We are charmed with handmade and imperfect products. Why? We could get nearly perfect mass-produced stuff significantly cheaper. Do we have some unique needs, or do we simply need to be different? Is there an ideal framework for evaluating the beauty of handmade objects?
Wabi and sabi
Some of the esthetic charms can be attributed to Japanese ideas of wabi and sabi. Those are ideals of something old and used for generations, imperfect and hence beautiful. To be honest the relevant Japanese lacquerware might be old, but is probably hardly used. It was probably expensive when created. Then it got cheaper for a while as it was old but not yet ancient. And then as it aged well the price went up again.
We see something similar with wine bottles. A bad wine turns into vinegar or worse. Good wine gets more expensive each year. Why? Good wine is hard to make, even harder to preserve for decades. So its consumption is an exclusive event.
Wabi and sabi are also connected with some sort of spirituality. Relevant stories often start with “a wise old man” or “an ascetic monk”. Yet, if you check the Japanese histories, the consumption of wise and ascetic Shoguns was expensive beyond reasonable, with whole pagodas built from gold and silver, or treasure ship licenses needed to build a garden. Apparently building a nearly perfect imperfect object is significantly harder than mass-producing perfectly similar units.
It feels real
Most of the items we used are made of molded plastic. The plastic can be pretty expensive, tougher than steel, maybe even a composite material, and yet it is somehow plasticky… We want to feel something substantial and different. For example, metals like steel or brass, or real wood, or even a natural lacquer instead of synthetic ones.
There is some more real and grounded feel associated with non-plastic materials. These materials shine differently, have a different texture, maybe are warmer or colder, and possibly each item is unique in a subtle way.
Some of these materials are pretty expensive, like metals or ebony. Other materials are cheap, like bamboo. Yet they are processed by lathe or similar machines, not by injection molding, and this machining makes the product more expensive and more lucrative. If the process is manual, and the masters are Japanese, Italian, or German the prices rise even faster.
Generations of mastery
We have an almost instinctive appreciation of Italian design, German quality, Japanese lifelong search for simple perfection. Some countries have an uninterrupted tradition of mastery, with masters passing their skills to chosen students for generations since medieval times.
There are small boutique factories building expensive cars, unique fountain pens, exclusive furniture, chef knives, musical instruments with exclusive sounds. We can find centers of such craft in big European countries, Japan and sometimes Korea, maybe Turkia or Egypt. Places with old money, old traditions, not stirred by revolutions and modernization.
The old masters have a very hard time competing with Chinese mass production or Pakistani labor costs. It is very hard to justify the time it takes to polish and fine-tune every little detail. Even harder to explain the immense investment in training students that can see perfection where everybody else simply does not know how to look.
Just as there are different manufacturers, there are very different consumers. Who will want an imperfect handmade item?
- True connoisseurs of mastery. Everybody wants to belong to this elite, yet very few actually do.
- People who appreciate the “old ways”. They might lack the tools to describe the special allure of the vintage items, but they feel it with their entire being. This is a mix of laborers, entertainers, and businessmen often with affiliation to certain rural traditions.
- Rich collectors. What they lack in taste they buy with money. They will usually go for well-known brands or boutique brands with very special buyers. And they will pay premium money for premium products, not because they really love or need these products but because they can pay for them.
- Thrill-seekers. Finding unique items and then caring for them is a constant source of entertainment.
- Identity through items. Certain people find or display their identity through unique items, shared by a specific subculture. For example, religious or ethnic items can be hand-made and pretty expensive.
Some handmade items can be fine-tuned for a specific person. Nakaya pen order will often include two pages of questions regarding the way you write. When you buy a custom gun or a newton pen, you fill in long internet forms with a dozen of different options.
European tailors and shoemakers will take dozens of measurements for the relevant parts of your body. They will not say: “we do not have large sizes in our store”. But that customization will cost you.
Also, some quality handmade products are virtually indestructible. They are made of quality materials, extra strengthened where needed, with spare parts provided during the transaction. Small issues can be fixed. And a tear in jeans might even be desired.
If you actually use an item for a while properly, this often adds something special, like the patina on bronze. The item actually becomes better this way.
We know for sure that jewelry is expensive. Gold is an expensive material, and we still use some of the gold that was used in ancient Egypt. Stones are unique, especially large diamonds with heavily optimized cuts. Jewelry techniques are labor-intensive and expensive. There is pretty much no mass-produced gold jewelry.
Women want jewelry as a status symbol. Men give women jewelry when they mess up or want to show deep appreciation, or simply for a special occasion.
Jewelry is not useful. Is it beautiful? Not always. Certainly, the more conspicuous pieces are open for interpretation. Do they make females more attractive? Not sure. An old lady with huge jewelry may look ugly, or aristocratic, outdated, or bohemian.
Jewelry is a status symbol, just like an expensive watch or a shiny car. It identifies the person as someone who has money and requests respect.
Certain imperfect objects are grounding or meditative. Like religious items. Jewish scrolls are still made of leather and the texts are written by calligraphers using a quill. In the 21st century! Not sure why this is required for a “kosher” scroll.
There is some spiritual aspect in a Japanese master preparing sushi or ramen that is perfect in ways that only a Japanese can understand. Tasting quality food we feel kind of enlightened. In zen temples of ancient time only the most advanced students worked in a kitchen. Only very advanced students today create sand pictures of Tibetan tradition.
Japanese sword manufacturers and sword polishers were two different professions. Each of these professions was spiritual in its own way…
And there is something profoundly magical in hand-made hand-tuned musical instruments. The modern hand-made quality violin may cost 20 thousand dollars and sound better than the precious Stradivarius products that cost x1000 more…
OK, back to earth. Why should I care about handmade products? How can they improve productivity? I can think of several ways.
- Motivating presence. A special product demands to be used one way or another.
- Unique design. We may need something design specifically for the way we use items. For example, furniture built to fit in a particular corner of the home.
- Adaptation to unique physiology. You may hold your pen in a certain way. Or your feet will need shoes with very specific support.
- Quality tool for a very specific task. Like a Telecaster guitar with B-bender.
Moreover, the handmade part does not have to be the entire product, it can be a tuning or a special add-on. Like custom sharpening of a mass-produced knife…
To be honest, I do not use many handmade items. Some furniture, a pen, a knife, my son’s guitar, my wife’s jewelry. That’s about it… Do you use handmade items?