Thursday, February 2, 2012

"Rings & Things: Exporting an Artist's Ingenuity, Importing Cheap Goods"

Cheap Imports
A multi-million dollar business touting "Buy-Local Buy-Handmade" exports the hand-made goods and idea's of a local artist to China."


I once had the pleasure of working for a company that fed the creativity of people just like me; People that create jewelry, with their hearts and with their hands. I became a customer of Rings & Things wholesale in 1995, and have religiously purchased their jewelry supplies and tools for 17+ years. As a customer, I was impressed with their customer service, and their expertise in a craft I was passionate about. Then, I worked there, for close to five years. I loved my job, but what I saw was a company struggling with identity, trying to walk a tight rope between that of a wholesale supply house, and that of a retail bead supply conglomerate. R&T wanted 100% share of the market, and who could blame them? I own a business, I’m a capitalist at heart, so I wasn't going to judge. I’m also a very loyal person, so over the years I’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars at Rings & Things, and sent countless customers to their web-doors, touting their selection and honest information. 
As an employee and customer, I helped take their once hand-drawn catalog to full color with my photography. I tested products, started their first on-line design gallery, developed new marketing strategies, ran a jewelry examples team, taught customers on-line and in the class room, edited product descriptions, wrote copy, worked on publications, started a new product development team, and freely offered up my own jewelry designs for use in marketing publications. Despite their initial refusal to place credit under jewelry designers work, over time my argument won out and artists were given recognition. Upon my exit, my jewelry had been featured on the covers and inside pages of 18 catalogs, over a hundred ads, and in dozens and dozens of how-to articles I wrote myself. I was thrilled to see my work in BeadStyle, Beading Daily, Stringing, Bead and Button and Art Jewelry mags, among other popular publications. I loved this industry. Everything about it. I was hooked on hand-made. 

In April of 2006, I noticed a lack of supplies that I desperately wanted to use in my craft. Quality leather components. I needed leather pieces already cut, already dyed, already treated and HIGH quality. With access to global suppliers I was surprised to find nothing but the same dingy cords and various native american spacers I’d been seeing for decades. I consider my work high-fashion and my jewelry is in a few popular stores and hits runways frequently. This would just not do. 
I made it my mission, on my own time, to source quality materials, USA made and 100% eco-safe. I studied up and noticed that a lot of imported leathers from China contain petroleum based dyes, so I carefully weeded out supply houses that imported and started seeking tannery’s in the US. With patience, I found a US supplier that was not only willing to take on my task- but enthusiastic. I also found a great partner, who wanted to invest time, money, love and support. I hired the supplier and married my partner and have never been happier. I finally had the leather I wanted to use, and my jewelry work has been more satisfying than ever. 
Together, my husband and I built Tafuri Studios. We branded TaFurious™ high fashion jewelry and TaFuri Tough™ Leather Beading supplies. And I’ve happily sold our supply products to Rings & Things ever since, who’s always shown joy at our success. We’ve even sent dozens of free samples of new products to try out, as we developed our materials, our quality, our color, leather selection, and our product line. We lovingly hand-make our products from USA quality leather. We cut, treat, and dye and set hardware. Our quality has grown over time, and each artist in our studio is proud of the work they produce. My business relationships with R&T buyers and sales staff grew, matured, and has been one of mutual respect and sincere friendship. 
Tafuri Tough™ Leather ends at R&T
Our products started with Tafuri Tough cuff-ends, and Loop-End bracelets. Items specifically designed to be used in jewelry creations. We offer 13 color choices, numerous leather types, and matching hardware for any and every metal an artist decides to use. Over time, we’ve become a trusted supplier in our industry. Our sales have grown 300% every year since our beginning. And here we are in a downed economy. I have to think back to how it started. And where it started. At Rings & Things wholesale. 
When I approached Russ, the owner of R&T, with my idea of leather components he said, and I quote, “There’s no market for that. People can go make leather themselves, and often do- why would they want yours?”  I told him about my frustrating experiences, as a single mom crafting at home, and trying to source high quality leather affordably, along with the tools needed to set the hardware, and the process involved in dying the leather. I was certain jewelry makers wanted their leather ready to create. I know I did. Leather-ready became my focus. And his “no” answer didn’t change my resolve. I created the cuff-ends, had dies made from my designs so they could be precision cut, pursued a copyright, and a patent, and invested my time, money and sweat into making this product work. I had enough people on staff at R&T who believed in the idea, that my family and I were allowed to produce a few initial runs and see if it sells. With-in a year, Tafuri Tough components were in the top 5% of best selling products at R&T. And if you’ve seen their selection of 500,000 jewelry items, and growing, that is no small feat. 
My products at www.thingumabobs.etsy.com
Upon the success of my components I was able to direct my attention full time into the manufacturing process of making my products and when I started selling on Etsy, “I quit my day job” but continued to buy and sell at R&T. I also developed new products. Bracelet blanks and double wraps, strappy leather bracelets and lace leather, starter tool kits and rivets. All high quality and fairly priced. I delivered samples to Rings & Things religiously. For free. They held my products in their hands, and they held my trust. Until this week. 

Nearly four years after starting my business, I see the company that preached buying local hand-made and keeping customer loyalty, totally lose mine. The first un-raveled thread was when I got a catalog in the mail, four or five months after giving them my cuff blank samples. The cover featured a cuff bracelet blanknearly an exact duplicate of the one’s I sell, with a few cost cutting adjustments.  It would appear a company I once cared for and trusted, is adding imported cuff blanks in leather that, pardon the honesty, I wouldn’t use for our scrap bags. The second slap was an undisclosed accounting error and laps in private information sharing on their end, that resulted in some tension, to say the least.  The last and final nail in the coffin was when I popped onto their home page to place an order, and noticed they were adding "wrap around leather bracelets". This was my product, down to style, color and size options. And to add insult to injury, in my own original color names. A lot of our customers remember our Denim Blue and our Scarlet red. I changed the names in my Etsy store, due to relevancy search needs. But  good news- now you can get Denim Blue and Scarlet Red leather cuff blank bracelets at Rings & Things. What’s even better- it’s directly imported from…. China. Now, I’m not accusing R&T of stealing my product concept, knocking off my designs and capitalizing on my idea’s… per se… but if the chinese kimono fits…. 



History aside, obviously a wholesale supplier like myself, takes a risk when sharing goods with potentially large buyers. I understand I’m not the “first person" to make a leather bracelet. But if your idea and your products are a hand-made craft, you’re even more exposed to copy cats and cheap knock offs and for some reason, these companies have no problems with stealing a hand made artist's concept. A company that cares only for it’s bottom line will steal an idea from a hand made artist faster than any other. We sellers on Etsy have seen it countless times and I saw it first hand while working at Rings & Things. The discussion regarding a new product often ended with weather or not they could source it or create knock-offs at cheaper importers. I saw them actually do it, countless times. And I felt the disappointment for that artist each and every time. And I felt shame in my employers.


So, I should not be surprised that this happened to me. And sadly, I am not. Our USA made leather-ready beading products are experiencing some success, thanks to our many loyal and loving customers. It’s only natural then, for a big company to take notice, and as a business woman, I have to trust that our brand recognition will see me through this sort of betrayal. I am however, sad that these opportunities were taken from my small but passionate staff. I’m lucky enough to employ 5 people now. American people who love their job and our little company that could. 

This kind of business practice doesn’t just hurt a hand made artist, it hurts our country. It reeks of the reason we have such income disparity, why so many have lost pensions, and jobs, and retirement funds. Rings & Things is considered small with only 100 employees, but even they were not untouched by this company's greed, as I watched friend after friend lose their good paying jobs after decades of loyalty, only to be replaced by temps and lower wage employees. The simple fact is, exporting American ideas, and paring your staff down to the lowest possible wage earners, no matter how small, hurts all of us. Even the big guys.

I’m a realist, and the competition came calling. That is the name of business, right? So why should the big guys care?  
This is why: A company only concerned with a bottom line, a mass importer like Rings & Things, misses the point. They choose to disregard the human element in this story and it has everything to do with the bottom line: American artists WANT USA made quality goods. They WANT American manufacturing back. And we all know they need it. I don’t know why a company I loved and trusted chose to take the easy route and took the cheap, if less-humane option of importing products available in their back yard. And this is a company that supported buying local! It’s befuddling to say the least. But there is one thing I am sure of: Manufacturing always starts with hand-made. If American artists want manufacturing back, they must support their hand made artists. And not just by purchasing their wares, but by NOT purchasing imports. No matter how much you once loved the companies currently shoving it down your throats. 











*We have a great Update to this story

Since publishing this post in 2012, leather has fully taken off in the jewelry supply market. We have suppliers working hard to provide USA made leather components, calling us as consultants. This afforded us the opportunity to share what we've learned about leather imports, toxicity of some tanning and finishing processes, and how to provide wearable SAFE leather to jewelry artists- as well as testing metal components that meet the tough expectations of quality desingers. We're proud that we were along for the ride at every step of the way and welcome leather as "a thing" in the industry that we were a part of. 

Customers now have options. LOTS of them. Customers are also gaining from the benefit of our safety research, as each company we consult with learns the process of recognizing harmful tanning and finishing methods and shares that with their customers. We are honored to share our knowledge and proud of an industry that is responding and valuing the work of "the little artists" among us. 

We were trailblazers for leather, and we took an active role in product testing for TierraCast who recently added a beautiful line of high-quality USA leather components and more USA made leather for jewelry artists to work with. 

On a personal note, Russ and Dee, the owners of Rings & Things were very proud of all we were able to accomplish in this crazy leather venture. They shared that pride and kindness with me, when they visited us shortly after opening our retail store in 2013. I learned a lot from my time with Russ and the kind people at Rings & Things, and we have a lot more to learn. But I am thankful that the industry I love, both respected and recognized our small voices in this lasting leather trend. I am blessed that I was able to reconnect with Russ in forgiveness, before his passing in June of 2014, and will always try to honor the voice he trained me to use: "Buy local, Buy Handmade". Russ was always an advocate for honesty, and I will never forget the unique and wonderful man who was truly a mentor to me. Rest in Peace my teacher, and friend. I will miss you. 

14 comments:

  1. This is shocking and disturbing! shame on them!

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  2. Agreed. Thanks for the support BMC.

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  3. That really sucks. I get wanting to save money sometimes, but when you service local people as well and have for so long, its just wrong.

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  4. I just cant get over the fact that they screwed over someone they KNEW and were close to! Sickening.

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  5. Utterly despicable I can't believe they did this to you. I am so saddened by this.

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  6. You know, we keep hearing of this - about a handmade seller getting their design/concept duplicated by some major retailer. Often they're SO big and have no personal connection to the artist themselves. They can play stupid & say "Someone in the design dept came up with that, just a coincidence..."

    RnT cannot do that. They had suggested concepts in converstation (and shot down the idea), then the actual product IN HAND while having an ongoing professional relationship with the seller. You can't get around that and call it chance. What's it really called is underhanded & sick business practices.

    While the other instances with those other retailers vs hand made artists could be akin to spying from a far & stealing an idea, that is not the case here. This is the closest equivalent possible of smiling to your face & shake your hand in good faith while they stab you in the back. Rat bastards.

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  7. Fusion Beeds, I sincerely hope that was a joke. And if so, your comedy is about as good as your spelling.

    It's sickening to hear of another company ripping off a local artist's designs to have them mass produced overseas at a fraction of the cost. But it's even worse that you've had a relationship with this company for so many years. Absolutely unscrupulous. Hope it bites them in the end.

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  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  9. I just wanted to update everyone: I've found nothing but encouragement and support from the hand-made community- many of whom were customers of R&T (and are no longer). I think most people get it. This isn't really about me. It's about us. It's about community, and country. Consumers AND artists have had enough betrayal by people once considered community leaders. People espousing values in order to polish an image, values that they don't actually practice in reality. In one of the dozens of threads this is being discussed: my Husband summed it up well:
    ------
    Blue Tafuri: "I hope this local movement continues to grow. If we can get larger companies wrapped around the idea of manufacturing in their communities we can bring back a healthy middle class to Spokane. The thought that our local job creators are willing to farm out their neighbors jobs to the Chinese, really pisses me off.
    ——

    There are millions of skilled US crafters out there who would love the opportunities to create supplies and products. If not buy from me- why not one of THEM? Why export at all anymore? Especially to a country that clearly does not match our societal values. The fact is, my leather is more expensive. But as I stated - they sat in the TOP % of best sellers. Why did't THAT speak for something. People want USA goods.

    And all craft's people want is a shot. At this point, companies like R&T are making choices that are no doubt, going to alienating their own customer base. All I have done here is expose it. But I have faith that time, and the hand made community, will do it's job. Keep up the chatter- talk about it. Community has power too. Power in numbers. I want to ask everyone again- to please share this story. Please help people see that they DO have choices. Thanks again everyone.

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  10. We want made in USA, we want handmade.
    I will never buy from them ever because you know you are not supporting you own community by doing so, it is time to ask for better not for cheaper, and to respect others people work.

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  12. I'm sad to hear that this happened to you. Call a lawyer to discuss your legal rights. That is my suggestion... Maybe they can work Pro Bono.

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  13. Wholesale leather suppliers’ work directly with the leather, hence you don’t need to pay the middleman to handle your leather. For many, this is the only point that needs to be made. So buying from wholesale leather suppliers will save you money on quality leather. Buy it now!

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