Betsy & Iya's cuff on left, unknown knockoff on right.
Image: Betsy & Iya
Betsy & Iya's cuff on left, unknown knockoff on right.

When you’re growing up and some girl in high school copies your signature off-the-shoulder sweatshirt look, your mom will always give you the classic line, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Well, that might be true in some instances, but in the world of small designers being possibly ripped off by major players, it’s gut wrenching. We’ve written about it before when the New York Times highlighted cheap knockoffs of Elizabeth Dye’s beautiful gowns, and now it appears our local style community has been hit again.

Last week, Betsy Cross from Betsy & Iya discovered a seemingly exact replica of their Fremont cuff (my personal favorite bracelet and one we’ve mentioned many times), minus their authentication stamp being sold all over the internet. 

Here’s the story of how a small business owner is hurt in the world of “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

Last week, someone we know went into an independent boutique and discovered a piece that looked a lot like our Fremont cuff bracelet for sale for $16. She bought it and gave it to us to have a look.

The tricky thing is that only one of these bracelets is the Fremont Bridge cuff that you’ve heard about herehere, and here. Only one of them is the cuff you’ve purchased at our store, online, at a show, at one of our amazing retailers’ shops. The other one isn’t. The other one is a cuff bracelet that we have not thought up or touched or sold. This is not our cuff. This is a cuff bracelet that we believe is made in China and that is distributed by a wholesale accessories company with an office in NY. They sell their cuff to other retailers for only $5. We believe they may have copied our design.

Last week, when I first held this other cuff, confusion, sadness, disbelief, heartbreak, cloudy head all set in. Last week, I was a wreck. All I could think about were the countless hours and the countless steps it took to take that idea from just that–a shy, fuzzy little bug of an idea–to the real life, original Fremont Bridge cuffs we produce everyday in our Portland shop and studio. Every possible scenario poured in and out of my head about how this could have happened or what it could mean for us. We soon discovered the cuff on other retail websites (all for under $20 retail), and the spiral continued. It is one of the most helpless feelings I’ve ever experienced in my life.

Image: Betsy & Iya
Nearly identical, minus authentication stamp.

I’ve had good friends in similar situations and it’s just so disheartening to know there’s really not much we can do as smaller designers to protect our ideas, our product, our work. Legal action to stop big companies from copying designs would take some serious money, time, and effort. It is my opinion that bigger companies know this. They know smaller designers really don’t have the resources to protect their designs from duplication. The guard isn’t asleep, she’s just not equipped to defeat a team of robots with laser guns and jet packs and an appetite for fresh ideas. 

That’s where this post comes in. I figure if we can expose our process, our business, the care that we put into our work to even just ten people, maybe those people will affect their economies in positive ways by understanding what it means to support a smaller designer, a small shop that supports small designers, and how big of a positive impact that can have on their own communities and the American community at large. In the end, that’s the only defense against robots and laser guns, right?

At betsy & iya, we do everything in our power to provide interesting, valuable work, at the most affordable price we can offer. What does this mean? It means we consider our process and everything that goes into it to determine the fairest price to offer our customers. In the case of the Bridge collection (which includes the Fremont cuff), this is what you’ve purchased from us:

  • inspiration gathering: an entire lifetime.
  • research: 40 hours
  • concept building: 80 hours
  • sketches: 40 hours
  • researching and implementing best production practices: 40 hours
  • digital file conversion: 40 hours
  • phone calls, emails, ordering relevant parts/materials: 5 hours initial, 5 hours/mo continual
  • prototype building: 10 hours
  • production training: 10-20 hours
  • ongoing production: a team of 3 full-time, 40 hours/week employees, 1 part-time employee, and me, based right here in Portland.
  • small-batch production process for this piece: filing, annealing, deburring, shaping, work-hardening, tumbling, oxidizing, retumbling, quality testing, about 30 minutes/piece
  • selling, display building, social media, traveling to trade shows, driving cross-country to meet with independent shop owners, etc: a continual expense and effort (and we love every minute of it.)

Bottom line: DESIGNED IN PORTLAND, by us. MADE IN PORTLAND, by us.

In the case of the other piece (I can’t be sure, but), this is what I believe you’ve purchased from them:

  • discover a piece they think will be popular (maybe at a trade show we traveled to or on a website we designed and built or in an independent shop whose owner we’ve probably hugged): a few hours
  • preparing and getting production files to China or other developing country: a few hours
  • mass producing “their version” of this thing: a few minutes/piece
  • shipping it across the ocean: who knows. Boats are fast these days, I bet.

Our Fremont cuff has a connection. It comes from something. It has soul. If you want it shined up, come by our shop, we’ll do it for free. If you want to know more about how the idea came to me, come by our shop, I’ll tell you all about it. If you lose it or run over it with your car (true story) come in and we’ll get it fixed right up.

Our bracelet might cost a little bit more, but it’s not disposable. We know because the woman who literally ran over hers in her car brought it back to us for repair instead of throwing it away–and we repaired it. There are stories behind that piece, it will last you longer, and you know who made it. You know who had meeting after meeting after meeting about the best material to use, the best angle of the bridge, the best way to get the core feeling of the bridge without being overt about bridges and architecture, the best way to use all of the above without you (our beloved customer) having to pay an arm and a leg for something special. ALL of that goes into our work.

Full disclosure, we really care about you. I wish I could tell you how many times I’ve teared up from your stories, our conversations with you, your gratitude for what we do and vice versa. ALL of that goes into our work.

I’m pretty sure other companies don’t care about you like we do. In comparison to ours, I believe a copy of our bracelet is meaningless and disposable. You have no idea who made it or where it is coming from.

I can tell you that when you spend money with us, it goes towards this:

  • two Portland partners who care about their city and putting money back into their own community as much as possible.
  • a 9 person crew that is for the first time in 5 years getting health insurance and paid time off.
  • 1 local bookkeeper
  • 1 local insurance company
  • 1 local payroll company
  • local and regional material suppliers and extensions of our production
  • 1 local website dude
  • local events that support the small designers
  • finding, buying, and telling you the story of the amazing work of other local and independent designers from around the world that we bring into our shop
  • should I keep going?

Do you have any idea what your money is going towards when you buy the $5 bracelet that looks a lot like ours? I have no idea. But as a designer and manufacturer, I can tell you that it would be impossible for us to pay our ourselves or our employees if we only charged $5 for the cuff, much less insurance, paid time off, or those occasional “thank you” lunches for our staff from local gems like Lela’s or Little Big Burger or Besaw’s or Salt & Straw (there’s nothing wrong with ice cream for lunch).

Image: Betsy & Iya

Someone reading this will think: “Well, economies of scale. These guys just don’t have their distribution figured out yet. If they were making more cuffs, they could sell them for cheaper.” Not true. Our makers are pushing out about 90 pieces of jewelry every single day. We’ve eked out every ounce of productivity we can find while still respecting things like carpal tunnel syndrome, 15-minute breaks, lunches, and laughter. We believe our product is better because of that.

For those of you who do care (most of you, I’d venture to bet), I would challenge you to go that extra step to find those pieces that are functional for you, things that make you think, give you that twinkle, things you are proud of. And I challenge you to stop buying things that you find are meaningless, things that have no function, story or place in your life.

When I started this tiny beast at the crest of 2008, I had nothing on my mind but to create something real, something I could connect to, something that had soul, something that felt like home to me; and I hoped to share that feeling with the community. So I started working. I was so invested, so excited to be moving my hands everyday. I was blown away when someone wanted to buy the work I had created. I couldn’t believe it. It worked. I mean, I had no idea what I was doing, but it worked. Which made me want to work even harder. And I did.

Now in our 6th year, we are a team of 9 and growing. We are committed to creating work that speaks to you, work that you’re proud to own. We are committed to supporting and uplifting the small independent designers and celebrating all the incredible hard work they do. We are committed to selling our work to the smaller boutiques who have supported us from day one. We are proud to be even a small part of a massive consumer shift toward localism, toward a personal connection to the things you buy. We are moved by your stories and your interest in what we do. We are honored that you want to shop with us; we are honored that you keep coming back; we are honored to create these special relationships with you.

We cannot thank you enough for choosing our cuff bracelet instead of one that costs $5. We cannot thank you enough for all that you have done, for believing in us, for sticking by us, for feeling happy when you shop with us. I’m teary eyed when I write this—it is because of you that I am where I am today. How in the world could I express to you what this means to me? My heart swells with love.

To celebrate our original Fremont Bridge cuff, we’re doing something we’ve always wanted to do. We’re making them out of gold. And because gold is a bit spendy, we’re raffling three Limited Edition Gold-Plated Fremont Bridge cuffs with the word “ORIGINAL” stamped inside. These three “Original” Limited Edition Fremont cuffs will be numbered and hand-stamped by me personally. So for $5 bucks, you can enter our raffle to get one of these three special pieces. And even if you don’t win the grand prize, you’ll still walk away with a discount code for 25% off any betsy & iya purchase, just for entering. It’s our little way of saying “We love you, too” and we hope you know we mean it. Click to get your raffle ticket now and while you’re at it, tell a friend or two or three about this post.

My deepest gratitude for riding along with us.
Betsy 

*Remember that original indie-botique where we discovered the other cuff? To the store owner’s deep credit, when we contacted her to show her our original design, she pulled her remaining stock of cuffs off her sales floor. That’s community.

For more fashion and style news and inspiration, sign up for our weekly Shop Talk newsletter, subscribe to our RSS feed, and visit our Fashion & Shopping page.