The Business of Handmade

Mass Produced Jewelry on Etsy

Back in May I wrote about Etsy’s decision to allow factories to set up shops on Etsy to sell mass produced goods. At the time, Etsy policy executive Lauren Englehardt wrote:

Etsy is a diverse marketplace made up of many types and sizes of shops…Etsy does not restrict the formalities of the relationships between people within a business; they may be family members without a formal agreement, they may be equal partners, or one may be the employer and others employees.

Here’s an update on how this policy position is shaking out in the category I pay attention to:  Jewelry.

Until recently, a common complaint among Etsy sellers and shoppers alike was that too many jewelry items appeared similar, as though certain shops were buying jewelry wholesale and – sometimes with minimal alterations, sometimes without – simply ‘re-selling’ it under the guise of “handmade.”  There have been many spirited debates (cough) about the use of mass-produced jewelry components and where to draw the line.

In my opinion this has become less of an issue – because a bigger problem is apparent.  Jewelry manufacturers in China have ‘discovered’ Etsy as a profitable venue to sell directly to the American public, and the number of shops that are merely fronts for a factory have proliferated.

In the jewelry category, the factory shops share these characteristics:

– The shop lists hundreds of items at extremely low prices
– The shop has made hundreds of sales (and thus is able to fulfill hundreds of orders) in a short period of time
– Ostensibly independent shops use identical manufacturer’s product codes and descriptions; they may also use the same product photos, style of photo watermark, or point to the same contact people
– This is hard to describe in words, but they sell a certain style of jewelry using very cheap lightweight metal and acrylic “gemstones.”  So-called “bubble necklaces” and “gemstone bibs” are examples.

Here are two identical products — right down to the manufacturer product code — from two ostensibly independent Shanghai sellers:

The first listing is from seller BubbleJewellery, located in Shanghai.  They have 339 listings and have sold 1,424 pieces since opening in July 2012.  The second listing is from GemPearls, also located in Shanghai.  They have 509 items for sale, and have sold 5,519 pieces since opening in July of 2011.

If you take a close look at the first listing, you’ll see this text in the description:

It would seem BubbleJewellery – which has no pearl items in its shop – is connected to EnyaPearls.  EnyaPearls has 526 listings and has sold 2,021 items since they opened in June 0f 2011.  They don’t list a city but are located in China.  EnyaPearls has a presence on other selling platforms, such as AliExpress, where they list hundreds of items.

No individual artisan or mom-and-pop operation has the capacity to pump out this quantity of items in this short a period of time.

There is nothing wrong with mass producing jewelry per se; and one can argue that permitting these items on Etsy doesn’t harm the greater Etsy marketplace, and may in fact help it by bringing in young shoppers who might stay to purchase other sorts of items.

A person looking for the (apparently) super trendy “bubble necklace” will be pleased to find more than 12,000 listings using those keywords.   A person trying to find anything but bubble necklaces can exclude that term from search results ( -bubble) with some success.

Sadly, Etsy’s management has created a problem by launching a new shopping feature called “Browse” which has served to promote mass produced jewelry in place of unique or unusual items.  “Browse” has taken the place of categories on the Etsy home page.  A shopper who clicks on the Browse section for Jewelry, for example, has an array of sub-sections to choose from – Engagement Rings, Drop Earrings, Bib Necklaces, for example.  Taking a closer look at one subsection – Bib Necklaces – and what do we find?

This is a section of the first page Bib Necklaces.  In this array I can easily spot seven mass-manufactured acrylic “bubble” style necklaces.  The sellers – lover20, hgodrisrts, gempearls, onlygifts, WuJewelry, BubbleJewellery, onlypearl – are all based in China.

And this is a problem.  It is one thing to allow factories to set up shops on Etsy, where people will find them if they go looking; it is quite another to actively promote these shops and push other sellers into the background.

More about this in my next post.

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