Mitchell Binder's first taste of international fame didn't last long before it turned sour.
About 30 years ago, the jewelrydesigner went to a big international trade show in Frankfurt and showed off the pieces he had been making and wearing in Southern California: skulls and crosses, big silverrings, and an overall look that screamed motorcycles and rock 'n' roll. However, jewelry counterfeits - the age-old problem just keeps growingare hurting the jewelry business.
Mr. Binder, now 65, recalled in a recent video interview:
It was edgy stuff, especially for a very traditional market. I was very brazen about it.- Mr. Binder
He did so well at the show that he registered for the next event.
But, “to my surprise, six months later when I arrived at the show to set up my booth, I saw my designs all over everyone else’s booths,” said Mr. Binder, adding that he had such a visceral reaction, he felt like he had fallen off a building.
The knockoffs were half the price of his pieces, he said, and ranged in quality from good to “godawful.”
He finished the show and filled the orders he received, but decided the business was not for him.
I was devastated. I took it very personally. The last thing I wanted to do was make jewelry for somebody else to copy,” he said. “I literally put my tools up and quit making jewelry.- Mr. Binder
But after working as a laborer in Hollywood and then writing and producing, Mr. Binder went back to what he loved most. He said that he had realized, "I was born to make jewelry, so I’d better figure out a way that I can live with this problem and not make it so personal."
In 2000, he started a business called King Baby. It now has stores in Santa Monica, California, Nashville, Tennessee, and Las Vegas, Nevada, as well as a dealer in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and 13 stores in China that are owned by a business partner.
Mr. Binder said that the problem of fakes has never gone away, but he now hires others to handle legal issues and puts his energy into making new things instead of worrying about people who might try to copy them.
He said that they can't get into his mind. because he has the ability to create new designs.
Counterfeiting in the jewelry industry takes many different forms and hurts many different people and groups, including individual creators, customers, companies, and even cultures or countries.
It's an old problem that has gotten worse in recent years because of how easy it is to do business online. It can involve both trademark, which protects brand identity, and copyright, which covers creative work.
Ben Allison, a lawyer in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who specializes in commercial and intellectual property litigation, says that when someone misuses a trademark—a name, logo, or other feature that a consumer associates with a brand—the damage can be permanent.
It’s a theft of someone’s identity, but it strikes much closer to the heart of identity than somebody just using my Social Security number to get money. It’s very personal. A trademark is how the world knows me.- Ben Allison
In the United States, it is not necessary to register a trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office or copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. This is because trademarks are earned through first and continuous use, and works that are copyrightable by law are protected as soon as they are finished. But Mr. Allison said that having that registration gives "better remedies and tools and better protection"
Infringing on a copyright or trademark is not the same as just being inspired by someone else's work. Cody Sanderson, a jewelry designer in Santa Fe and one of Mr. Allison's clients, said he had seen copies of his work for sale online that didn't say they were copies but looked like they were made from a mold of his originals.
“They use my piece exactly,” he said. “They don’t deviate from it, they don’t change it up a little bit.”
He gave the example of a ringhe sells for $450 that was copied in stainless steel and sold online for less than $20, including shipping. On the copy, you could see his initials and the marks that showed he was Navajo and that the piece was made of sterling silver.
Not every fake is made the same. Some are well-made and expensive, while others are just cheap copies. When quality fakes are made, the people who make the real thing may lose sales, and the people who buy the fakes may think they are getting a good deal on the real thing.
Most people know what they are getting when they buy cheap fakes. Alaina van Horn of U.S. Customs and Border Protection said that no one buys a $10 Cartier Lovebracelet instead of a $10,000 one (C.B.P.).
Some people may think that a fake that was sold openly and even promoted on social media as part of fast fashion's "dupe culture" must be legal, said Ms. van Horn, who heads the Intellectual Property Enforcement Branch of the C.B.P.'s Office of Trade.
But if the fake violated a trademark, she said, its sale would not be legal. And even if the consumer was not deceived, the sale would not be a victimless crime. Ms. Van Horn said:
The brand goodwill is eroded. The strength of the trademark itself is diluted. If everybody’s walking around with a gold-looking bracelet with screw designs, it’s going to erode the value of that genuine product.- Van Horn
Ms. van Horn says that the Cartier Love bracelet with the screw design was the most-stolen piece of jewelry by the C.B.P. in 2021.
Pieces with the Chanel double-C logo, copies of the Cartier Juste un Clou bracelet and Van Cleef & Arpels Alhambra collection, and pieces that looked like they were from luxury brands like Bulgari and Tiffany & Company were also among the top fake jewelry items found.
A C.B.P. report said that watches and jewelry were the fourth most common type of fake product seized in its fiscal year of 2021, making up 12% of all seizures, but the most valuable type of fake product.
The report said that if the goods that were seized were real, their total suggested retail price would have been almost $1.2 billion.
In its Intellectual Property Rights e-Recording System, the C.B.P. said that it was enforcing trademarks and copyrights that were registered with the federal government. Most of the fake jewelry that has been found was ordered online and came in small packages, not in big shipments. Ms. van Horn said that China was the main place where the fake jewelry came from.
According to the C.B.P., more than 420,000 parcels from China are processed every day, and an interagency operation found that more than 13% of parcels that were targeted had fake goods or items that were illegal.
But there is no real way to figure out how much fake jewelry is brought into the country. Ms. van Horn said. "We don’t know how much we’re missing."
Many things have been done by companies to fight fakes. In June, Amazon and Cartier sued a social media influencer and eight businesses that sold on Amazon.
As per Amazon's newsrelease, the defendants "advertising, promoting and facilitating the sale of counterfeit luxury goods through Instagram and other websites, infringing on Cartier’s registered trademarks and violating Amazon’s policies"
The complaints, which were filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, talked about a "sophisticated campaign" to sell fake Cartier products, including the Love bracelet, "while disguising the products as nonbranded in an attempt to evade Amazon’s counterfeit detection tools."
Some of the world’s largest luxury groups have turned to blockchain technology to certify the authenticity of their brands’ products and discourage counterfeits. The Aura Blockchain Consortiumwhose members include LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and Compagnie Financière Richemont said on its website that the technology had allowed brands “to put a tamper-proof digital stamp of authenticity on any product or component.”
Imprint Registry is a new company that bills itself as "a global art registry built to empower artists" Two of the company's founders, Dogan Perese and Ruth-Ann Thorn, say that the company plans to use the blockchain so that artists can take control of their own intellectual property and buyers can be sure that the products they buy are real.
In August, at the Santa Fe Indian Market, which is a juried event held once a year, the company showed off a beta version of its digital registry.
Mr. Perese and Ms. Thorn said that in the future, anyone who bought a valuable piece of jewelry or other work of art would need a secure electronic record, just like someone who bought a car needs a title. Ms. Thorn said:
It’s just coming because we live in a world right now where people don’t always know what they’re getting.- Ms. Thorn
In some ways, it's always been like that.
Erin L. Thompson, an associate professor of art crime, fraud, and forensics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, said that the ancient Romans were the first people to fake ancient Greek art.
She also said that the ancient Phoenicians made jewelry in the style of ancient Egypt, like rings with scarabs or cartouches of pharaohs.
Jewelry has always been a target for thieves at archaeological sites, and Ms. Thompson said that the demand for these kinds of artifacts made it possible for fakes to be made.
She said that there is now a "robust" online market for jewelry that is supposed to be old. She added sarcastically that there are even identical rings that come in different sizes that fit modern fingers.
She said that it seems like some buyers are drawn to deals and don't stop to think about whether something is real. Even if a consumer isn't fooled by a fake, she said, it's still bad that people do that.
“Who cares if somebody’s knocking off an ancient Greek design?” she said. “It’s certainly not harming the ancient Greek jewelry designer.
"But it does encourage the market for looted antiquities," she said, adding that it could cause more archaeological sites to be destroyed.
She said that cheap fakes from any time raise concerns about unethical labor and environmental practices that might be used to make them.
Native American jewelers have been dealing with fakes for a long time. Liz Wallace, a jeweler in Santa Fe who is Diné, Nisenan, and Washoe, says that fake Navajo jewelry has been made since tourists started coming to the U.S. Southwest in large numbers more than a century ago and looking for cheap souvenirs.
She said that it is just as wrong to copy brands like Chanel, Louis Vuitton, or Cartier as it is for people who make fake Native American jewelry to hurt "some of the most vulnerable communities in the country.."
Ms. Wallace, who is 47 years old, said she had not been a target of fakers, but she had felt the effects of a market full of fakes in other ways. Years ago, before she knew how big the problem was, she would see cheap jewelry being sold as "Indian" pieces in shops in downtown Santa Fe and feel bad that she couldn't make her jewelry for those prices. She said in an interview:
I was getting really insecure. Of course, it was all made in the Philippines by people who were lucky to make $8 a day.- Ms. Wallace
In fact, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of New Mexico has brought charges against several people in the past few years for making jewelry in the Philippines that looks like it was made by Native Americans and selling it as real in the United States.
Mr. Bahti said that he "always" saw fakes among the pieces that people brought to him to be valued. In one case, a person paid $12,500 for a bracelet that was said to have been made by Charles Loloma, a Hopi jeweler who died in 1991. Mr. Bahti had to tell them it was a fake bill worth about $800.
He tells buyers to do their homework and compare prices. He told them that when they do buy, they should always ask for receipts that list what they bought, how it was made, and who made it. This way, if there are problems later, they will have detailed proof of purchase.
Consumers need to be more discerning, Ms. Wallace said, adding that some people assume they are protected by law without knowing the law can be hard to enforce.
“I want people to really pay attention to the wording of what they’re buying because it’s so deceptive,” she said. “They see ‘Native-inspired,’ and they just see the ‘Native’ part.”
She also wants the government to take the issue more seriously and do more to protect the economies of Indigenous people.
I don’t know the art market in Europe but I imagine if the French market was flooded with fake Impressionist paintings that were made in China, the French government probably would have stepped in by now.- Ms. Wallace