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The Tale of the Boho Bracelet

Oy. Strap in kids, I’m about to take you on a journey of discovery. How do you know when something you’re buying online ISN’T actually handmade. This is the tale of the boho bracelet.

The star of the show!

What exactly IS “handmade”?

First off, let’s figure out what handmade actually means. The broad dictionary definition is “made by hand, not machine”. I postulate that most people where I am from, the US, equate handmade with not being factory made. That is, the item in question is not being made by the thousands: it’s created by one or a few people, on a small scale, uses high-quality materials, and is often wholly unique. Can something from a factory be handmade? Yes, it can: factories use humans, and human hands often assemble things. You could argue that your Nike shoes are “handmade” as they require a human to actually stitch and assemble the shoe. But considering you can purchase Nike shoes for $40 and so can thousands of other people at Target, they are considered factory made, or mass produced.

Got it?

Handmade: small-scale, high quality, unique, traceable origins, higher buy price, known maker
Factory made: large-scale, lower quality, mass-produced, lower buy price, unknown maker

Now that we’ve generally got that settled, let’s see what got me so riled up. I was browsing Facebook, like you do, and I ran across a post that one of my friends had commented on.

A friend of a friend loves the bracelet! She tags my friend. My friend asks:

Handmade or manufactured?

DING! She asked the winning question. The store answers:

Hi E! All our bracelets are handmade!

BUZZ! Wrong. My alarm bells go off immediately. I KNOW this item isn’t handmade. What set my alarm off? How do I know? How do I confirm this?

Internet Detective

I’ve had people ask me “How do you know?” I’ve been an artist long enough, and been online long enough that I can quickly sniff out the difference based on cues in the photo, the name of the shop, the number of shares, and the answer that the shop gives to customers. Based on those cues, it takes 5 minutes on Google to confirm. Nope. Not handmade. But how do you figure it out?

Your biggest ally in learning about an image found on the Internet is reverse image lookup. I used Google Images. You just click on the little camera in the search bar, and plug in an image URL. Poof! Search results that feature that image pop up. I right click, copy the image URL in the Facebook post and paste it into Google Image search.

Oh. Hmm. That’s…that’s a lot of shops carrying that “handmade bracelet”. Let’s take a moment and click on the shops:

Ohhhhhhhhhhh. Shop #3 kinda broke the pattern by not immediately featuring that off-center image, but it’s there! You could pretty much stop there: this EXACT. SAME. image is in five different stores. They’re all selling for about the same price, and all AMAZINGLY are offering a pretty substantial discount on the product! I didn’t screencap all of the shops, but there were even more. Several even had the same “wheel of chance” gimmick for visitors to spin for a discount code.

Get Rich Quick

Why do all of these shops have the same product? They all have Facebook pages and Instagram pages offering a bevy of similar jewelry. Why?

This is actually a business model:

  1. Decide on a theme (Boho/Hippie)
  2. Find a product on AliBaba (Boho bracelet)
  3. Open a Shopify Store with product (Be sure to offer a huge discount!)
  4. Open social media and post products with TONS of popular hashtags.

If you look up “How to Open a Shopify Store” on Youtube alone you can find hundreds of videos with people leading you along this exact same process. It’s not just Shopify, posting stuff like this is rampant on Etsy and Amazon Handmade.

This particular business model of buying on bulk and opening a Shopify store is RIFE on social media. Step 4 is how you stir up business: buy some fake likes and shares, and you eventually get enough real people who want to purchase your product. It’s kind of like junk mail. They mail out to EVERYONE in hopes that eventually somebody will buy that 20% off oil change (with coupon).

This is It’s a marketplace for purchasing mass quantities of items: LEDs, bolts, pencils, tools…jewelry. The minimum order for our handmade bracelet is 120 pieces. If we scroll down, the current supply availability is TEN-THOUSAND pieces. If we scroll down the page a little more…

Such a homey studio!
Handmade, see?

…that place is HUGE! Dang! Also, I gotta laugh at the “handmade” picture. People are clearly involved at all stages of this process but for some reason something about that photo warrants a “handmade” caption. I don’t think folks think of a giant factory when they think of a unique handmade product. (Side note: I found one or two OTHER AliBaba shops that sell the same bracelet, same picture, but have entirely different factories. It got surreal after a point.)

I’ll digress a bit by saying the problem with using the word “handmade” is that it’s a disingenuous word. Saying it evokes images of an artisan carefully piecing together a bracelet at her home workshop, while technically handmade could mean “using hands to make.” It’s essentially evolved into a nebulous marketing term like “organic” or “natural”. Buy this handmade boho bracelet! It’s made from organic leather and is 100% natural.

Back from my digression, out of curiosity I started plugging in the description from the item I found on AliBaba into different popular online stores:

Amazon Handmade

Don’t fret yourself that the photos on Amazon and Etsy aren’t EXACTLY like the one from the AliBaba listing I screencapped. There are PLENTY more shops on AliBaba alone that have those exact same photos.

Etsy and Amazon Handmade I find most irritating because they’re supposed to be “handmade” market places. In reality, they’re gimmick sites. Etsy especially loves to tout itself as the place where artisans and crafters can sell their wares! Fact of the matter is, people hawking cheap factory-made jewelry is big money it won’t ignore. I don’t mind, a business wants to make money, fine. However, it’s damaging to actual crafters who put time, effort, and money into creating products of high quality. People look to Etsy to provide their “stamp of approval” and by virtue of the fact that a product is on Etsy, it somehow is “legit” as a super real handmade high quality item. Amazon Handmade has been suspected of watching the high-selling items, then undercutting the artisan by selling a similar item that comes from…a giant factory. I threw the Ebay screencap in to demonstrate how many sellers I got by copying and pasting the description from the AliBaba listing.

Caveat Emptor

Buyer beware! Especially when it comes to buying what you think is a “handmade” item online! Ok, so, we know that this happens, and we actually want to purchase a handmade item. Remember when I said I could sniff out the item was mass-produced?

  1. cues in the photo
  2. name of the shop
  3. number of shares
  4. how the shop interacts with customers

Start with #1. Cues in the photo. Well, first off, the photo quality isn’t great. It’s not crystal clear. That means it’s likely been copied many many times. Online photos lose quality. The product is off-center. Artists take pride in their work! An off-center photo? Noop. That’s just lazy. Finally, the photo is impersonal. It’s a product on a white background. It could come from anywhere. It’s generic. Almost like a stock model.

. Name of the shop. Cape Diablo Spiritual Store. That’s HIGHLY generic. Almost as if someone who doesn’t speak English just pulled some key words out of a hat. Cape Diablo doesn’t appear to be an actual place, none of the merch is devil-themed, or remotely has to do with Satanism, it’s not sea-themed, and it’s not especially spiritual. The website is full of generic boho-themed items. If you look at the “Our Story” on the website, it’s a weird, made-up story that doesn’t especially fit in with the design of the rest of the site. “Unknown Location!” oooh mysterious and…spiritual…for some reason…I guess.

So mysterious!

#3. Number of shares. Shares mean you’re popular, right?! *BUZZ* Nope. Companies like this KNOW you can pay for shares and likes to help boost visibility. It’s part of opening the store. I’m always suspicious when something utterly forgettable gets so much attention. Now, wait wait, you say. But there are actual customers that are posting actual photos!

Spontaneous reviews!

Ohhhhh. I see. So, you’re paid for your review. Not just randomly compensated, they actively pay people for posting a glowing review with a photo. Nothing especially wrong with that, but it’s disingenuous as on their social media, the reviews are presented as a pleasant surprise for the merchant! Oh! So thoughtful of you to give us such a nice review!

#4. How the Shop Interacts with Customers

I follow a LOT of potters and craftsmen on Instagram. There is a HUGE difference in how they interact with their customers. They’re personable. They answer questions with specifics, not generics. It’s kinda how you know when someone is smiling on the phone. You can’t see it, but you can hear it in their voice.

Hey we have a store, in case you didn’t notice.

The comments go on like this. “Buy it here!” or some variation thereof, and a link to the product in the store. The shop is doing everything it can to drive you to their website. Abnormally so. Some of the links have nothing to do with that a commenter posts. Almost every comment the shop posts is a link to their website in some form. Artists usually comment that the link to their shop is in their bio, or on the picture. Other comments are posted from what I can only assume are paid affiliates asking “How do I purchase?” I assume they’re affiliates because only a complete moron couldn’t figure out how to click the link on the original photo posted in the shop’s feed. Not to mention the twenty links prior that the shop posted in response to other people’s comments.


Now, it took me a while to post all of this. Actual searching? No more than five minutes. It’s easy, and anyone can investigate. I’m not out to expose these people as playing host to a vast conspiracy; I’m out to educate you, the consumer. I’ve had people express genuine surprise when I explain the Alibaba/Shopify business model, and anger when I explain that sites like Etsy and Amazon Handmade reap the benefits of such a scheme as well.

I’m an artist, and this kind of behavior is harmful. Not everyone takes the time to investigate their “handmade” good. Someone told “All of our goods are handmade!” might think they are getting an item which has had care and thoughtfulness put into its manufacture. It’s no more care and thoughtfulness than your Hanes t-shirt. The difference is that Hanes doesn’t claim to “handmake every shirt”. They’re made in a giant factory overseas, and that’s why they cost $3 on sale at Wal-Mart. “Cape Diablo” shops attempt to pass themselves off a unique and kooky little shop which draws its spiritual inspiration from an old Caribbean legend. Similarly do all the other “spiritual” shops selling the exact same item, which is made in a giant factory overseas.

Stuff is made in mass quantities. It’s a fact of life, and an amazing product of industry. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea; my beef is when mass-produced tries to horn in on my territory as a craftsman. I want folks to be educated on the matter: investigate your products! Handmade? Does the artist post photos of production? Do they take videos of their pieces? Are they interacting with people on social media in a way that doesn’t feel like a used car salesman? If you are genuinely interested in a higher quality and a unique object, you’re not getting it for 40% off plus 10% with the coupon code.