The Handmade in the Age of Technology

When mentioning luxury, one often thinks of “handmade” goods. Indeed, each one is like a piece of art, with a skilled artisan stitching on the high-quality fabrics. Imagine the aged expert tirelessly stitching the curves of the world’s most famous handmade bag: the Hermès Birkin. This bag is often considered the pinnacle of craftsmanship; it is considered a symbol of extreme wealth- usually sold for thousands of dollars. Nevertheless, as technology advances, consumers face an increasingly complex understanding of handmade luxuries, since robotic hands are involved at various steps in the conventionally hand making process. This is referred to as the process of automation: when certain technology is introduced with the purpose of eliminating a job that was held by a human. As a result of automation, the consumers’ definition of “handmade” becomes intriguing. How have we defined the handmade, and how will this definition change? I offer you observations on what changes we can anticipate and what questions we should be asking ourselves to evaluate such goods.

Let us start out by defining a handmade good in the clothing and accessory industry. This industry serves as a prime example for luxury products that boast craftsmanship above all else. A luxury good is usually defined by three characteristics: it is made of the highest quality materials, it comes in a limited quantity, and it was created by a company or individual that publically values craftsmanship. A handmade item is also defined within these parameters, with a particular emphasis on the crafting process. Something handmade is unique, and likely contains a rich history or unique story. The object ought to be made by hands that earnestly infuse personality to the product. 

On the other side of consumerism – how should we understand technology? For the purposes of this article, technology mechanizes a process that would have originally been done by hand, or it is an innovation that creates a whole new way of producing a good, such as 3D printing. In considering this intersection between handmade and technology, technology threatens the three criteria for a luxury good. In regard to the first two criteria, both handmade and produced goods can be marked with superior materials and low production quotas.

It is on the topic of the limited quantity of a finished good, that technology begins to blur the definition of the handmade. The use of new technology in production usually implies that production will now be more efficient, and therefore a larger quantity of goods can be produced. Take, for example, Aston Martin. This revered car company has for years sculpted its image on the basis of a luxury, hand crafted good. Aston Martin has recently made a shift to have some of its car part be createdthrough automatic process like 3D printing, On one hand, this allows Aston Martin to create more, faster, as well as specialized parts that only they have. On the other hand, processes like 3D printing take away from their long standing reputation of making manmade cars. Although Aston Martin has stated that their cars will still “predominately be built by hand,” it is interesting to think about what exactly is being lost and what is exactly being gained in the switch from craftsmanship to automated processes. One might ask, does technology take away the characteristic of a luxury good as something that can only be made one time or one at a time?

Let’s use leather totes as an example. Imagine a craftsman making simple leather tote bags, and say he originally created the shape of the bag by hand molding the leather. This process usually took about a week of careful crafting. If this craftsman was given a machine where all he had to do was enter what shape he wanted the bag to be and the leather would be prepared in two days, does that change the way we think about this good? I would argue that yes, this should change our conception of the good. Machines like this imply that the skill and artistry of handling the leather will be lost within a few generations of craftsman. This takes away the artistry of the handmade and reduces it to an inartistic product. Further, the machine also increases the rate at which the product is made, reducing the characteristic of valuable time investment in a luxury good.

Now imagine that the craftsman was given this machine, and chose to use it, but also restricted the quantity of output to preserve the scarcity of the object. Should we categorize this object as luxury? It should not be marketed the same way as the original handmade good, even if the same quality of good was maintained. Luxury is not solely about speed and scale. Consumers must consider the process by which luxury goods are made, to recognize the increased care put into handmade goods.

Thus arises another kink – does technology take the uniqueness out of craftsmanship? One of the most perplex examples to understand this question is 3D printing. 3D printing enables a craftsman produce by programing the creation of an object. In the 2016 exhibition, Manus x Machina, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute displayed clothing that represents the future of the fashion industry. One of the pieces was a 3D printed ensemble by Iris van Herpen from her spring/summer 2010 haute couture collection. This futuristic, alien like outfit was indeed unique visually. Furthermore, it was the sole example of 3D printed clothing in the show. Accordingly, does this 3D printed ensemble fall into the same level of craftsmanship as a leather bag made by a skilled artisan? No doubt, the creation and programming of the ensemble took considerable skill and creativity, but van Herpen was not the one who physically put this item together. Is there a new kind of craftsman that is emerging with the modern era?

There are some brands that boast sophisticated automation as proof of quality, rather than a loss of luxury. These companies are traditionally electronics companies, such as Apple. When one sees an Apple advertisement, they are usually faced with sleek designs, effortlessly floating in space, but occasionally Apple advertisements will give an inner look into how products are made, showing advanced automation processes. This is all part of the argument that automation and the introduction of technology into craftsmanship actually enhances the accuracy with which the item is made and therefore the reliability of the final product. This leads into a whole new version of products, a group of products that are stuck in the middle between “should be automated” and “should be handmade.” One example of this are luxury watches like Rolex or Frank Muller Watches. Luxury watches have always been coveted as highly handmade and showing the skill of the individual craftsman, but in reality many of the techniques that have been used for decades are outdated and slow. It makes a lot more sense to have a machine cut teeth of a gear than a craftsman- this means that the tedious job would be done faster and probably more accurately. Watch consumers shouldn’t feel as if this automation is taking away from the final product. A finished watch still has all of the unique characteristics of the handmade watch, it was only that the process of crafting it was made easier for the craftsman. Frank Muller watches are known to be sold for amazingly high prices, (some being sold for over $14,000.) This brand has gone through a process of automation, the way they have explained their changes to automatization is that their watches will still be made by hand, but only where it is meaningful to be made by hand. Otherwise, the will use technology to make even more accurate and perfected watches. 

There are a considerable number of implications to consider when thinking of how handmade products are perceived and how they will change and adapt to the technological era. As consumers, we tend to waver in our interest in craftsmanship and our personal value of it. How shall we differentiate between the craftsmanship in a handmade item versus a machine-made one? This question links to the spheres of both consumerism and art. While consumerism provides efficiency and reliability, we must ask ourselves how this new technology fits into the craftsman’s tool-belt: should we praise them for being progressive, or deride them for ruining a timeless art? ﹥