Recent Sightings: Fair in Baltimore

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By Bruce MetcalfMore from this author

This article series from Metalsmith Magazine is named "Recent Sightings" where Bruce Metcalf talks about art, craftsmanship, design, the artists, and techniques. For this 1993 Summer issue, he talks the crafts fair in Baltimore he visited.


It had been a long time since I had seen one of the big ACC crafts fairs. The last time I saw one, there was only one big fair, and it was in Rhinebeck, New York. (Does that date me, or what?) So, when I went to this spring's big fair in Baltimore, I didn't know what to expect. It was supposed to be a cross-section of the best of American production crafts, and with over 1300 exhibitors, it was bigger than I could imagine.

Some of the production jewelers I admire most were there: Ken Loeber; Don Friedlich; and Didi Suydam among them. I saw some very distinctive jewelry too: George Sawyer's edge-grain gold mokumé rings; David Urso's vegetable-dyed, cast plastic pendants; Valerie Hector's beaded necklaces; and Cheryl Rydmark's delicate constructions. These were the high points.

The low points were far more numerous. The vast majority of the jewelry at Baltimore was derived from one of several American production jewelers. Let me run down the list of widely imitated looks and their original authors: Simple forged chokers, sometimes with a half-twist in the middle: Ron Pearson. Flat sawn and decorated shapes encrusted with colored gems: Pat Garrett. Long snake-chains with hollow forms with relief patterns: Jan Yager. Neo-primitive wire-and-sheet constructions: Carolyn Morris Bach. Gold granulation in symmetrical forms with occasional gems: Robert Kulike and Jean Reist Stark. Robert Lee Morris forms in earrings and chains. The "primary images" of Sandra Enterline, Didi Suydam, and Lisa Gralnick are starting to crop up, as are Barbara Heinrich's polished edges on leaf-like chains. Small squiggles, square & round spirals, dots & dashes, and layers upon layers of flat anodized metal also proliferated.

There were some cases of bald-faced, outright theft. Most of the enameled jewelry looked a whole lot like Colette had done them. One booth featured cast spoons from plastic flatware, model parts, and figures, like Fred Woell's work, but without the pointed satire. Another booth prominently displayed several Jan Yager rip-offs. Significantly, none of the imitations had the depth or subtlety of the originals.

Still, I was amazed. The costume-jewelry trade has a reputation for being totally unscrupulous, willing to knock off any design that appears salable. Well, the same thing is rife in the hand crafted jewelry biz, too. Originality and integrity seem to be in short supply out there.

Later, I got to thinking. Craft has been a self-conscious pursuit for several centuries now. By the end of the 16th century, pattern-books were commonplace. These were books of engravings of the latest styles in architecture, furniture, silverwork, and other luxury crafts that issued from the capitals of Europe, to be disseminated in the provinces and colonies. In Moscow or New York artisans could get the latest fashions from Paris or London, and imitate them to the best of their abilities. The wealthiest clients could insist on exact copies, but more often the provincial craftsman modified designs to suit the frequently modest budgets and conservative tastes of his audience. Numerous styles and dozens of short-lived revivals emerged from the fashion centers, to be copied, mixed, and matched out in the sticks. The history of craft is largely a story of shameless copy-work and unattributed imitation.

Originators of stylistic inventions were also the authors of pattern-books, so they profited from disseminating their designs. The pattern-book was clearly intended to stimulate imitation. In addition, the inventors of new styles were usually busy servicing one urban market, and they weren't necessarily interested in the provinces. Lastly, the process of engraving illustrations for books took years of work, and designs sometimes took decades to reach remote and conservative markets. The present situation is different in several ways. Nowadays, the equivalents of the pattern-books are craft magazines, books, and catalogues, as well as the craft fairs themselves. The dissemination of information is international and almost instantaneous, so design innovators are no longer protected by a structural time lag. A competitor can see what an artist is doing the moment it is introduced and they can be producing knock-offs in a matter of weeks.

History also demonstrates that the marketplace is deeply ambivalent about innovation. Sometimes design classics are accepted quickly, like the famous Breuer B32 tubular steel chair, which is still manufactured today. But the typical experience of innovators can be illustrated by artists like Jan Yager, who operated on a shoestring for a number of years before her "pillow" forms and necklaces with pebbles were successful. Most design inventions face a period of public resistance, while the new idea gradually looses its strangeness. Meanwhile, the designer has to "pay some dues" in the form of a reduced income, or else she must rely on a line of more familiar designs to pay her bills.

And, of course, by the time Jan Yager's designs took off, any number of people had already started to rip her off. Lesser talents recognized that there was money to be made, and, not wanting to go through periods of trial-and-error development and waiting for market acceptance, they took the easy way out. Since the marketplace puts little premium on origination, Yager's coattails afforded a free ride for quite a few jewelers.

It's really a matter of fear: fear of failure; fear of risk; fear of not getting a comfortable bottom line. Those who are unwilling to develop their own designs believe that the safest alternative is to copy. They hope to profit from their predecessor's success, while minimizing their own risk. Finally, the irony is that the most durable successes in the crafts's marketplace are enjoyed by those who consistently offer a recognizable difference from the crowd. The best buyers, and the higher price-points, go to those who separate themselves from the herd by refusing to imitate anyone else, and by producing designs that are difficult to steal. The knock-off artists turn from one theft to another, and never develop their own "signature style". In the end, they relegate themselves to the lower tiers of the marketplace, and remain stuck there. Imitation is its own punishment.

Still, I'm saddened by the loss of idealism that such relentless theft represents. In the '50s and '60s, one of the main attractions of the life devoted to handcraft was its apparent integrity. One could make a modest living without kissing the butt of corporate America, or being forced to live near a city or compromising one's sense of individuality. The craft life stood for nonconformity. It also stood for a rejection of the fear that comes from the slavish desire to be acceptable. But now there's big money to be made. Things sure have changed.

Bruce Metcalf actually worked for a production jewelry studio once. He now works strictly one-of-a-kind in Philadelphia.

By Bruce Metcalf
Metalsmith Magazine – 1993 Summer
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Bruce Metcalf

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