Although statement pieces have been a popular trend item this winter, Elizabeth Suda has found a way to create a political statement with jewelry. Suda, a New York City-based jewelry designer created the peaceBOMB line made from bomb debris remaining from the Vietnam War. Consumers are able to “buy back the bomb”—the online purchase of a single ($20) bracelet clears 3 meters of bomb-littered land in Laos. She has recently added new pieces, including hand cast charm necklaces, to her line. JCK spoke to Suda to find out more about the cause.
JCK: Can you describe the history of the bombing in Laos for those who are unfamiliar with it?
Elizabeth Suda: I studied history and art history but it was not until I was in Laos in 2008 that I really understood what happened during the “Secret War” alongside what we know as the Vietnam War. Laos was supposed to be a neutral territory, but the CIA waged war clandestinely in order to contain the spread of communism.
As I discovered more of the history while living in Laos in 2008, I was alarmed by the fact that 30 percent of the bombs dropped did not detonate on impact. This led to the realization that wars don’t end simply when a treaty is signed, when troops withdraw, or when history books say they do.
The Vietnam War, for example, did not end in 1975. In Laos, the most bombed country in the world per capita, the legacies of the Secret War endure in the form of unexploded ordnance (UXO) that contaminates more than 25 percent of Lao villages. When you have a country where 80 percent of the population depends on subsistence farming to support their families, the contaminated land poses a daily threat.
JCK: What sparked the idea to create jewelry out of the bomb material?
ES: I was in the village on a textile research assignment with the RISE Project of Swiss NGO Helvetas. The NGO had been working there to bring sustainable electricity through a hydro-powered generator. Now, they were ready to take the next step to help villagers use the new electricity in a way that would help them use their time better and even generate income. Handicrafts are one way for rural communities to generate funds that cover basic costs like school uniforms, gas, soap, phone credit, medicine, etc.
I had heard that there was another special craft in [a village known as] Ban Naphia: melting U.S. bomb metal and other aluminum scrap into spoons. I was touched when I saw them transforming bombs that were dropped by my country into molten liquid and reshaping them into something useful for their community.
The bracelet was one of those “aha” moments. That sudden coming together of things in an object—a bracelet that could bring the story and the bombs back full circle, to tell our shared story to the world while supporting local development.
JCK: How does Article 22 correspond to your mission?
ES: Article 22 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.
The declaration was passed in 1948 and it provides inspiration for the work that we do. I’m an aficionado of Eleanor Roosevelt who was instrumental in the creation of the UDHR after WWII.
So, Article 22, the social enterprise, is about collective action toward culturally and environmentally sustainable development to create positive change within our economically globalized system. Put simply, Article 22 creates products that tell stories and give back to the people that make them.
Peacebomb is the first collection and story. The name peaceBOMB describes exactly what our jewelry is: peace made from bombs. It is about taking a constructive approach toward the future.
Today, we are developing more artisanal products that tell stories and give back with Article 22 of the UN UDHR as the underlying ethos of each mission driven collection.
JCK: Did you use a crowdfunding source (i.e. Kickstarter) to help launch the line?
ES: In a way, yes, Kickstarter helped launch the line. We started selling online in June 2010 and were lucky to get some initial press that caught fire. One sunny July day, I got a call from a film company in London inquiring about making a film about peaceBOMB. I was already writing a treatment.
Just a few weeks later we launched our 30-day Kickstarter campaign, met our fundraising goal, and flew out the day after the campaign ended on Oct 30. We had bought our plane tickets after we surpassed the $3,000 mark because we knew we had to make this film, we had to tell this story, and we had to get to [Laotian capital] Vientiane on time for the International Convention on Cluster Munitions.
We created the film with a budget of $7,500 thanks to 100 friends and strangers. The campaign garnered press and engaged a community of people beyond our familiar network.
JCK: Can you describe the design process?
ES: From what I have seen, people in the developing world are incredibly resourceful. They utilize local resources, they work within limits, they work according to tradition and when faced with a new problem or resource, they innovate.
Inspired by what I have seen during my travels, it is this limitation and resourcefulness that motivates my design process. I prefer to design from a lack rather than abundance. Limitation enhances the balance of form and function. It incites curiosity and questioning, bringing to surface a narrative not yet disclosed.
JCK: How does purchasing a bracelet give back to the cause? Aside from purchasing jewelry, how can the public support the mission?
ES: The peaceBOMB mission is to support artisan livelihoods, community development, and raise funds to clear unexploded bombs and awareness about the need to ban cluster munitions.
- Livelihoods: Article 22 pays artisans at least four times the local market rates and provides consistent design training.
- Community development: Like a local tax, Article 22 donates 10 percent of product cost to the Village Development Fund (VDF) run by the village chiefs and supported by the RISE Project of Swiss NGO Helvetas; funds are used for communal costs and as micro-loans to poor families.
- Clearance of UXO: With each bracelet sold, Article 22 donates the equivalent of the cost of clearing 3 square meters of bomb littered land.
I hope the bracelet inspires a strong desire for peace. And for those wars that are fought, present and future, I hope the bracelet is a reminder of the great human spirit that pushes on. By wearing it and sharing the story, people are doing a lot to support the mission. For those that want to learn more, legaciesofwar.org is one of our partners and a great resource.