Jewelry designer Jessica Mindich’s bangles are dainty, sleek, sometimes bedazzled—and made of guns. Using shotguns, pistols and rifles from Newark, N.J.’s gun buyback program, Mindich designed the Caliber Collection, a line of steel and brass bracelets. Founded in 2008, her company, Jewelry for a Cause, has already donated more than $20,000 from its sales back to Newark’s police department to continue funding the buyback program. She talks to TIME about her cause.
How did you get the idea for the Caliber Collection?
I spent some time at a conference in Dec. 2011. [Newark, N.J. Mayor] Cory Booker spoke so beautifully and so vividly about the insidious problem of illegal gun violence, and specifically how it was affecting his city, Newark. And as a jewelry designer, somebody who creates jewelery as a fundraising tool, I thought, “How can we help?” We talked about creating a line of jewelry that was positive imagery, and spoke about how this is a positive transformation, and that getting illegal guns off the streets would raise the caliber of the city. The naming of the collection actually came well after that, and it was named by my 12-year-old son. It seemed to fit so perfectly because of the double entendre of the caliber of a gun, and when you get illegal guns off the streets, you raise the caliber of the city.
What came first—making jewelry or wanting to support a cause?
Wanting to give back. But wanting to give back in a way that was more than sitting in a room at meetings. I wanted to be creative, I wanted to be able to send a message that I thought was getting lost in bureaucracy. It was 2008. The economy had hit tough times and I saw that the traditional asks for just straight out donations were tougher. There were a lot of articles at the time that charities were struggling and I thought that this was an innovative fundraising tool, something new and different that people could wear as a symbol of pride, to represent a cause that they were supporting, that also could be fashionable and affordable.
You live in Greenwich, Conn. with your family. How have the Newtown shootings affected this project?
We launched the Caliber Collection on Nov. 28 [weeks before the Newtown shooting]. It didn’t change anything—it just made the rest of the world really aware of just what a big problem this is. The only positive I could possibly say that could come out of it is it helps raise awareness of the issue. It makes me so upset. It’s such a tragedy.
Why, of the myriad issues, gun violence?
I was truly enlightened to the seriousness of gun violence and how it’s destroying America’s cities by hearing Cory speak so beautifully about this. Once your eyes are opened to the insidious problem of gun violence and how it’s destroying America’s cities, you can’t turn away.
Tell us about the design of the bracelets themselves.
The Caliber bracelet is shaped as an oval, not a circle. It’s shaped like the trigger cage of a gun, an area that, if you put your finger in and pull, could cause so much destruction. But in this case, when you buy a Caliber bracelet, you’re giving back to the gun buyback amnesty program…The side of the bangles and cuffs are hand-hammered, to show that it takes the hard work of members of a community in order to create the beautiful surface that you see on top of the bracelets.
The bracelets are packaged in a rendering of an evidence bag, [which] was this incredible visual for me—I never wanted to see a caliber bracelet packaged with pretty tissue paper and a bow. If you gave this bracelet as a gift, I wanted to make sure that the recipient understood the story of caliber and what it really represented. So on the front of our packaging, it talks about the meaning of the word caliber, and where the guns are from.
Customers have wrote you to say how much these bracelets mean to them. To you, what do these bracelets represent?
I couldn’t say it better than [one customer]: “Caliber bracelets are real guns, real lives saved, literally leading to future guns coming off the streets. You have repurposed guns. The power of guns have always been associated with the hand of a shooter. Now people can use guns to make peace…without ever having to shoot one. This is an illegal gun that no longer exists, and a gun that will never kill someone’s loved one.” And it is. It’s an illegal gun off the streets, so it cannot hurt anybody.
The Caliber Collection is currently available online at calibercollection.com.