By Cathleen McCarthy
When you learn a new skill, it’s human nature to copy the teacher, at least at the beginning, before you develop your own style. As soon as an established jewelry artist – or any artist – begins to teach jewelry making techniques to other artists, they face the dilemma: What do you share and what do you hold back?
To some degree, the answer will be influenced by how esoteric your technique is. If you happen to work in a time-consuming technique, requiring expensive equipment, chances are it will appeal mainly to the true artist. If it’s something like bead stringing or wirework, your designs may more vulnerable.
When Amy Roper Lyons teaches workshops on tricky forms of enameling such as plique-a-jour and cloisonné, she doesn’t worry much about copying. Because her techniques require years of practice to perfect, they appeal mainly to serious craftspeople.
Likewise, Jennifer Park doubts the techniques she teaches and blogs about, including cloisonné and granulation, will have much appeal to casual rip-off artists. “My attitude is: If you want to sit there and try to do what I do and spend this much time on the particulars of it? You go right ahead,” Park says, laughing. “It is not a quick and gratifying process.”
“Besides,” she adds, “it’s going to come out differently any way because it’s being processed by someone else’s brain. If you give an assignment to ten different people, it comes out ten different ways.”
For wire artist Sarah Thompson, the tools she teaches artists to use are basically pliers and your own fingers. Wire weaving is an accessible skill, and she’s good at making it accessible. What’s more, she laid it all out, step by step, complete with photos of her own designs, in a book that thousands of aspiring jewelry artists are reading,
As soon as Thompson started instructing wire-working classes, she began cataloging her teaching points, with the idea that she might have enough for a book, maybe ten years down the road. As it happens, her book Fine Art Wire Weaving happened a lot sooner. The book has been so well-received, it’s not only increased demand for her classes, it’s helped brand her design style. “If someone tries to copy me now,” she points out, “people are more likely to say, ‘Oh, that looks like Sarah Thompson’s work.’”
Nevertheless, she knew she was making her designs vulnerable to copying. “That is something I’ve had to come to terms with,” she admits. “Being a teacher, I am giving people the ability to create. I don’t have a problem with people taking the designs I teach and doing whatever they want with it.”
It’s a little harder when someone copies her master designs. “Occasionally, someone tries to duplicate those, and that does bother me, because I’ve put so much time into it – often 20 to 30 hours on one piece – and I’m proud of having such a unique design. It’s when they sell it and try to market it as their own that’s hard.”
How do you deal with that? For one thing, it helps to know there are new designs around the corner. “I know they can’t do my designs nearly as well as I can. And I have the talent of being able to come up with design after design after design. A lot of people struggle with where to begin. That’s something I don’t have a problem with. I know I’ll always be able to come up with more.”
“I also try to stay ahead of the curve,” Thompson says. “I’m always working on new design elements and anything I’m currently working on, I don’t teach. There are always design elements I don’t use any more. That’s what I teach and put into the book. It’s not that they’re trade secrets. Someone could figure it out, I’m just not teaching it. More than anything, it’s the complexity that I kept out of the book.”
NET PROFITS is a regular feature about using the Internet for jewelry selling of special interest to those with a home-based jewelry business that appears in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist. Learn more in “Teaching Bonuses.”
CATHLEEN MCCARTHY has written about jewelry and business for Town & Country, Art & Antiques, Washington Post, and on her own site, The Jewelry Loupe. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.