Even if you're not a connoisseur, you'll immediately see how each piece takes a simple geometric shape and decorates it with artistic patterns that may have symbolic meaning. For example, in the San Ildefonso pot pictured above, the opening is circular. It tapers to a wider circle near the midpoint of its height, and then narrows again to the base, intermediate in diameter between the opening and middle.
Like all handmade pottery, the circle is visibly imperfect, if you look closely. You can tell that it was made by a human hand. Before the invention of pottery wheels, craftsmen and women hand molded the clay. Often they tried to form a circle as perfectly as they could.
Using a pottery wheel, it's possible to create a more perfect circle and cylinder, with more even thickness. As technology advanced, it took less time to create a more perfect shape. Potters could either spend more time in engraving and painting decorative designs, or they could produce more pots, for more purposes.
Mass production methods such as injection moulding, pressure casting and slip casting enable even larger increases in productivity. They also enable more perfect geometric shapes.
Today, mass produced pottery costs a fraction of what fine artists charge for handmade traditional wares. One aspect, the geometry, has been very nearly perfected by factory production, so that it's easy and cheap to make a shape so nearly perfect that the human eye cannot tell the difference.
Likewise, it's easy to paint or engrave perfectly proportioned designs on the surface, in a tiny fraction of the time it would take a human artist to do the same. It's fair to say that, for all practical purposes, up to the limits of human perception, technology has perfected the production of pottery and driven down the cost.
But something unexpected has happened, that it's easy for us, from our modern perspective, to overlook. Instead of valuing the perfection of the product, sophisticated consumers actually look down on perfectly geometrically shaped pots with patterns so regular that they would have been the envy of any artisan a thousand years ago.
Instead, such consumers actively seek out imperfect shapes and irregularly applied designs, even when the very imperfection arose not through artistic intention but through simple human fallibility. Not only that, they are willing to pay vastly more money for an imperfect, irregular, unique and flawed piece. It's a typical example of the Perfection Paradox.
Basic microeconomics explains part of the situation. A mass produced product benefits from economies of scale, driving down the price. At the same time, mass production drives manufacturers along a learning curve, meaning that they figure out how to create better quality pots by adapting the materials, kiln firing temperature, glaze chemistry, and other aspects of the process. That explains the simultaneously falling prices and increasing quality.
Demand for unique pieces countervails the tendency. If people value uniqueness in art works, the pricing moves in the opposite direction. At the extreme, famous artists with limited output command the highest prices in auctions where there are many wealthy buyers. Then the price rises to, typically, the second highest price anyone is willing to pay. And to the wealthy collectors, many thousands of dollars may seem like an entirely reasonable price for a one-of-a-kind piece by a famous artist.
Two main drivers keep the price high: First, mass production has historically been more difficult and expensive when the outputs are all unique. It's one thing to factory produce ten thousand pieces of a single identical design. It's another to cost-effectively produce one each of ten thousand different designs.
Even so, mass customization has become vastly easier as well, and manufacturing and supply chain innovations have enabled companies like Dell to deliver one-off designs using computerized inventory management. Over time, the cost difference between mass customized and homogeneous mass produced products may shrink in a wide range of product categories.
In other words, uniqueness alone may not justify high prices for artisanal products like pueblo pottery. It ought to be possible to mass produce slightly irregular and imperfect pottery where every piece is unique, and to sign each and every pot with a different signature. What's left as a justification for paying a hundred times more for something that's basically indistinguishable?
The second factor that keeps prices high may be more impervious to technological change: human psychology. People place psychological value on distinguishing themselves from others. Even if factory-produced pottery is more perfect in geometry and any other dimension we like, and even if factory-produced pottery could reproduce the uniqueness and imperfection of individual items, people won't allow the category of goods to wind up totally commoditized.
And that's a great thing, from the perspective of the most talented Native American artists in New Mexico who can command the very highest prices and make a decent living, even if it pales in comparison to financiers and corporate executives.
One of the classic sociological analyses of the desire to pay more, and to shop differently, is Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.
Technology meets economics and psychology in the Perfection Paradox. Pueblo pottery provides just one example. I previously presented another, the shift in the ideal of perfect bread. In future posts, I'll offer some more examples, and also draw out some of the implications not only for scholars, but also for marketers and technologists.