been happening since humans started walking upright a zillion years ago. That is why copyrights and patents evolved. That is why I won't create a piece of jewellery where I would be infringing on trademark rights, patents or copyrights.

How do I deal with this eventuality? When someone wants a ring the same as I have already created, as an example? Well. As stated, I could refuse and eventually look at bankruptcy. Or, as I can and actually do, I can create a piece that is similar. Similar in style, yet dissimilar if looked at closely. I may add a diamond here or there, the curves may be more dramatic or softer, the height of the stones may differ, the thickness of the shank may differ. It may be very similar and aesthetically as beautiful as the former ring, but it will still be blatantly unique if compared. The client is thoroughly pleased and I feel satisfied that I can sleep at night with a clear conscience, knowing that I have taken both my new client as well as my former client's feeling into account. Disclaimer: Of course, some might adopt the opposite argument. The one where all of the similarities are pointed out. I suppose this is akin to the "glass half full/glass half empty" state of being.

What happens though if a client comes to me with a concept. Let's call it his or her design. It happens very often. A lot of people like to be able to say that they designed the item. I totally understand this. I actually support it too. It speaks volumes about their personality that want to be perceived as the person who took extra effort and time to put a lot of thought into the piece. I think that this is a very endearing trait. I'm a bit of a sentimental traditionalist. I will work with the person to turn the design into what is practical and beautiful. This is another one of my skills. I am not usually as arrogant as to say this sort of thing- but I am proud of this ability and I am very good at it. This is why people choose to me in a lot of cases. Bare with me as I digress into a story of example which will tie in with this thought. I used to work with a person in Vancouver who decided that he wanted to become a jewellery designer. He commissioned me to be the guy that produces his designs. He could have chosen anyone, but I think he liked the flavour which I infuse into my work. If he had asked several different people to create the same concept, he would have received 5 extremely different finished products. Some would be poor in form and finish. Some would be okay. Some would be exquisite. However, they would all be unique renditions of the same idea. In this gentleman's case, the challenge I faced was that he has absolutely no concept of how jewellery, in particular, rings, are created. He also had no concept of how to sketch or draw. He would buy beautiful gems that he liked and then come up with a general layout and provide me with what I can only politely state as being "very rudimentary sketches" to accompany his textual list of ideas. He is not a designer. I took upon the task of creating pieces of jewellery which turned out above his expectations. Jewellery I could be proud of. As previously mentioned, another person's rendition would have turned out differently. Maybe beautiful, maybe not. I am not an elitist, but I was proud of my work and he was very happy. One day I mentioned that I showed a ring which I had just finished making for him to a friend of mine who is in the jewellery trade who was very impressed. All I was doing was trying to gauge an outside perspective of someone else's opinion. I thought he would be excited to hear this. More fool me. He exploded. I received a registered letter containing a document stating that if I am to further make any jewellery for him, I was to sign a non-disclosure agreement citing that nobody is allowed to see the design or product. Before I returned the blank unsigned agreement to him , I wrote a letter stating why I would not comply. The reasoning was simple. The designs were infused with my style and flair. If indeed I was to sign that agreement and then he later saw a ring that even remotely resembled one that I had produced for him, he would likely sue me. Give me an idea. Give me as much detail as possible. Sit with me for hours and discuss the details. Design the ring concept. I totally support your wish to be recognized as the designer. However, when I sit down as an experienced goldsmith to create the article, I infuse it with a lot of, well, let's just say a lot of "myself". I am passionate about what I do. Many would say, and have said, that it is evident. This is what makes me happy in life. That and a my children and special people in my life. I'm rather simple really. The irony of the situation is that this gentleman in Vancouver was listing these rings on his website from where he was selling them as his designs. Anyone could see them at any time for free. Anyone could take those ideas and copy them if they so wished. I told him I would continue to work for him if he wanted, but I will not sign any agreement of such nature. He was quiet for a while after that. Months later he approached me to start on a design for him. He also asked me if he could sent me a couple of rings that others had made in the meantime to see if I could "fix" or "modify" them as they were of such inferior quality and workmanship. Secretly I felt quite warm and fuzzy as if to say to myself quietly, "big surprise". I declined to work further for him based on the fact that perhaps I am too proud.

The point of this digression is actually stated within the text. To summarize and clarify, I will say this: someone may have created the concept. Or let's say "designed" the piece. I will then produce the piece based on this conceptual guideline. It is therefore unique to what I personally have created.

I have many different styles. I'm eclectic. I like straight lines and angles. I like flowing organic lines. I like white gold. I like yellow gold. I like coloured gems. I like diamonds. If you were to ask me what I find the most fun to produce (even if it's not always about having fun, it's a business requiring a lot of patience and skill, every single time I make something) then I would have to say that I absolutely LOVE flowing, organic, free-flow concepts. As difficult as it is to produce straight lines and angles, I spend an inordinate amount of time and effort on the "organic" shapes. They aren't simply blobs of metal somewhat resembling gentle curves. They are curves and finessed surfaces that take a lot of time to get to the point where I am personally happy and satisfied. Only then do I proceed to polishing the finished product prior to photographing it and calling up my client or emailing them to come and see it. I'm always exited to see the reaction.

Eventually I've arrived at the bottom line, which is this: The wheel was invented many years ago. Yet there are all different shapes and sizes of wheels. They all have one thing in common; they are all round. In the same way, jewellery has been around forever. It comes in various shapes and sizes. Many people create organic jewellery of angular jewellery. Each of my pieces is unique, even if it is only slightly different, unless it is required to be precisely the same as a previous one. Where necessary and possible I will do so. Everything I create is "made from scratch" which makes it custom and unique.

Images taken of me at work in my studio.
Working at the bench



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