Thursday, July 7, 2022

What is Handmade? A Rant.

Nancy in Guatemala
I launched Dunitz & Company back in 1989. And I have focused on our handmade fair trade jewelry collection since the early 1990s. I have spent countless hours with artisans in Guatemala. We've worked out designs together at beading tables. I've sketched many a jewelry concept. Artists have presented their ideas to me. I've watched my colleagues laboriously craft countless pieces of jewelry. What Dunitz & Company offers is definitely handmade. And as an integral part of the design process, I can without hesitation confirm that our designs are original and not mass produced.



When did the definition of handmade change? At many junctures over the years, we've seen the definition of handmade change and/or be questioned.

One of the first times Dunitz & Company was affected by how people defined "handmade" was when the New York Gift Show decided to reorganize their show.  And after that, most of major trade shows followed suit. In the "old days" everything considered handmade was presented to customers in the same section. And then it was decided that artists making their goods in the first world (USA, Canada, Europe, even Japan) were different than artists working in developing countries. My theory was American artists complained about being in the same room as those working in Africa or Central America because designs from developing nations tend to be less expensive. So, it happened. It didn't matter if your designs were ethnic or contemporary, we were all segregated into sections based on where physically artisans produced goods.  I had always preferred it when everyone was all mixed up in a hall. I found I was able to sell to a more diverse group of retailers who "shopped" the entire handmade section regardless of where things were made. I found retailers were searching for a "look." They weren't necessarily shopping price or visiting what was now perceived as the "ethnic" sections of the shows. Bottom line. It is what it is. And it was what it was. We didn't have control of our locations. We took what we got and hoped enough buyers found us.

I know it's a dirty word. Amazon. Dunitz & Company does sell some designs on Amazon Handmade. [Did you know there is a juried handmade section on Amazon?] We do not sell to Amazon resellers. (In fact, we do our very best screen retailers so we don't sell to those that  buy wholesale and then resell on Etsy, eBay, Facebook or Instagram.) [One time a major mail order catalog placed an order for our botanical earrings, and at one point I saw them being offered on an advertisement on eBay. I wanted to pull my hair out. The amusing thing was they described poppies as dahlias and dahlias as poppies. No wonder they couldn't sell those earrings well.] 

We didn't jump on the B2C bandwagon until very late in the game.  Our wholesale business was ample, and stores always asked if we retailed. We learned if companies sold direct to consumers, those retail store buyers would not buy from them. It didn't take the world very long to change and retailers didn't have the luxury of walking away any longer.  We have fair trade colleagues who were emphatic that they would never sell direct to retailers. They all do now.

Having said all this, there was a time in 2017 that Amazon was at the New York Gift Show actively recruiting vendors to sell in their then new 'Amazon Handmade' section. I'm certain Amazon was attempting to compete with Etsy, another B2C website focused on handmade goods.  In the beginning these sites were struggling with their definition of handmade.  Was handmade a first world artist working at their desk making as many earrings as they could make in a day?  Was handmade that first world artist with a few or many employees making their designs at work tables? Did handmade include products made by artisans in developing countries? And on and on. Since these are publicly traded companies, I'm sure the end game was and is to most broadly define handmade so the most sales can be made.  What was clear at that New York Gift Show, Amazon Handmade actively pursued me. Their representatives were very clear that I, a designer working with artisans in Guatemala and a vetted member of Fair Trade Federation would have easy clearance to sell on Amazon Handmade. And that AH rep was right. Dunitz & Company was accepted and up and running quickly. 

Crafting Earrings
So what happened recently? Amazon Handmade questioned whether Dunitz & Company jewelry was handmade or not. Seriously! After being vetted by them back in the day, it was as if they wanted to vet us all over again. They even started singling out products in our collection. The designs they were questioning couldn't be anything other than handmade. They wanted proof that our beaded teardrop earrings were made by artisans (and not by machine?) They singled out our beaded coral necklaces, one of the very first designs I offered in the 1990s. One friend of mine suggested that a competitor who had copied our designs had written in to Amazon Handmade complaining. It can be dirty business selling on some of these B2C websites. It is true that these two designs singled out are two of our oldest and most copied by other companies. If they didn't sell well, I would have retired them long ago.


Beading Coral Necklace

How do you prove to Amazon Handmade that your product is in fact handmade? Their definition of handmade? Videos showing artisans making our glass earrings, embroidered & beaded jewelry and yarmulkes was not good enough. Proof of Fair Trade Federation membership is not ample. What was the clincher, I think? I asked the artisans that create our work if they could snap a few photos with the teardrop earrings and beaded necklaces in front of some old Dunitz & Company posters that hang in the workshop.  It was a lot of work to convince AH reps that I was not buying from Alibaba in China. After several emails, AH reps informed me I could still offer my designs in their handmade section. 

AFTER NOTE: 7/12/22 - Not yet 3 weeks after this Amazon Ordeal described above, they have written me again, threatening that Dunitz will be removed from their Handmade section because they're questioning our work. Let's see where it goes. The result might be we no longer vend on Amazon. And now 7/13/22, they report once again, I'm good to go on Amazon Handmade. What a roller coaster!

Oh my gosh. I think today's rant is over.  I'm sure this isn't the end of Dunitz & Company justifying our artisan jewelry is in fact handmade. But, these are my stories for today.  How do you define handmade? -ND