To those of you who normally drop by for the hawt chastity porn, the pictures of hawt BBW models, the hawt pictures of Marina Sirtis, or the cool conversations: I’m not offering anything like that in this admittedly longish post. But I do hope that you’ll take a few minutes to read this because, while it’s not sexy on the surface, it does concern a more serious issue.
This is a detective story, one that you will not see on some TV drama show because few people will understand the implications. But it’s because of my informal education — not any special training — that there is a story at all.
Although you’d never suspect if from the skyline of office buildings and the endless shopping centers, the area around the Elm City has a number of small, old-school shops. Not chain drugstore shops, but small businesses that house little manufacturing, repair, and contracting facilities. I’ve been fortunate to have grown up in and around so many small businesses, in which I’ve seen all sorts of occupations from watch repair, to jewelry making, to upholstery, to shoe repair, to specialized machining. Sometimes, when I was younger, I would spend afternoons just hanging out, watching, or even helping when I could. I’ve repaired antique radios (the kind with tubes!), made and repaired jewelry, watched fabric being bought and sold, and even some furniture and cabinets being built. This background has given me an unusual perspective on the idea of quality. As our society has moved from industries which actually made things to industries that trade on information, I think that we have lost the ability to discern quality in material things, simply because we no longer have any feel for them, nor any idea of how things are made.
The idea of discernment — the ability to tell what’s important — is something that we are bombarded with in ads and commercials all the time; but what the marketers are really counting on is that we, as a society, have lost the ability to discern quality merchandise. They are hoping that, in not knowing the difference, we will simply buy what they throw at us, because their commercials are funnier, sexier, or more relevant. And in fact, fewer people than ever in the US and UK really understand how things are made, where they come from, and what kind of effort is needed. This is why reality shows like “Dirty Jobs,” “Ice Road Truckers,” “The Deadliest Catch,” and even “Extreme Home Makeovers” are so fascinating to us, most of us really don’t know how anything is built or produced anymore.
I don’t have any special skills, but I did pay attention to the older relatives, the neighbors, and the people that I met in those little shops. You might wonder what possible use it would have been, cluttering up my brain with seemingly useless trivia, but there have been times when it has been useful. For example, back in the 1980s, a friend showed up at our nightspot flashing a new-looking Rolex, which he claimed to have picked up “gray market” for only $1,500. Examining it, I handed it back to him and explained that this particular model was supposed to be self-winding, but that if you felt it carefully, you couldn’t feel or hear the counterweight that does the internal winding. Not that it mattered because mechanical watches have a sweep, i.e., a constantly moving second hand. His second hand made discrete movements each second, tick…tick…tick. What he had bought was a very nice case with a $10 Japanese movement.
Oddly, he was not pleased at my display of knowledge.
In the 1990s, several friends showed off examples of designer clothes or accessories that they bought, invariably at a severe discount from some place that was going out of business. This was before people boasted about buying designer knockoffs, a practice which I still can’t understand. Interestingly, none of my friends have ever appreciated being shown that the bags or jackets were counterfeit.
More recently, a young cousin stopped by to show off her new engagement ring. Diamonds being natural gems, they will have minor flaws — spots where the carbon doesn’t quite fuse. If you can’t see anything under 5x or 10x magnification, jewelers will tell you that they are flawless. They aren’t, really, it’s just that you need more magnification to see them.
I examined her rock. The color was very good, and I didn’t see any flaws under 5x. Intrigued, I didn’t see anything under 10x, either. In fact, even under 20x, the stone was perfect.
What, you don’t have a jeweler’s loupe at home? Odd.
Considering the job situation of her fiance at the time, I (tactfully) expressed some doubt that he would be able to afford such a high quality gemstone. Not surprisingly, she got a little ticked off and left in a huff. Eventually, several of her friends convinced her to have it appraised for insurance reasons. Yes, it turned out to be a very nice peice of cubic zirconium. Her now-ex-fiance explained that he had hoped to replace it one day with the real thing, and was affronted that she had it appraised. But that’s another story.
Anyway, the point is that years ago, when people knew how things worked and how things were made, such skills were more common; not that people weren’t fooled, but that people in general were more able to look at items and determine whether or not they were well made.
I buy a lot of things online, things that aren’t usually sold in local stores, so I don’t really have the opportunity to pick them up, kick the tires, or examine how well it’s made. Recently, I ordered a particular piece of equipment (a consumer product) from a reputable online distributor, from whom I’ve ordered things in the past. When I got it, I tried it out and while I was mostly satisfied, I decided to do some work on it. Any other customer would have used it out of the box, but this being Edge of Vanilla Labs, you know we had to make some minor improvements, a few tweaks, and poke around under the hood.
You ever see in old movies or cartoons, when somebody gets a coin, that person will bite it? In the old days, that was to test the gold or silver content; gold and silver being particularly soft metals would dent easily, while those alloyed with copper, zinc, or bronze would not. Before the days of national treasuries, coins were minted locally, and people needed to determine good coinage from fakes. I did my own bite test: I took one of the components and scratched it in a discreet location; this was to make sure that the material was what I had expected.
The item had several components to it. One one of them, the metal was heavy and shiny, and I decided to polish a section to round over an edge that I thought could lead to irritation. After a few minutes, I noticed some red streaks on the surface. Thinking it was excess polishing compound, I pressed that area against the wheel again. Instead of removing the red, the area grew.
Concerned, I pulled it into the light to investigate. Immediately I recognized the red of copper electroplate; I had polished through the surface to expose the thin base that acts as a “primer coat” for surface electroplate. Now I was confused, because the item had been advertised as stainless steel.
Stainless is, well, resistant to staining because when the raw surface is exposed to the air, it forms a tight bond with the oxygen several molecules deep to create a near-impenetrable skin. There are two main types of stainless (I’m keeping this simple); some versions will exhibit a bit of minor staining — they are generally found in tableware and cutlery, and will attract a magnet. The other type is non-magnetic, and is found in other kitchenware, piercing jewelry, and medical instruments. Except for some unusual industrial applications, there’s no reason to put electroplate on top of stainless steel; it’s like the joke about winning a gold medal and having it bronzed.
My next thought was to put a magnet to the item. No reaction, which meant it was not an alloy steel, but that didn’t mean it was stainless. I hefted it; this was definitely not aluminum or some cheap, light metal — but brass is not magnetic, and would weigh about the same for a small item. I took it back to the buffing wheel and polished off the copper in one area. Underneath, the metal was shiny again. Nope, this was not brass, nor was it alloy steel. Could the manufacturer have plated on top of the stainless after all, perhaps to improve the shine?
I finished some of the modifications, cleaned it up, and tried it out. After a couple of days, however, I had some irritation. I removed the article and discovered that the section I had buffed out was now black! Was this tarnish giving me a rash, or was it a section that hadn’t been smoothed down?
At this point, I took pictures of the unit and sent them to the distributor, with some explanation of what I had done, and some questions. The distributor responded immediately: Please include your order number on all correspondence.
Back at my workshop, I replaced some screws that I knew for a fact were made from stainless steel. I then removed another piece that appeared to be stainless, but could well have been causing the irritation from a rough edge. I replaced it with a section of titanium, making sure that it was perfectly polished before assembly.
What, you don’t have odd bits of stainless and titanium components hanging around your own workshop? Strange, I thought everybody did.
I again polished the sections, and took several pictures. Then, I made sure everything was perfectly clean by putting them in an ultrasonic tank with some light alkali solution — essentially a larger version of what jewelry stores use to clean your rings. After 30 minutes, I removed the article, and was dismayed to see the section I had polished to a bright finish was matte gray. The cleaning solution had affected the metal, but not the stainless screws, nor the titanium section. There was now no question that the base metal was not stainless steel. I took some more pictures, and sent them to the distributor.
Again I tried out the article, and again the polished sections turned black in a day or so. I took a few more pictures, and documented what I had done. By now I was getting frustrated that the distributor hadn’t been able to give me any satisfactory answers. Finally, after a couple of weeks they confirmed my earlier suspicions: they had to contact a sales agent who, on his next round of visits, would check with the factory where they were being made.
In China, of course.
Good old China.
As our society began to value information and service work more than material goods, companies have needed to find ways to lower the costs on those goods. A couple of generations ago, large factories began moving operations to the southern US, where the standard of living was lower, and the labor unions hadn’t created a situation of high-priced labor costs. As the standard of living increased, however, so did the desire for better wages, and companies began to move their operations out of the US into Mexico. After Mexico came the Asian Pacific Rim, and eventually, India, and then China.
An interesting thing about this movement; while Americans complain about immigrant labor and offshore factories, they continue to buy those low-cost goods at the various box stores. The cheap labor has made the unit prices on most consumer goods so inexpensive that we never think about repairing things anymore — even if you could find a shop that would do it. When was the last time you heard of somebody taking a blender, a toaster, a coffee maker, or even a microwave oven to be repaired? You toss them out and get a new one at the mall.
Yet the cycle continues; as the standard of living improves in the Asian countries, manufacturers need to cut costs, so they look for ways to save money. They replace what they can: Metal casings become plastic. Push button switches become small electronic keypads. Sharp edges are not smoothed over, cracks are filled with extra putty. And to keep the development costs low, they don’t bother with creating a new design; American or European items are simply copied and built with lower grade materials.
A secret of the aircraft industry is that there are thousands of counterfeit components being assembled into all sorts of aircraft on a daily basis; high quality bolts, nuts, fasteners, and other components are expensive items, and some companies have no qualms about substituting less expensive components that look the same on the surface. The steel is a lower quality, which means that it is more susceptible to stress, which means they have to be replaced more often. That is, if they don’t cause something important to fail, with catastrophic results.
While I waited to hear back from the distributor, I did some more testing on the unit. It appeared to be a cast or forged zinc alloy, which was then polished and plated with either nickel or chrome. Nickel can often react with body oils and cause contact dermatitis. The rivet hinges on the CB3000 cuff rings are made of brass and then nickel plated (yes, EOV Labs has drilled them open to check); I suspect that many of the men who complain about irritation from these rings are reacting to the plating, and not the edge of the rivet.
I held my component up to a brighter light to examine the surface more closely. While steel all looks shiny when polished, there are subtle differences that are noticeable when you hold them up to objects of different alloys. You might not be able to tell nickel from chrome plating, but when you hold them next to each other, chrome reflects very slightly in a blue tone, as compared to the gray or neutral that nickel displays. I compared the sections to other items that I knew were plated; the color indicated that it was probably chrome.
In order to test the other components that came with the set, I carefully cut, ground, and polished, and cleaned them. As far as I could determine, everything else was stainless steel as advertised. Once satisfied, I coated the non-stainless item with a plastic sleeve and tried it out. Not surprisingly, I had no other irritations.
Three weeks and half a dozen emails later, I heard from the distributor, who heard from the sales agent, who heard from the supplier, who heard from the factory. “Yeah, about those “stainless steel” rings? Sorry, it must have gotten screwed up in the translation. They are very shiny because they are covered in chrome plate. Oh, and they are heavy because they are a heavy zinc alloy. Stainless? No, sorry, we don’t have any stainless ones here. But these are nicely polished, so they look like stainless. That’s good, right?”
The distributor apologized, but of course, they had no idea. How could they? The units were designed to be used as is, right out of the box. Not one person in a hundred, maybe not one in a thousand would have noticed. I mean, who buys something usable and then modifies it right away.
Well… Edge of Vanilla Labs, apparently.
They offered to make good on my purchase, although all I could reasonably ask for was to have them replace the component that was now pretty much destroyed by my testing. I have no idea what the relationship is between the distributor and the supplier, but I suspect that it’s now a bit strained.
So ends my little detective story, a CSI case file that really won’t mean anything to most people. But still… there are few things to think about in all this.
Last year I had several arguments with some friends who were buying knock-off jewelry and bags in lower Manhattan. They justified their decision buy pointing out that the real items were too high priced to be affordable. Worse, I’ve heard that some women have home parties at which such knock-offs are sold. Sure, nobody wants to drop $1,200 on a purse, but by spending $75 for a knock-off, they are simply encouraging those suppliers to keep making poor quality products (and to keep capitalizing on the brand names). Eventually, counterfeiters will have enough incentive to market knock-offs of ordinary consumer products; and when that happens, people will no longer have any idea of what they are buying, and the few good companies that make quality products will go out of business.
I don’t really know what to make of this episode.
The Chinese company that made these items did not need to claim that they were stainless; they could just as easily said that they were a “chromed alloy,” and that would have been fine for most people. But I’m sure they never expected anybody to inspect it closely enough to determine what it was made from. They simply claimed the parts were stainless knowing it was a good selling point, or that they could demand a premium because stainless is the new black right now. And even though it won’t make a difference for 99.9% of the people who bought them, there’s a bigger issue at stake:
When we have lost the knowledge of how things are made, how do we know that we are getting what we have paid for? Or do we even care?