Passion Points: Giving Back
The names of Liz Gilbert’s exquisitely crafted jewelry—Moon’s Silver and Horn, Ethiopian Two Star, North African Crescent, for instance—evoke tales of mystical destinations. And indeed each piece of Gilbert’s Shompole Collection has a unique and inspiring story, as intricately connected to Africa as it is to the visionary young designer herself. Gilbert first traveled to Kenya as a photojournalist, covering the Somalian and Rwandan wars for news agencies based in Paris and New York. During her time in Kenya, she became intrigued by the Maasai and ended up living and traveling with the tribe, which she recorded in her book Broken Spears. “The time spent with the Maasai allowed me to be part of a natural African world that had been elusive during my years in cities,” says Gilbert whose new project focuses on another one of her passions: African jewelry and beadwork, and preserving artisan traditions that are fast disappearing.
To Gilbert, the Shompole Collection is a natural extension—and an important next step—of her prior life as a photojournalist. “Then, I focused on raising awareness about conflict and suffering,” she says. “With the Shompole Collection, I hope to make some small contribution to alleviate that suffering in people’s lives by creating commerce and opportunity.” All the pieces are made in Africa by local artisans, and Gilbert also works in close collaboration with the Shompole Lodge, a pioneering eco lodge that has been dedicated for years to working with the local communities (in part with an innovative business model of local tribal shareholders).
In any conversation with Gilbert her love and respect for Africa—its people, landscapes, art and culture— is tangible. The talented artist spoke to Indagare about her collections, design process and the important difference between commerce and charity.
What do you mean when you say that every piece of jewelry begins with an adventure?
When I first started, I put the word out that I was looking for vintage beads from West Africa and a trader sent me a text message that read like instructions for a treasure hunt: ‘Go to the River Road and ask if anyone has seen the Pygmy. If you find him, don’t ask questions. Follow him wherever he takes you. He carries the heart of the Congo in a small hotel room off the alley.’ It took three years to find the man from the Congo, but in the interim I discovered a secret world of nomads, traders and West African art dealers far off the tourist path. They call me when they have come in from the bush. I hop on the back of my goldsmith’s motorcycle and we drive in to see what they have. These are always adventures in the pumping, chaotic hustle and bustle of Nairobi. We never know what we’ll find.
Can you talk about your collaboration with Shompole Lodge?
Shompole Lodge was founded, designed and built by my partner, Anthony Russell, ten years ago and remains one of the most special places anywhere in Africa. It has won awards for its pioneering business model in which the local Maasai are shareholders in the company. When Anthony and I met, we began thinking of ways to expand on that venture and create more business opportunities in the community. This is how Shompole Collection started.
Who are the artisans making the jewelry?
I work with a multi-cultural team of African craftspeople. That’s part of the soul behind the jewelry and what makes it unique. We involve local people from all over Kenya and Tanzania in making luxury gold jewelry inspired by African design. There are Luo and Samburu bone carvers, Kikuyu and Kamba beaders. Maasai women from Shompole village are making their traditional tribal jewelry out of 18-karat gold.
What other materials do you use?
Gold is our base material but every piece of jewelry we make begins with a trip to the market, scouring the kiosks for old beads, chunks of amber, pieces of camel bone or cow horn, even talismans from a witch doctor’s coat. We incorporate all of these elements in our collections, from the cow horn cuffs embedded with gold and topaz to the strands of vintage beaded necklaces or even the glass seed beads used in Maasai beadwork.
What charity does your business support?
We are really more about creating commerce in Africa rather than charity. Our goal is to create opportunity and self sufficiency, things that can have a long-term effect in improving people’s lives and putting them in control of their own destiny. The business does make donations to charity every year – we support Bent on Learning, the African Rainforest Conservancy, Women of the Congo, and Shine on Sierra Leone every year through donations of our work for charity auctions.
How did your work as photographer differ from your jewelry business?
Everything in life is part of what came before it. Both pursuits, making jewelry art and documenting culture, are all connected to my love for the continent. The truth is, my design business does more to directly help people by creating commerce and employment in Africa than my photojournalism did. News photography is critical in raising awareness, but it does very little to immediately improve the lives of those who suffer. My jewelry business indirectly supports the lives and educations of approximately 120 people and that is very satisfying and tangible to me.
How is making fine jewelry in Africa different from other parts of the world?
In Africa, everything is an adventure, including business. Buying gold, trading with local artisans and hunting for vintage beads are all activities that place you in the heart of the city, in the rumble and tumble of an underworld of African traders, travelers and fortune seekers. It is spiced with an element of danger, and I think any kind of business in Africa already comes with the caveat that there is a certain amount of risk involved, as well as the occasional promise of something wild, wonderful unexpected.
Watch a video of Gilbert’s hunt for gemstones (www.shompolecollection.com/video) in Kenya
Read Indagare’s destination report on Kenya.
Read about Liz Gilbert’s favorites spots in Africa.
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