Tuesday, December 08, 2009

An Entrepreneurial Proposal

Many museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York, sell replicas of some of the historical jewelery in their collection. Typically the quality of the replica is significantly lower than the quality of the original—cast when the original was constructed, sometimes using glass instead of the original gemstones. Typically the replicas are expensive.

For quite a long time, I have been seeing imported jewelery, usually in silver, coming from places such as Bali and India, with a quality of execution comparable to that in historical pieces—precise filigree, some of it possibly done by the fusion/colloidal hard soldering technique developed in antiquity to do fine filigree and granulation without having the details blurred by solder. Such jewelery is, materials aside, better than the museum replicas—and much less expensive.

This suggests an interesting possibility for an entrepreneur with an interest in historical jewelery and suitable contacts somewhere in the third world. Put together, and web, a collection of pictures of pieces of historical jewelery. Locate craftsmen willing and able to make copies of those pieces. Offer to make, for online customers, any piece in the collection, at a suitable price. For a somewhat higher price, guarantee never to make another copy of the same piece.

This particular example occurred to me because I happen to be interested in historical jewelery. But there must be many other market niches of the same sort, categories of goods for which the combination of online marketing and hand-craft technology would make it possible for customers to get unique items of special interest to them, while providing profitable work for craftsmen in low income parts of the world.


Jorad said...

Such a market already exists, for instance, for paintings.

You can get reproductions of paintings for often less than 200$ (though then they are maybe half as big as many of the originals - but most people don't have enough space to put up man-high paintings anyway).

Tom Courtney said...

I wonder if the right guy for this job is Karl Von Sussen, the guy who flooded the SCA with Indian riveted mail? I gather he makes several trips back and forth every year.

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine went on a tourism trip to Southeast Asia (Thailand or Bangladesh, I don't remember), and at one point found herself walking through the "tailoring" district of a major city. She walked into a tailor shop, showed the proprietor some cutting diagrams for 14th-century Gothic fitted dresses, selected fabric, had her measurements taken, and returned to the U.S. with several well-made, medieval-looking dresses that fit her perfectly, for something like $20 apiece.

On the other hand, there are horror stories of poor quality control. Historic Enterprises has developed a number of medieval-replica products (e.g. lanterns), worked out the construction themselves, then outsourced to India and watched the workmanship go to hell. I suspect the Indian company they're working with is accustomed to making stuff for Pier One and Pottery Barn that's supposed to look nice in your living room but doesn't actually have to work in the field....

Anonymous said...

I don't know about jewels but I know that Museums don't sell accurate copies of their paintings printed onto canvas because they worry that Billy Burglar will buy a copy and then do a quick switch when no one is looking for the real thing.

neil craig said...

A particular example of the general rule that the internet is allowing the sale of objects & services (eg call centres) outwith national barriers.

Anonymous said...

The problem with historical jewelry is that the manufacturing process involved mixing the gold or silver with mercury creating a paste. The craftsman would use the paste and then heat it to boil off the mercury leaving the gold or silver. Needless to say these craftsmen often died rather horrible deaths.

David Friedman said...

Michael comments on the use of amalgam for gilding period jewelry. To begin with, you don't have to gild gold jewelry--it's gold already. You don't have to silver plate silver jewelry--I haven't seen any references to the process being used with silver, but I suppose it's possible. So the problem only arises if you are reproducing cheap period jewelry--gilded bronze, say.

Second, a modern jeweler who wanted to do fire gilding would do it under a hood, taking care to avoid the mercury fumes.

I'm curious as to Michael's evidence for his final claim about jewelers dying of mercury poisoning. It isn't impossible, but I'm inclined to assume that people in the past usually knew what they were doing and that since they didn't want to die they would have done fire gilding somewhere well ventilated, very possibly outdoors. Does he have evidence to the contrary?

Anonymous said...


I don't have the books with me, but there is an author that has written several books on techniques of making jewelry around the world, both present day and in the past.

The amalgam process wasn't used just to plate base metals. An example he gave would be to solder gold shot to a gold base. The area to take the shot would be covered with the amalgam and the shot would be placed on the amalgam. The piece would be heated to a point where the mercury boils off and the shot would fuse to the base.

As to the deaths, the book dates to the 80s, and the process of using amalgam occurred in poorer countries like India where people are more disposable.

There is similar process today where the West sends its used electronics to china. The poor there melt down the circuit boards to get to the precious metals but ed up exposing themselves to toxic metals in the process.

If you like, respond to the post and I'll find the book and it's author.

Anonymous said...


I'm kind of curious. To quote

"Michael comments on the use of amalgam for gilding period jewelry. To begin with, you don't have to gild gold jewelry..."


"Second, a modern jeweler who..."

It would seem that you are taking the view that all jewelry is made to Western safety standards.

American's want cost cutting, and if that means creating a cancer city in the 3rd world, most Americans are happy with the loss of life.

That sounds harsh, but it's reality.

Roger Collins said...

Not my area, but if you have any iPhone app or web app ideas I'd be glad to hear them.

David Friedman said...

Michael describes a process using amalgam as a substitute for soldering. I haven't seen that described in the period sources I'm familiar with, which doesn't prove it wasn't done. On the other hand, the same effect could be produced by fusion, aka colloidal hard soldering, a process which doesn't use mercury and is described by both Theophilus and Cellini.

On the general issue of safety standards ... . I don't assume they are the same everywhere--poor people make different tradeoffs than rich people. On the other hand, I do assume that even in poor countries people prefer not to poison themselves, and will therefor take precautions as long as the precautions are not too costly.

The books Michael mentions sound interesting; if he can provide more information I would like to look at them.

Gray Woodland said...

David, I don't think your assumptions on safety standards hold here. They seem to assume that poor people in poor countries have information about mercury toxicity, and I suspect there are many places where this isn't true.

I'd expect the tradeoff to be different for them, yes. But outside areas which have already acquired first-hand experience of a slow-acting, cumulative poison, there's another tradeoff that trumps it - the prior cost of accessing the information. Which in areas with poor/expensive informational infrastructure, and/or inferior educational opportunities, might seem prohibitively high...

...until they already know that more education can save them from a very salient danger like this one. In a lot of places, it won't, and may hence really not justify its current cost. Rational decision, bad result, chicken and egg.

They might trust anti-corporate activists who come over with warnings - but then again, that might kill them just as dead as listening to the manufacturer's reassurances, if they lack their own sound basis to judge between the two.

It isn't an easy problem, and I doubt the assumption that it's solved now is a useful one.

Ilíon said...

"I'm curious as to Michael's evidence for his final claim about jewelers dying of mercury poisoning."

Wasn't jewelery making along the lines of a skilled trade? Doesn't that argue against jewelers dropping like files?

Ilíon said...

Talking *at* someone, as Mr Friedman is doing at Michael, isn't very civil.
Mr Friedman,
Talking *at* someone, as you're doing at Michael, isn't very civil.

There is a difference.

neil craig said...

I don't know about jewellers but industrial deaths which we could nowadays prevent have been common historically. 2 exa,ples:

The women who used to paint radium paint on watch dials would often lick the end of the brush to keep the hairs together, as any painter does. The suffered a substantial (though not total) rate of death from mouth related cancers.

The Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland is a reference to the prevelence of madness in hatmakers at the time because of a chemical used in manufacture.

Anonymous said...

"I'm curious as to Michael's evidence for his final claim about jewelers dying of mercury poisoning."

Wasn't jewelery making along the lines of a skilled trade? Doesn't that argue against jewelers dropping like files?

Your thinking with a western mind with western views of safety. History channel did a piece on religious rites in India including the religious importance of funeral pyres on the Ganges river. The ultimate irony of the river is that it keeps the pyres burning as a 1/3rd of all deaths in India trace back to the river.

I think Gray's view on the trade offs the poor make is valid.

The book that referenced mercury poisoning was Metal Techniques for Craftsmen: A Basic Manual for Craftsmen on the Methods of Forming and Decorating Metals by Oppi Untracht.

Richard P. said...

I have a Greek girlfriend for whom I have just purchased the Greek Filagree bangle from the Met. I found the same bangle from the British Museum for 100 pounds - the Met is selling it for 100 dollars. I took this to mean that the Brits were either ripping people off or the met is giving one heck of a deal.

I wanted to give something historical since my girlfriend and I had visited the Royal Ontario Museum's Ancient Greek collection (circa 600 BC). Looking on the internet, I found little or nothing and David's idea seems like an excellent solution.

To echo another comment, I know of people who have a personal tailor in Asia and gets custom suits for under 100 bucks with designer cloth.

Ivan Nilin Navi said...

It would be still more profitable, obviously, to have workers provide you with custom arts and crafts for free.

The guilt-free method of doing so would be to scam bait a conniving Nigerian (which is surprisingly easy given the likely 50 point average IQ difference) which, when done with sufficient skill, can generate very impressive artwork.

A team of five to ten such baiters could rake in the profits while simultaneously preventing thousands of crimes.

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