Changes are afoot! But change is a good thing, right?! Sometimes…
I launched my website, Hieropice.com, in November. It was an exciting venture, to create a website that was truly my own, that I could design, tweak, make. It is a venue accessible to anyone, whether they’re familiar with Etsy, or Hieropice, or not. I can include features there that I can’t on Etsy, like images from Polyvore, where users have styled ensembles with Hieropice pieces, as well as my local craft-show itinerary, links to my blog, and a gallery of custom pieces I’ve made in the past. I get to control the look and feel of the site, and make it match my brand.
While making Hieropice items available to customers from a variety of venues is good business sense, it wasn’t my sole motivation for opening Hieropice.com. At the beginning of November, handmade, vintage, and supply site Etsy, which had been Hieropice’s primary online home, made some changes to the site’s policies which were…difficult for me, as a handmade jewelry artist.
Shortly before my older brother passed away recently, he asked me, “what’s the big deal about handmade anyway? I don’t get what could possibly be better about something someone’s making with their hands versus a machine.”
I get his inquiry. Machine-made things are not only great, but they’re sometimes essential. I expect my car to be machine-made, my electronics, my appliances. I know these items often have elements of human assembly, but I feel comfortable with the fact that a machine manufactures them primarily, making each one identical to the next, precise, solid, consistent.
But for things that I connect with in an intimate way, handmade matters. When I go out to eat at a restaurant, I think about what I’m consuming, where things were grown, even what the creatures I’m consuming consumed when they were alive! I think about how a dish was prepared, how the surface it was prepared on was prepared, what herbs, spices, fats, proteins and vegetables went into it, the manner in which it was cooked. Most of us have thought more about these things as our knowledge of the effects of food on our bodies and our environment has grown. We care where our food comes from, and what’s in it, as we care about what it does to us, to those around us, and our environment. And we appreciate being able to ask the people who grew it, prepared it, cooked it, served it, questions about it. And knowing that someone is accountable for it.
Handmade, in whatever form it may take, is valuable for these reasons. When I create a handmade piece, you can ask me anything under the sun about it. What is this made of? Where does the material come from? What’s the history of this technique? And I can tell you. (And if I don’t know off-hand, I’ll certainly do my research!) I’m accountable for what I make, so, it matters to me what it’s made of, where the materials come from and if they were acquired responsibly, whether the piece stands the test of time, whether a buyer is happy with it. A machine simply doesn’t have an opinion about any of those things, and when it’s pumping out thousands of one thing at a time with a focus on speed and quantity, it becomes difficult to even determine where issues may arise, where flaws may be, and who’s accountable for them.
For example, there are materials often used in jewelry, like coral and diamonds, that have controversial histories. Some diamonds originate in areas where violence and exploitation play a major part in their acquisition, and some coral is harvested with methods that destroy environmentally-critical coral reefs. (The coral used in Hieropice pieces is sustainably-harvested) For me, as a handmade-maker who is accountable, I could never be comfortable with selling pieces that include materials with those origins. Because I value my work, and am focused on its quality versus the monetary gains it might provide, and I know that my customers would also expect me to make my pieces responsibly, I try to ensure that my work reflects my values. And if, at any point, I discover a material I’m using has origins I cannot support, I have an obligation to discontinue using it. Like most handmade artisans, I am a singular, accessible artist. There’s no corporation for me to hide behind with an endless labyrinth of communication barriers, no machinery that must be re-designed or dismantled in the event of a production concern, no “bottom line” I’d have to consider before removing a questionable material from my work. There’s just me!
A handmade-maker offers a potential customer the ability to collaborate, though they may not be an artist themself, and have a concept they’ve only imagined realized. Buying handmade allows you to customize a piece, and have something unique and one-of-a-kind created. I like knowing the handmade piece I own is the only one in existence. Or the piece I’ve designed for a loved one was created with them; their specific preferences, wants and needs, in-mind. Some of the most fun and creative pieces I’ve made have been custom requests, like the miniature terrarium necklace I created for a woman to give to her sister, who loves pigs and grew up raising them on the family farm. The manufactured items in my home are useful, no-doubt, but I’m pretty sure a million other people have the same laptop and bookshelf I do… Handmade items have a “special-ness” that mass-produced items just don’t.
When a person receives a handmade piece, they get something that someone has connected with, labored over, that contains the artists’ imagination and vision, the benefit of their years of study and practice, their skill, their unique method. You know how groups of people go to those trendy painting parties, and they all try to copy a known painting, and every participant’s painting comes out looking totally different at the end of the evening? Every artist creates differently, and interprets differently, and infuses their distinct perspective into what they create. While other artisans can imitate pieces that I create, I try very hard to ensure that my pieces are truly my own, and that only I could create them, the way I do, as they are.
And there’s always a story behind a handmade piece, which in itself, has value. I have always loved nature, and when I learned how to make full-size terrariums; natural environments encased in glass with soil and charcoal and plants and moss, I was SO excited to share them with people. But while friends, family, and customers appreciated the beauty of those terraria, they expressed fear that they’d be unable to keep the plants lush and green and alive! So I came up with a concept that would allow fellow nature-lovers to keep an encapsulated natural environment with them, without the maintenance. And building the miniature terraria allowed me to imagine more and more tiny environments, some that I’d never be able to capture in nature, like the Winter White Terrarium Necklace. And so my obsession continues! With a handmade piece you get a story, about what inspired it, why the artist made it, how they made it, and their vision for its use. You get a tale to recount to friends and family when they ask “where’d you get your necklace?” And there’s a certain measure of pride when you can say, “a local artist made it, because…” I’m not sure if my tea kettle has an interesting story behind it, but I certainly can’t ask the machine that made it!
So, that’s why handmade is great! I wish I had answered my brother this way when he asked. But it was difficult to articulate. And all of those things, the accountability, the customization, the uniqueness, the artistic vision, the story, have been a part of buying on Etsy, the biggest online handmade marketplace in existence. But, their policy, as of November 1st, 2013, now reads “Etsy’s new policies allow you to partner with manufacturers to produce your designs. A manufacturer is any outside business that helps make your items. For example, you can work with a foundry that casts jewelry you’ve designed, a studio that fires pottery you’ve thrown, or a factory that cuts and sews clothing you’ve created. Handmade items must begin with the imagination and creativity of the member operating the Etsy shop. Sellers can use the help of other shop members, or outside manufacturers, to bring their visions to life.”
Hmm. Reading that gave me pause. Etsy administrators held a “town hall” where they explained how this new version of Etsy would function, with sellers now able to send designs overseas to be manufactured, to have items shipped from other locations directly to their customers. For some of my Etsy friends, this means wonderful things, like they can now sell books featuring their original illustrations on Etsy. But the policy change also means that a person’s hands don’t actually need to participate in the creation of the items they sell on Etsy. Items can be manufactured by machines, and by their essence, not handmade. The shop owner has to participate in the creative process of their items, but there’s no definition of that participation. For some, that could be simply choosing the color chair or dress they want made out of a manufacturer’s catalog. And when the items I make contain all of the tenets of handmade I described above, and are in a “handmade” marketplace alongside items that are being pumped out by a factory, it troubles me. I know that major designers do this typically; Karl Lagerfeld and Diane Von Furstenburg don’t sew a single stitch on the garments that bear their names. And it has honestly always bothered me! It seems to be the mark of becoming majorly successful as an artist, to become increasingly disconnected from your work. At the same time, major designers aren’t selling their items in a “handmade marketplace,” nor claiming they hand-make them themselves. Etsy has made its name as the preeminent handmade marketplace. But when items are losing multiple essential elements of handmade; the hand-labor, the uniqueness, the story, the accountability, etc., they no longer meet my expectations of handmade. So, while I’m keeping Hieropice on Etsy open, I’ve created Hieropice.com to honor true handmade, and all that that entails. Etsy is a fine marketplace, that still contains a great deal of truly handmade items, and still deserves your patronage. There are many dedicated artists who sell on Etsy, including me! But Hieropice.com will be a handmade venue exclusively featuring my work, and I hope that you’ll support it (and true handmade), as well!