The question of intellectual property
Who owns an idea? When does a conventional form become a unique and distinctive design? Auckland Museum recently acquired a brooch by contemporary jeweller Octavia Cook which explores these concepts, and responds to a particular situation in which she found herself in last year.
Since 2001, a recurring motif of Cook’s work has been her youthful self-portrait in cameo form. Her two brooches “O. Cook and J. Cook”, on display in our "Encounters" gallery, pair her own image with the silhouette of James Cook, playing with ideas of significance and sentimentality. “O. Cook and J. Cook” were produced under her invented “Cook & Co.” brand identity, created as a nod to high-end jewellery companies like Tiffany & Co.
Copyright or convention?
In 2015, Karen Walker began producing a simple cameo ring featuring the profile of a girl with a ponytail in white acrylic on a black background. The ring was based on the company’s “Runaway Girl” motif which was concieved in 2001; a silver pendant version of the Girl silhouette has been a popular mainstay of their jewellery line for over a decade.
Gallerist Anna Miles immediately picked up on the striking similarity between the Karen Walker ring (which retailed for less than $50) and the black and white cameo rings which Cook had been making for some years – specifically, the ponytail which makes Cook’s work so distinctive. Idealog magazine soon published an article in which Karen Walker’s representative refuted the claim, and invited its readers to decide for themselves whether the concerns were legitimate, or a mere coincidence stemming from the use of a historic jewellery convention.
A "found object"
Cook has created the brooch “Wunderpus O Sea” as a direct response to this discussion. Her brooch subtly pokes at imitation through its subject: Wunderpus photogenicus is a real species of octopus that resembles the mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus) which is capable of changing its skin colour and texture to imitate other species.
More overt - but a secret held by the wearer - is the Karen Walker cameo embedded in the reverse of brooch, described by Cook as a “found object”. The title “Wunderpus” is also a nod to the recent landmark contemporary jewellery exhibition “Wunderrūma” (2014, 2015), and the form of the eight-legged octopus echoes Octavia’s name.
Art versus mass production
The Karen Walker cameo ring is not a clear cut case of intellectual property theft, but Cook’s response reflects a global discussion around copyright and the rights of the artist. International companies such as Zara have recently been accused of ripping off the designs of indie artists, relying on corporate might to avoid paying royalties.
Handcrafted works like Cook’s brooch may be made from acrylic and sterling silver, but the prices she commands reflect her many years of experience, her attention to detail, and the artistic rationale behind each piece. It is therefore unsurprising that contemporary jewellers like Cook are fiercely protective of their intellectual property when superficially similar versions can be bought for a fraction of the price. Jewellery like “Wunderpus O Sea” encourages us to think about these stories of artistic identity, handcraft versus mass production, and the blurred lines between fashion, craft and art.
Cite this article
"Wunderpus O Sea", Octavia Cook. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 13 July 2017. Updated: 9 March 2021.
Pocket guide to New Zealand jewelry
Velvet da Vinci Gallery, issuing body, host institution
Type: Library / Pictorial › publicationContributor: Velvet da Vinci Gallery, issuing body, host institutionID: NK7393 SKIDescription: …Cook, Andrea Daly, Pauline Bern, Niki Hastings-McFall, Peter Deckers.… …Warwick Freeman, Areta Wilkinson, Alan Preston,…