Original Jewelry Designs: Is It New or Just New to You?

Aug 8, 2008

Everything old is new again.

When I was in my teens, platform shoes came into fashion. Remember Elton John on his tall elevator boots? My mother was quick to point out that she’d worn platform shoes all through the 1930s and 1940s. Of course, I was not in a position to recall the 1930s or 1940s. But when bell-bottoms (or flared, as they’re called today) and hip-huggers (or low-rise, as they’re called today) came back into style in the 1990s, you can bet I had a laugh about how we’d all worn those in the 1970s. In fashion, if something is new to you, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s new.

I mention this because there are so many threads on jewelry forums about originality and copying of designs. Let’s be honest--Egyptians were coiling wire into beautiful jewelry a very, very long time ago. And chain maille is thousands of years old. Take a look at Jeanette Ryan’s earring project that will be out in the fall issue of Step by Step Wire Jewelry, along with the chain maille set from Charlene Anderson. Both borrow age-old techniques.

Alexander Calder, better known for his fabulous wire sculpture, stabiles, and giant mobiles than for his jewelry, was making the most exquisite, yet not unfamiliar, twisted, coiled, swirled, hammered wire jewelry in the early 1900s. Calder was born in 1898 and started making jewelry as a young boy with telephone wire. When he met his wife, he made her a gold spiral wedding ring. And lots of his later jewelry was made with brass wire–just wire. No torch. Much like the projects in Step by Step Wire Jewelry.

It’s easy to think we’ve dreamt up something new and original when we’re holed up in our studios. Chances are, though, it’s been done before–possibly way before. That doesn’t diminish its beauty. But it does make the issue of copying a bit grayer. Because even if you bring some originality to a design and make it in your voice, you owe a great deal to many others who did it before you.

Alexander Calder’s jewelry is in a traveling museum exhibit, at the Philadelphia Art Museum until November and then at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. If you’re a wire jewelry maker, I wouldn’t miss it.

One Week Only!
New Free Project

Unexpected Pearl Earrings
by Denise Peck

Keshi pearls throw a wrench in your expectations of pearl jewelry.  Because of their irregular shapes, they look great when paired with a rougher, more organic metal setting. This five-minute earring project is an exclusive free preview from the upcoming fall issue of Step by Step Wire Jewelry

The free preview period for this project has ended.  Look for this design in the fall 2008 issue of Step by Step Wire Jewelry.

Denise Peck is editor in chief of Step by Step Wire Jewelry magazine, senior editor of Jewelry Artist, and author of the new book, Wire Style. An editor by trade and a lifelong lover of jewelry, she was able to pursue both when she joined Lapidary Journal in 2004. Denise has a bench jeweler's certificate from Studio Jeweler's Ltd.

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KirstenC@4 wrote
on Aug 8, 2008 12:05 PM

Great post.  I teach beading classes and coordinate the staff workshops for my family's bead stores, and it is very difficult to draw that fine line between technique and design.  It's very important, when in doubt, to claim only to teach the technique (peyote, right-angle-weave, etc.) and not claim ownership for a design that most likely is in a dozen beading magazines out there being taught by somebody else...maybe even in the next town over!  You can make it personal by naming the class something funny and unique, but If you think you truly have stumbled across a completely new design concept, get it into your favorite magazine's editor and get it published quick!

Leslee@5 wrote
on Aug 8, 2008 1:40 PM

RE: Original Jewelry Designs: Is It New or Just New to You?

   I was very happy to read this article. It is a very practical point of view on a subject that is apparently exploding everywhere.

    Sadly I think the people who are yelling the most about "ownership" of patterns and techniques are worried strictly about the possible money involved, particularly those who make their living teaching classes and selling books.

        I personally don't read many of the bead forums and such like, but I've been reading many articles both here and in my favorite bead magazines that are dealing with the fallout of this. I can perfectly understand someone wanting to protect their copyrights to diagrams and instructions that they personally wrote/drew, but far too many think they have the right to claim ownership of techniques and that is ridicules

   I read one article that said good etiquette means that if you sell or show a piece based on a project you learned in a class or in a book you should credit the teacher or author. Another article cited a case where a person who had entered their piece into a show did give credit to the teacher she learned the technique from and did not win because it was considered un-original. My view is that unless you made the piece from a kit or in a class, it is your own work and should be viewed as such.

     On the other hand, I went into a bead store in a fairly isolated small town recently, I noted some sample pieces on the wall accompanied by a class schedule for how to make those pieces. They were techniques I had seen on the internet but had not yet tried on my own. I commented where I had seen them and that I hadn't yet tried those techniques but that I hoped to and the shop owner got all bent out of shape telling me that I couldn't have seen those elsewhere -they were her personal techniques. -?-

    I've also heard that if you pay for a class, learn a technique, it is then NOT ok to teach a friend that technique. I can understand not using the teaching materials that are original to that teacher, but I think it's wrong to say that you can't teach a friend the technique. Is it not ok to teach your children to read, must they only be taught to read by the teacher who taught you?

~Leslee in Alaska

KirstenC@4 wrote
on Aug 10, 2008 7:05 PM

Hi Leslee in Alaska!  

I have relatives up there in Delta Jct and hope to see the land someday....anyways, not to hog the air on this one, but had to write back and say you absolutely CAN turn around and teach a technique you learned in a class AND you can get paid for it.  We teach about 50 classes a month at our bead stores and several of our students have gone on to teach others either privately or at other bead stores.  As you said, you just can't use originals or copies of handouts you received in the class or in a book, magazine, etc.  You have to create your own original materials and samples, and, to be respectful, you may wish to give credit to your instructor, but it is not required by any laws.

Beading falls under "Intellectual Property" Copyright Law which protects "creations of the human mind."

Here is a link to the World Intellectual Property Organization pamphlet which covers the whole issue front to back and states "the ideas in the work do not need to be original, but the form of expression must be an original creation of the author"...check out page 8, the 10th bullet, which pretty much answers the issue of who has the rights to a design.


Here's another link about Creative Commons, a new effort which argues that "all rights reserved" copyrights HURT the public domain and the greater good of the artistic community.


Basically, three different people may watch the same sunrise on the same beach, but take three different photos and write three entirely different accounts of what they saw on paper.  Their photos and writings (expressions of what they have seen or learned) are each protected as original creations.  The sunset rising is NOT.

twoll5 wrote
on Aug 15, 2008 3:56 AM

For a more humourous side to this subject, have a look at:


A little way down the page is a cartoon from a Punch magazine 1859.  When I saw it I wondered if it was the inspiration for the Punk fashions of the 70/80's and the more recent Goth fashions!!

Even more interesting is a look through the British Museum Catalogue of its "7000 years of Jewellery History" exhibition edited by Hugh Tait and comparing ancient pieces with Castellani's jewellery. It is very easy to understand why his work was nicknamed "Archeological!"  

slavetobeads wrote
on Aug 22, 2008 11:23 AM

I just had to say - Thank you !  I have been beading since the 60's and have pieces of bead work that my grandfather made for my grandma. I have come to realize how true the saying - "There is nothing new under the sun" is !   I got so upset with the cant's and don't s I quit subscribing to bead mags for awhile. Anyways Thanks for this little piece.From, Slave to Beads!!