Knock-offs, Inspiration, and a Collective Design Consciousness

Tuesday’s “Caveat Emptor Revisited: See if Your Idea Has Already Been Done, and Then Do It Differently” inspired some healthy debate on the blog and on Facebook and raised another question on an even more heated industry topic: inspiration vs. knock-off and collective design consciousness (thank you graphic designer Peter Wahlberg on Facebook for the phrase). Let’s keep the conversation going—what’s inspiration, what’s coincidence, and what’s a downright knock-off?

Designers often gripe about being knocked off. Sometimes their complaints are legitimate—Tiffany & Co., David Yurman, and Rolex have long battled copycats and counterfeiters—but what do you do if you’re not a big name with deep pockets to wage a legal battle? And, when are designers simply overreacting to another’s coincidental use of similar colors or themes? I think that happens more often than not, and I’ve had this conversation with Cindy Edelstein, a onetime fashion editor for JCK and present-day president of the Jewelers Resource Bureau. Edelstein sometimes calms unnecessarily ruffled feathers such as “Oh my God! Now everyone is putting Paraiba around Boulder opal after I did it!” she exclaims, thinking of conversations she’s had with designer clients. “I’m sorry, but some ideas are just out in the air—what other color brings out that bright blue flash in the opal like Paraiba?” she says. “It’s an obvious good choice, not design theft. But what to make of all the X or V rings, triangle pendants, and stud earrings with diamonds or triangles descending from the earring back? I don’t know, exactly.”

Of course, I’ve also seen firsthand duplicates—down to the deliberate order and placement of specific colored stones—of recognizable pieces from big-name designers in manufacturers’ inventories. Those are obvious knock-offs, replicas. But in the case of a motif (like emoticons, mentioned on Tuesday), I think that falls into the category of a trend or timely idea in the world, not a copy. Ditto for styles like Princess Diana’s sapphire and diamond engagement halo ring; it’s a classic look that many have and will continue to make, and you’re not committing a crime when you make one.

Based on my relationship with the New York City–based designer I referenced on Tuesday as creating a “new” bracelet design that I had seen in Brazil many years earlier, I know that the firm was not trying to take credit for another’s work and had absolutely not knocked it off. That instance was a case of coincidence, collective design consciousness, “simultaneous creation” per Edelstein, “the phenomenon of zeitgeist” (thank you, Zuzu, for your comment on the other blog), or however else you’d like to describe an idea that was bound to be born (and sometimes reborn).

What’s your take on all this? Please don’t post unjustified accusations here, let’s keep it civil and professional. Thanks.

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