- Hey there, I'm Marc. Helen and I started Reflective Jewelry in Santa Fe, in 1995 and this is our story.
About My Wife, Helen
Helen is the creative force behind Reflective Jewelry— a company continually re-imagining itself through her aesthetic visions and passions.
Growing up in England with an artistic mother, Helen was fortunate to see some of the greatest art museums in the world by the time she was 18. But it was at the age of 16, while attending high school in Southeast Asia, that she became an adventurer. She spent that winter break traveling with friends across Indonesia, exploring the remote mysteries of Java and taking in the back roads of Bali from atop a motorcycle. This was the beginning of a deep passion for travel— there was so much to explore! And all she had to do to make Malaysia or Thailand appear was stick out her thumb. Helen eventually fell in love with India and the Himalayas, traveling extensively throughout the area. And after a time spent in Europe, she made her way to the US at the age of 21.
Helen then earned her degree in Southwest Asian Studies and Cultural Sociology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. And after embarking on further travels, she returned to the US in 1986. Helen settled in Santa Fe, securing a job making leather belts for a local jeweler’s buckle sets. But after two years of this, she wanted to try making jewelry. Her boss said, "Draw something up. If I approve it, you can learn to make it."
Santa Fe at this time was an incredible place to learn, with so many great jewelers sharing skills. Helen had never had any formal training in art and design— so she would show other jewelers the drawings she’d made, and ask them to teach her how to create her pieces. She was nearly broke, reliant on selling what she made to earn a living. She had to develop designs, quickly learn new skills, and manage production in order to survive. Yet Helen had loved making and creating from an early age— so she was happy to be involved in this new line of work. She began to develop handwork techniques rooted in southwestern style— including shaping, stamping, cutting, and forming metal.
As For Myself…
After studying English literature in college, I spent two years in Haiti as a volunteer. I was there, running an orphanage and working in Mother Teresa's clinics, when Baby Doc fled the country and bullet-riddled bodies lined the sidewalks. I arrived in Santa Fe in 1986 with a duffle bag, a bicycle, and $200. Fired from my first job, kicked out of a teepee at the edge of town, penniless and homeless, I was crashing on a friend's floor when Helen showed up. She had spent the summer waitressing and picking apples in Vermont.
We were not dating, but we became friends. The following year, I left for a Buddhist retreat center in Canada. During that year (which I spent meditating twelve hours a day) I received a postcard Helen had written while hiking the continental divide in Colorado. When I returned to Santa Fe at age twenty-eight, Helen and I began dating. Soon after, we bought an old adobe “fixer-upper”— and together began to remodel it. (I admittedly knew so little about building that I used a dry wall saw to cut a hole in our roof for our wood stove.)
Our water froze in the winters. We had minimal electricity, and a plague of mice. But having lived and traveled in developing countries with almost no money, the house didn't seem so bad. While Helen was honing her jewelry skills, I worked as a high school English teacher at a school for Native Americans. We would spend each evening after work fixing up our house together.
Helen advanced quickly in the art of jewelry making, soon becoming one of the main designers for women's jewelry at her company. Yet after several years, she was tired of banging out Concho belts and tip sets. She wanted the creative freedom to design images based upon her own tribal heritage. And whereas I loved the kids I worked with at my job, I wasn't happy with the politics involved. So we decided to take a leap. I quit my job and joined Helen to start our own company.
We dreamed our entrepreneurial venture would bring us freedom, ease, and wealth. But this was not to be.
Helen worked at designing, fabricating, and polishing jewelry in a snow-covered, unheated shed. I crisscrossed the country in an old car, walking into jewelry stores and selling the initial Reflective Jewelry collection of about twenty-five pieces. I was so green I didn't even know what the term "price point" meant, let alone the difference between a carrot, karat, and caret.
But we had enough success to keep going. We turned our house into a badass, illegally-zoned jewelry manufacturing company— our staff of four working out of sheds and back rooms. We did a lot of craft shows. And on one memorable occasion, a customer showed up at our house just as I was cutting the head off a turkey we had raised for Thanksgiving.
We purchased our current building in 2001 and began a massive remodel, going deeply into debt just before 9/11. Business more or less halted for two months, so our employees became a construction crew. Fortunately, business bounced back— and our company continued to grow over the next seven years. At this point Helen and I had a staff of fifteen, and our jewelry was in hundreds of stores across the US.
*Just a word about our employment practices over the past twenty-plus years: we pay good, livable wages, and offer healthcare, paid vacation, holidays, and sick time. We value and adore our highly-skilled and loyal employees.*
Seven Hard Years
With the Great Recession, our sales dropped by 30%. Several years into this, we discovered that our bookkeeper— who was at the time our longest-serving employee— had been embezzling from us. We learned that we were hundreds of thousands of dollars in the red, much of it from high-interest credit cards. All this financial information had been hidden from us. When one of our employees of seven years (who was also a good friend) ended up in the hospital, dying of heart failure, we learned that our health insurance hadn’t been paid for almost a year.
The part of the business I cared most about was activism. I didn’t follow the money or even care, so long as the bills were paid. Obviously, it was a rude awakening. Certified letters from IRS poured in, asking where our payroll taxes were. We were going bankrupt, about to lose our home.
For the first year it was about survival. Then, slowly, we began to create new websites, branding and an entire inventory-based accounting system. Many times, I was sure that the stress would kill me. Yet our fantastic employees and suppliers (big thanks to Hoover and Strong) were sympathetic to our plight— and with their help, we began the long crawl out of the abyss. It wasn’t until the fall of 2017 that I discovered what it was like to sleep well at night more than a few times a month.
We now have a staff of five, including three amazing jewelers who (as of 2018) have been employed with us for eight, ten, and sixteen years. We encourage them to create their own designs and pay them royalties. Additionally, all of our jewelry is designed and made by hand— we don’t rely on computer modeling programs like CAD/CAM. It takes decades of experience, skill and practice to create the type of jewelry we do. Our jewelers, including Helen, have over seventy years of combined experience as makers.
There has been pressure (financial and otherwise) for RJ to become a commercial-production jewelry company— but Helen has always chosen the path of the artisan. She sees the value in a handmade craft that is rapidly fading into the background of today’s world, and risks being lost to time. There is something to be said for following one’s own path, even if it is not the best economic decision.
We are always striving to merge business practices with our strong concern for ecological and social justice. Helen has served on the executive committee of our local farmers’ market as the treasurer, and is very interested in supporting our northern New Mexico agricultural community. She also sings at hospices. As for myself, I’ve taken action against dirty gold and the blood diamond atrocities. I've been writing, speaking, campaigning and whining to anyone who will listen to me about issues surrounding the ethical sourcing of jewelry for years. I’ve served on several Santa Fe nonprofit boards, and both initiated and co-led Santa Fe's opposition to a proposed gold mine
My website, Fairjewelry.org
, was the first ethical jewelry blog online. In 2009, I used the site as the basis for co-founding Fair Jewelry Action
. Due to a need to focus on rebuilding my business, I have not been highly active on the site for some time. However, I’ve recently begun work on a number of new articles and projects. Look for them in the latter part of 2017, and through 2018.
Our company began using Fairtrade Gold in 2011. In April 2015, after eight years of trying to get fairtrade gold into North America, we became the first certified Fairtrade Gold jeweler in the US. As of spring of 2018, we are still the only ones due mainly to reasons we cannot control. Yet we continued to support the launch of Fairtrade Gold to US markets as FLOCert’s only commercial jeweler liaison, and have provided critical contacts in the jewelry trade that we hope will one day lay the groundwork for a robust fairtrade gold movement in North America.
Over time, our understanding of what it means to be a business has evolved. We started out just trying to make enough money to survive. We created a strong company— then nearly lost everything, and had to start over. I like to tell people I got my MBA in Haiti
, because that is where I first experienced indescribable poverty. Haiti is where I came to the realization that whatever I ended up doing with my life, I had to try to change the economic inequality that plagues the world. I view Reflective Jewelry as a purpose-driven business of makers and designers catalyzing global change.
We have an opportunity with massive, world-changing potential— just think of the first Fairtrade coffee or chocolate company to appear in the US 30-40 years ago, and how prevalent these companies are today. That's us for jewelry. That’s the kind of change we want to initiate.
The challenge for us has been that in the US market, the emerging “responsible jewelry” narrative is based the hiding of crimes in plain site. Initiatives for producer communities that have little impact on the broader supply chain yet are magnified acting as an effective diversion, allowing business for large-scale multinationals to continue business as usual.
Essentially, far too often, jewelry buyers believe they are making a difference for producer communities who need our aid most, when in fact they are not.
All this is explained in great detail on this website. In October, 2018, we launched a 45,000 word journalistic piece documenting the current state of “ethical/responsible” jewelry in the US: The Ethical Jewelry Exposé: Lies, Damn Lies and Conflict Free Diamonds.
In conducting this research, we have come to understand that, in order to move our company and Fairtrade Gold forward, we must be radically innovative. In 2019, we launched our Giving 20% Back initiative. Hoping to find allies to support our efforts to move Fairtrade Gold forward, we will give 20% of our sales to nonprofit organizations who partner with us, as explained here.
When the US consumer market adopts Fairtrade Gold, hundreds of thousands (or possibly even millions) of small-scale miners will find their lives improved. When this happens, we’ll be able to point to our small studio on Baca Street as one of the catalysts. And Helen and I will be able to tell stories about a young couple not afraid to take a few risks for something they believed in.
(By the way, we still live in the same adobe we renovated together, along with chickens, a dog, and a cat — the latter-most of whom happens to be an excellent mouse hunter! Our home has become a permaculture oasis in our barrio neighborhood.)