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Piercing, Pilfering, and Positive Endings- A Story of Ethical Manufacturing in the Industry

Today’s blog post is very different. We are going to discuss ethical manufacturing and sourcing- a problem that faces every industry in the world currently, and piercing is no exception. Specifically, I want to address the rampant issue of massive companies and corporations who steal designs from small independent makers, artisans, and craftspeople. This is no new story- if you are on the internet and do anything with fashion you’ve seen the instances of Dolls Kill, Wish, Amazon, and other giants stealing designs from small creators. But many people falsely assume the piercing industry is smaller or immune from these issues- it’s not.

A few weeks ago a follower tagged me in a post on Tiktok from a small brand- The Pretty Potato. At first I saw some really lovely hangers and weights, but then, my heart sank. I saw designs I recognized from makers I love and adore. Surely there had been some mistake? Why would one small brand rip off another? I reached out through instagram messages, with screenshots of the designs she was selling and the originals produced by existing established companies.

Well, it would turn out to be a story of miscommunication, big corporate, and, a happy ending. I sat down with Karly from The Pretty Potato to discuss how this happened, and also how brands can handle it, and how we as consumers can stand with and support small creators.

Lynn- So, let’s start at the very beginning. Tell me about your brand, how you got started in making hangers and weights?

Karly- So literally last year, January 2020. The main thing was not going to be ear weights at all. I was a hair and makeup artist, and bridal was my specialty. The original plan was to do bridal accessories- hair pieces, hand pieces. Either hand make things myself, or find artisans to create curated collections of pieces. Because I’ve seen some that were amazing quality, heirloom quality, chefs kiss! But I mostly saw pieces that made me go- you paid how much for that? Like, I’ve seen some shit. So that was the original idea. And a back burner idea was I worked on a lot of brides like me- with stretched or modified lobes. And it was always a struggle to find something beautiful for them to wear. So that was always a back burner idea- it wasn’t something I had ever really seen done. Hangers and ear weights marketed specifically for brides and bridal events.

Lynn- It really hasn’t! Brands and makers have done custom pieces- don’t get me wrong, some of the BVLA projects for weddings have been……whew. But specifically bridal collections or a bridal brand for stretched lobes- it’s not really a thing.

Karly- Right? And I was like hey- that’s my two loves. Fun cool jewelry pieces and tattoos and piercings. And I’m in the wedding industry- why don’t I combine these things together? So then, it was when my overseas manufactures shut down due to Covid. I had just gotten in samples for hair pieces, materials, designs. And just when I was deciding what to order I go got all the emails- they had to go to 25% capacity or shut down. They couldn’t take on new clients and couldn’t work with me, or I had to go on a wait list. The same week I got everything done I got those emails- “Shit’s hitting the fan with Covid. We can help you February 2021.”

And I couldn’t legally work in the salon or anything- we were shut down for Covid. So I had three months of quarantine to figure out what I wanted to do. I was like- let’s bring the ear weight thing to the forefront. So I found a manufacturer for the saddles- and I decided I wanted to hand make things. It was a lot of hours online in jewelry making forums and courses and reddit groups. And lots of crafty women going “you don’t jump ring like that.” Or “that’s too heavy, it can’t be over 7 grams.

Lynn- And what’s funny is if you had been in the piercing industry at that time we would have been like “that’s too light!” 30-40 grams is a great weight for like even day pieces. But my like ideal comfortable weight for a shift at work is around 80-150 grams. A ton of us have weight trained our lobes, so we can totally wear heavy pieces. Regular people don’t realize that.

Karly- …what? I got yelled at by crafting ladies for so long….

Lynn- Welcome to piercing haha! So, three months of quarantine, you are making these lovely hand made pieces, both your heavier stacked druzies and your lightweight stuff. Where comes in the addition of the pre made designs? How did it go from your unique art deco pieces to those?

Karly- So that started happening, that was something that was still really new. Before Christmas was when I was like hey, for the spring collection I wanna be able to have hand made and some curated remade designs. The idea was to lighten my workload with pieces ready to go off the shelf I could just ship. So I started reaching out to companies and manufacturers and seeing where people were, who had legitimate mill certificates, and products I l liked. I found a company I liked that produces out of Bangkok and Bali with good mill certs, good polish. I got the samples in, and they were gorgeous. I placed a huge order, and in the end of January beginning of February and I started to tease them on social media. And that’s when you got in touch with me and I was like…ahhhhhhh!

Lynn- So these manufacturers sent you these samples and made them out as though they were their designs?

Karly- Yes, how did they word it.. they said they were “in house” designs, they said they had things to ship all over the world. They had their certifications and mill information and said the designs were all done in house. So I assumed, I kind of went on assumptive behavior that these were their designs and not like… exact rip offs of existing brands.

Lynn- So that’s kind of a tricky situation if you aren’t like, enmeshed in the industry. Because you can go on the APP website and read the material information and know, like, I want this kind of surface finish and these mill certificates, you can read all those guidelines and know what you need to make safe work. And you can get in touch with these companies and all the things for safety check out, but if you are not in the industry in that you are seeing what other brands produce and styles they make, you can dot all your I’s and cross all your T’s and still end up with stolen material. And I think that’s important for any vendor to understand that it’s not just from a safety standpoint, but being within the industry so you know what pieces are made by who, because there are so many companies who will take advantage and try to rip these things off.

Karly- totally! And I did a tiny bit of like, not thorough research but, I checked the designs. But I could have done more, I could have like reverse image searched the designs they offered. I just looked at them and thought that’s unique and cool, bring it in!

Lynn- And to be fair, with some of these smaller companies, a reverse image search may not even pull some of these designs. It’s a small industry, and an insular industry. I feel like you kind of have to have your finger on the pulse and really be current in the industry to know what direction to head in that’s truly unique and genuine to your brand.

Karly- Exactly. And that’s part of why I want to become more present in the industry, be on forums and work with different brands and other smaller brands like me, and know like.. who is designing a little too close to home for someone who is a small maker, and also perhaps be able to collaborate with them all grow and learn with them as well.

Lynn- Exactly! And I’m sure you can relate to what it would be like if companies overseas started making your pieces and selling them to someone who din’t know.

Karly- I would be crushed. That would be one of my fears. Like, when you showed me the honeycomb design I went and saw Jared’s and my stomach dropped. I hurt for him, knowing how much it must suck to have your work ripped off like that. It’s a nightmare. And it’s happening with everything, with fashion and hair and makeup and body jewelry. Actually after this I saw the same exact stolen designs this company sold to me for sale on Body Art Forms. Even if I didn’t resell it, someone else is still going to. And that could easily be me one day, and these sites like BAF and stuff. They don’t care. And that is devastating.

I remember like my boyfriend, he initially was like a little upset like I can’t believe she would be calling you out like this. And I told him you have to take this as a non personal thing, this is someone who knows what they are saying in the industry, I would be fucking dumb to let my ego get in the way. You have to listen to people in the industry you wanna excel in, the people who are going to wear and sell your products. And this could be me one day, getting ripped off.

Lynn- So walk me through, and be honest, what was it like when you first got those messages from me?

Karly- So initially I…..the heart in the stomach feeling happened. I was just like…fuck. My whole inventory. What have I done. It was like ten minutes of pure panic and fear. And then it was like hold on, slow down. I was getting so upset like I’m a small maker, I don’t deserve this, I was letting my ego get in the way. So I sat back and reread through what you sent me and the photos and I waited to respond. I didn’t want to answer while I was hyped up, I wanted to cool down and really read through what you sent and your concerns. I even thought “Let’s treat this like Lynn is a bridal client, and this conflict or critique needs a resolution. What is Lynn actually asking me? And I looked at the resources you sent me and realized you were guiding me in the right direction because you could see what was wrong was bigger than me. And that’s when I started asking you how to return things, what could I do. It was terrifying at first, but also I want to do and be the best I can. And sometimes you make mistakes.

Lynn- I think your experience in bridal was crucial there. Because you have to separate mistakes or flaws in your work from yourself. Sometimes piercers are going to mess up a piercing, tattoo artists can mess up a tattoo, hair stylists can mess up someone’s hair. Being able to focus on your work separate from yourself and see room for improvement and betterment is huge.

Karly- Well, we are creative types, we are sensitive sallies. Someone says something about your work and it’s like.. AH! They are attacking me. And it’s hard. It’s really hard. But you have to be able to separate yourself from it and take feedback. That’s how you learn and grow.

Lynn- So what is the plan for your spring release now?

Karly- It’s same timelines, same dates. But only my handmade stuff. It’s going to be a smaller release then planned but so far my followers have been really understanding, they really appreciated the transparency and honesty. They are glad I don’t wanna steal from anyone. And my next release will be fall, and maybe I can collaborate with other brands or work with other makers. I want to take the time between this release and the next to be more in the industry and work with more piercers and makers and expand what I create.

Lynn- I think that’s amazing! I think that’s a perfect plan. And I’m excited to publish this article, hopefully in time for your spring release, and give you some press. Because you are what we need more of in this industry. A small, female maker, with unique designs and unique vision, and more importantly the ethical backbone to make the hard choices. You just sent back half your inventory for your release because you wanted to be ethical. That’s huge.

As it stands all the pieces that were copies from other brands or makers were sent back. And The Pretty Potato remains with her own bespoke pieces and her own concepts for a brand that I think there is a need for in this industry and a demand for. As much as I love big giant weird hangers and plugs, so many of my clients want dainty and delicate and feminine for stretched ears. And specifically a bridal brand is amazing.

I think this entire experience is a lesson for vendors and makers, and clients alike. There are so many large factories and corporate companies with the funds and the resources to rip off small makers at the drop of the hat, and who already are. In an industry as small as piercing, this can be the difference between some of your favorite bespoke brands thriving and continuing to innovate, or shutting their doors. And without the minds of these creators constantly innovating and creating new designs and systems, the growth of the industry will stop. Makers can work together, watch out for each others designs and work, and have collaborative competition. And clients, you have the power. Your spending and your shopping directly affects these brands. Small makers charge what they charge because everything is done by hand, from designing a piece, working out the flaws, cutting the stones. Everything. It may be tempting to get the knock off for a lower cost, but when you do that, you directly impact these creators who made the design you love in the first place. We have the ability to make a huge change in small creator’s lives with every purchase we make, and directly fund the innovation and growth of this industry we all love.

Support small makers. Support companies who put ethics over profit. And, hey, maybe go check out Karly’s work- I know I for one am beyond excited to see where the next few months and years takes her vision.

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