How Retailers and Designers Can Guard Against Knockoffs

Jewelers have been plagued by knockoffs for centuries. JCK talks to a handful who have fought back.

Jewelry designers tend to remember the first time they got knocked off in the same way that most people remember the exact moment they learned about a terrible event. For Betsy Cross, a designer and retailer in Portland, Ore., that day came in the spring of 2013, when she discovered a $16 copy of one of her designs, an etched brass cuff bracelet that retails for $72 at Betsy & Iya, the retail store she and her husband, Will Cervarich, started in 2008 “in a coffee shop with a notebook, a bright red pencil, and nothing to lose.”

After the initial shock and disappointment, followed by a panicked meeting with an intellectual property lawyer, Cross and Cervarich came up with an unorthodox solution to fight the assault on their brand. Handed a lemon, the couple spun gold. In response to the knockoff, Cross created three gold-plated cuffs of the same design, stamped ORIGINAL on the inside, and offered the cuffs to her loyal customers in a raffle. She sold the tickets for $5, the same amount as the wholesale price of the offending copy, which by then was popping up in numerous retail shops and websites around town.

On the left, the $72 etched brass Betsy & Iya cuff designed by Portland, Ore., retailers Betsy Cross and Will Cervarich; on the right, a strikingly similar $16 version

Nearly 300 of Betsy & Iya’s customers bought tickets. Three people held winning tickets, but Cross and Cervarich considered themselves the real winners, having profited from their loss with a massive outpouring of support and good will from their customers. Cross says she was able to move on from that devastating discovery by putting a positive spin on it. “It worked out in the end for us,” she says. “I don’t think about it anymore.”

You Never Forget Your First (Knockoff)

In interviews with other ­jewelry designers and retailers, many recall the memory of that first knockoff or counterfeit experience—and how much it stings. When Martin Katz of Beverly Hills, Calif., was starting out, he remembers seeing what appeared to be copies of his designs, but it was hard for him to accept the truth. “I would see things that were clearly mine and I’d think, ‘They couldn’t have copied me. It must be a coincidence.’?”

New Jersey–based designer Coomi Bhasin says it was about 10 years ago when she first noticed that her work had been copied. “Everyone said, ‘It’s a form of flattery,’?” says Bhasin. “I said, ‘It’s not a form of flattery that I want.’?”

When Kara Ross of Kara Ross New York was just starting out as a designer, someone sent her a photo along with a note that read, “Doesn’t this look like your bracelet?” Ross felt shattered. “I said, ‘Oh my God,’?” she recalls. “I absolutely do not think it’s flattering. I think it’s awful. It’s called stealing.”

Know Your Rights

Basement Stock/Alamy
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Tiffany & Co. could be the most flattered jeweler in the world.

The good news for designers and retailers is that there are legal remedies; as a rule, jewelry designs are copyrightable. But, stresses New York City intellectual property lawyer Charles Colman, “It’s always best to get all your ducks in a row and all the paperwork in place.” For starters, that means registering individual designs—at $35 a pop—with the U.S. Copyright Office. Ideally, and for greater rewards in damages, that should be done before an infringement occurs.

The situation is different for retailers, who are more likely to fall victim to counterfeiters—that is, jewelry manufacturers who attempt to pass off copies as the original work of a known designer or brand. Famously, Tiffany & Co. has taken on Costco and eBay in its battles to protect the integrity of its brand from inferior phonies. That’s why it’s important for retailers to be aware of the marketplace and the goods they’re buying, says Sara Yood, assistant general counsel for the Jewelers Vigilance Committee.

“There are repercussions for selling counterfeit jewelry,” warns Yood. “You would be forced to make payments to the legitimate copyright holder, pay a fine and, possibly, attorney’s fees. It’s not worth it.”

David Walker, owner of Shreve, Crump & Low of Boston, says his company is so exacting about determining the provenance of the goods they carry that, to his knowledge, counterfeits have never gotten past him. “We’re always looking for pieces that aren’t correct and we don’t buy them,” he says. As for their own designs, “If we design something that’s important to us in the marketplace, we trademark and copyright it.”

According to Kathy Rose, who owns Roseark in West Hollywood, Calif., with her husband and fellow designer Rick Rose, the problem of knockoffs has worsened in the past 10 years. She attributes that partly to the Internet—which allows easy access to photos of jewelry—and partly to the sheer brazenness of some copycats. For example, she says, there are shoppers who wander through Roseark, eyeballing the latest designs and declaring, “I’m here for inspiration.” Rose posts ­prominent signs reading “No Photos,” telling “inspiration” seekers they’re not welcome.

Yves Forestier/Getty Images
“Dior” jewelry at the Musée de la Contrafaçon (Counterfeit Museum) in Paris

The Internet, says Colman, cuts both ways. “It’s often how people discover knockoffs of their work, but at the same time it’s often how knockoff artists find the works in the first place.” He says he encourages his clients to keep a record (consistent with privacy laws) of the IP addresses of visitors to their websites who copy images from it. “That can prove access” in a copyright infringement case, he says. 

Yood, however, says the U.S. economy loses $200 billion to $250 billion each year because of trademark and copyright violations. And that figure, provided by the Department of Homeland Security, has remained steady for years, without taking the Internet into consideration. “It is a huge, huge industry, and it’s not changing,” she says.

The Psychology of Stealing

Why do knockoff artists continue to flourish and why do consumers continue to seek out copies? Katz, who earned a college degree in psychology before going full time as a designer in 1988, ventures a guess. “Some things are a function of your learned behavior about your attitude toward money, and some things are from the fact that you’ve never acquired an art appreciation,” he says. “That person probably doesn’t care for the arts, doesn’t like museums, or understand great paintings. There’s no collector’s mentality—no joy in having the aesthetic around them.”

And Katz is no stranger to getting copied. “The thing that has been most copied are my diamond microbands,” he says. On his website he describes the thin, stackable rings as “often imitated, never duplicated.” To protect himself, he copyrights every design. “It’s expensive to copyright all of our designs and photograph everything we make,” he says. “But for the long-term value of the brand, it’s a necessary evil.”

Katz picks his legal battles carefully, going after what he sees as the most egregious offenders. “Some of the copies are so bad I don’t bother,” he says. “But if it impacts you by tarnishing your brand, I would think it’s worth going after. For the ones that are really infringing blatantly, we take action.”

Several designers JCK interviewed say their best defense is to continue creating new designs to keep the copycats off balance. Like Katz, they call in lawyers only for special cases, just to keep costs in check.

As for Cross, who made the best of her knockoff experience, she’s now aware of the harsh realities of the industry. And in what you could call a better-late-than-never scenario, her cuff design is copyrighted.

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