A few Thoughts about Jewelry Design: Copying vs.Transforming

Have you ever noticed that in the world of design there is a lot of copying going on? If one designer starts making feather earrings with gemstone dangles and they become popular, suddenly others will appear.

In fashion whole idea is to sell—not that art for art’s sake isn’t important--but sales are crucial because they are a designer’s principal form of feedback. If a style of earring is selling, more will be made until the market is saturated. It’s a matter of supply and demand.

As I see it, though, there are two kinds of copying. The first is a direct copy, usually cheaper than the original. Think of a knockoff coach bag without the fine leather, replaced by vinyl, and you have a pretty good example of this first kind of copying. It’s all about riding on the tail of the original. Originality isn’t important to the creator because making the copy isn’t about making art. It’s about producing a commodity for a quick sale.

The second kind of copying is more profound , and all good designers do it. One design is used as a basis for another, but a transformation and development occurs in the process. You can see elements of the thing that was imitated, but there’s an entirely new and refreshing interpretation of it.

Let’s say that a handbag designer has a spark of inspiration triggered by an old saddlebag. A saddlebag is a rustic but useful carryall. It’s practical and has a lot of the qualities one would want in a handbag, but as it is, it wouldn’t work.

The creative problem is how to take this ordinary, overlooked thing and transform it from a saddlebag into something entirely new and exciting. The saddlebag idea is interesting because it has a distinctly American feel we associate with the Old West.

Most of the creativity will consist of reshaping the saddlebag, refining it until it becomes barely recognizable yet still contains elements of the original. It might have deep fold over pockets with snaps on the front, for example, like a typical saddlebag, but the pockets might be made out of very expensive black quilted leather and the snaps might be gold toned.

I first understood the depth of this principle when I attended fashion week in Milan in the early nineties. That year, the theme seemed to be running shoes, based on the designs of Nike. All of the shoes had that same rugged nylon material with tiny holes in it, and the distinctive colors and swirls, but the design concept was taken to extremes.

In an instant, running shoes had become boots, very fancy and elegant sandals, women’s flats, and even high heels. Some of the designs were so extreme that they could never really be worn. Through all of the wildness, it was apparent that a new idea was being communicated -- elements of running shoes can be applied to other kinds of shoes to make them more practical and attractive. Since then, the design principle has stuck. My favorite shoes, for example, are Privo. They are semi-casual black shoes that combine elements of running shoes with ballet flats (a whole other topic), and I wear them everywhere, even with a dressier outfit at night. All of this began with Milan’s fashion week in the nineties. Before that, running shoes were only running shoes.

When I see designs being copied, I always ask myself what the purpose of the copy is. Is it simply a knockoff? Or has the design undergone a process of transformation and development that makes it refreshing and new? If your goal is to become a better designer, you’ll strive for the latter.

Marcia Southwick of B Bold Jewelry for Boomer Girls on Ruby Lane


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