When Christine Ferdinand, co-owner with her husband, Bill, of Ferdinand Jewelers, in New Providence, N.J., discovered that her favorite customer, Barbara, had ovarian cancer, she could empathize. In 1991 the retailer’s mother died of the same disease.
Barbara, worried that her jewelry might get lost or stolen during hospital stays, said she would “miss her bling.” That prompted Ferdinand to start Operation Bling, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to giving inpatient and outpatient women, men, and pediatric oncology patients sterling silver jewelry set with CZ.
After launching in February 2008, Ferdinand had little to show for her efforts. But that summer a customer who’s also a close friend gave Ferdinand a $1,000 donation. “That was all the seed money I needed to get it going,” Ferdinand says. “After that, customers started throwing money at us.”
With production costs averaging $22 per unit from an overseas manufacturer, Bling jewelry retailed for $45 per piece. From earrings, rings, pins, pendants, and necklaces for women to watches and alarm clocks for men, proceeds from sales and continued donations gave Operation Bling momentum.
Soon hospitals all over northern New Jersey had patients in cancer units getting “blinged.” “People are blown away by the gesture,” says Ferdinand. Hospital administrators and heads of national cancer organizations took notice. The Overlook Foundation of Overlook Hospital, in nearby Summit, N.J., donated $10,000 to Operation Bling. The Atlantic Health System nominated the Ferdinands for the American Cancer Society’s Humanitarian Award, which the couple received last November.
With four hospital volunteers and countless hospital staff working as Bling Angels, 10 hospitals have distributed more than 3,600 Operation Bling gifts over the last 18 months.
Although the store and the foundation are separate operations, there’s a symbiosis between them. “The Bling Foundation has generated a lot of press for the store,” says Ferdinand. “When customers come in and learn more about us as a jeweler, they also find out about Operation Bling. Cancer has touched so many lives, directly or indirectly, and people respond to it.”
It may be that emotional connection that adds to Operation Bling’s homegrown quality. A loyal customer who owns Aithent Technologies, a high-tech company, created and maintains the foundation’s Web site for free. The daughter of a neighbor created the Operation Bling logo.
Putting together Bling bags is a group effort. “We’ll cook up a pan of lasagna and invite friends over to help,” says Ferdinand. The foundation also engages ECLC New Jersey (Early Childhood Learning Center), a local school for children with autism who do mailings for local businesses, to prepare Bling packages for distribution.
At present Operation Bling operates in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, but Ferdinand wants to take the foundation national. Because of connections with family and friends in other cities, she wants to expand first to Virginia, California, and Arizona. She also wants to create an e-commerce-enabled Web site to sell and ship the Bling gifts online.