Reflective Jewelry: Our Story

Our Story

Author: Kyle Abraham Bi | Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Helen, Marc, and Kyle, pictured immediately after notarizing the purchase agreement.


A note to our customers: on October 1, 2023, longtime employee Kyle Abraham Bi purchased Reflective Jewelry from Marc and Helen. The three were always closely aligned in their values and vision for the company — and the transition, two years in the making, has been impressively smooth. Helen has built a home studio from which to create one-of-a-kind pieces on her own schedule, and she and Marc still advise Kyle as needed. After all: 29 years at the helm of a small business is nothing to sneeze at!


RJ 3.0: About Kyle Abraham Bi (AKA: RJ 3.0)

In early 2017 — disillusioned with the state of the world, yet resolved to find my best path forward — I applied for an internship with “the only Fairtrade Gold jeweler in the United States.” Soon after, I found myself navigating the Rocky Mountains in my stick-shift Corolla, bound for the high desert of Santa Fe, NM. Over the previous few years, I had at various times been a hotel housekeeper, line cook, philosophy major, depressed, busboy, Ivy league dropout, neuroscience major, and unable to pay my rent. Now back on my feet, I possessed a newfound resolution that responsible business presented perhaps the best path forward for our global society — and this road trip was my first step toward finding out.


A week later, I asked Marc if we could set aside an hour each day for him to share with me from his wealth of knowledge about the “ethical/responsible jewelry” sector. Thankfully, he was more than happy to oblige (I later learned that he appreciated an outlet for his inner monologue) — and toward the end of the summer, I was asked to continue working through my last year of school as Marc constructed his “Ethical Jewelry Exposé.”


The world opening up before me was beyond fascinating. I listened as Marc peeled back layer after layer of carefully-engineered deception, which ultimately came at the expense of already-oppressed producer communities across the Global South — not to mention the planet we all share. When he and Helen offered me full-time employment following my graduation, I accepted without hesitation.


I spent the next several years working remotely from Pittsburgh, and then NYC — where I moved with my husband in 2021. By this point, I had become involved with Ethical Metalsmiths, and begun to deepen my involvement in the ethical jewelry world. Encouraged by Marc, I latched on to every opportunity available to deepen my knowledge or make my voice heard. In this way, I found myself in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — representing North American jewelers to the $12 million USAID-funded project Zahabu Safi (“Clean Gold.”) With the support of Marc, Helen, and Reflective Jewelry, my influence grew: I joined Ethical Metalsmiths' advisory board; became (alongside Marc) a regular feature writer for Jewellery Business Magazine; and began speaking at industry events — including the Chicago Responsible Jewelry Conference. I even had the extreme fortune to become an inaugural recipient of the Black in Jewelry Coalition x GIA scholarship — while living mere blocks from the GIA’s NYC campus, no less! (I earned my GIA Graduate Gemologist diploma in 2023.)


Around this time, I approached Helen and Marc to ask if they might consider selling Reflective Jewelry. 28 years had proved long enough, and they agreed to help facilitate a transition. Runyu and I packed up our apartment, prepared our beloved Kitty for another move, and made our way to Santa Fe. And on October 1, 2023, the deal was finalized: Helen and Marc transitioned from owners and salaried employees to advisors and occasional contract workers, and I took on 6 employees and a load of debt.


Since then, Helen has constructed a home studio from which she can design new pieces — harnessing the full potential of her honed creative fire without the burden of managing operations. Meanwhile, Marc continues to focus on creating and supporting relationships that build greater cultural and ecological diversity through regenerative economic, ecological, and community models. Over the past several years he’s been working on a book entitled Think Like A Circle. The manuscript is currently out to early readers for review. Once the work is published, he plans to develop an organization to teach Circle thinking to business and community organizations.  


(A note on the transition: only about 5% of small businesses survive for 30 years. Of those, just 30% endure into a second generation — most often passed down within a family. What Helen, Marc, and I have pulled off requires an incredible level of alignment and trust. And, somewhat miraculously, the three of us have remained friends on the other side of it all! We still meet regularly, and any time I reach out they are eager to lend support or advise.)


Embarking on this new phase, I remain humbled and awed by the blessings of the past few years. Reflective Jewelry has always been a deeply special place, a petri dish with world-changing potential. To be at the helm, in charge of our collective legacy, is both daunting and energizing. Words cannot express my gratitude for the continued support of Helen and Marc, my husband, our vendors and suppliers, our team here on Baca Street, and our customers. A whole new path is unfolding before our eyes — and with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, who knows where it may lead?


About Helen Chantler

Helen was the catalyst and creative force behind the founding of Reflective Jewelry.

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 Southeast 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.


About Marc Choyt

After studying English literature in college, Marc spent two years in Haiti as a volunteer. He 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. Marc arrived in Santa Fe in 1986 with a duffle bag, a bicycle, and $200. Fired from his first job, kicked out of a teepee at the edge of town, penniless and homeless, he was crashing on a friend's floor when Helen showed up. She had spent the summer waitressing and picking apples in Vermont.

The two became friends. But the following year, Marc left for a Buddhist retreat center in Canada. During that time (a year spent meditating twelve hours a day), Marc received a postcard Helen had written while hiking the continental divide in Colorado. When he returned to Santa Fe at age twenty-eight, the pair began dating. Soon after, they bought an old adobe “fixer-upper” — and together began to remodel it. (Marc knew so little about building that he used a drywall saw to cut a hole in the roof for their wood stove!)

Their water froze in the winters. They 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, Marc worked as a high school English teacher at a school for Native Americans. They would spend each evening after work fixing up their 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 Marc loved the kids he worked with at his job, he wasn't happy with the politics involved. So they decided to take a leap. Marc quit his job and joined Helen to start their own company.


RJ 1.0: Starting Out

Helen and Marc dreamed their entrepreneurial venture would bring freedom, ease, and wealth. But this was not to be.

Helen worked at designing, fabricating, and polishing jewelry in a snow-covered, unheated shed. Marc crisscrossed the country in an old car, walking into jewelry stores and selling the initial Reflective Jewelry collection of about twenty-five pieces. He was so green he didn't even know what the term "price point" meant, let alone the difference between a carrot, karat, and caret.

But they had enough success to keep going, turning their house into a badass, illegally-zoned jewelry manufacturing company — with a staff of four working out of sheds and back rooms. They attended a lot of craft shows. And on one memorable occasion, a customer showed up at their house just as Marc was cutting the head off a turkey they had raised for Thanksgiving.

The couple purchased their 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 the company continued to grow over the next seven years. At this point Reflective Jewelry 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 thirty 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, sales dropped by 30%. Several years into this, Marc and Helen discovered that their bookkeeper — who was at the time their longest-serving employee — had been embezzling from the company. They 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 them. When one of their employees of seven years (who was also a good friend) ended up in the hospital, dying of heart failure, they learned that the company’s health insurance hadn’t been paid for almost a year.

The part of the business Marc cared most about was activism. He didn’t follow the money or even care, so long as the bills were paid. Obviously, it was a rude awakening. Certified letters from the IRS poured in, asking where their payroll taxes were. They were going bankrupt, about to lose their home.

For the first year it was about survival. Then, slowly, they began to create new websites, branding and an entire inventory-based accounting system. Many times, Marc was sure that the stress would kill him. Yet their fantastic employees and suppliers (big thanks to Hoover and Strong) were sympathetic to their plight — and with their help, Marc and Helen began the long crawl out of the abyss.


RJ 2.0

Finally, in the fall of 2017, Marc rediscovered what it was like to sleep well at night more than a few times a month. By this point, the company had completely reinvented itself — and had a staff of six. The RJ specialty had always been hand fabrication — using traditional Southwest-style jewelry fabrication techniques passed down for hundreds of years. This type of work — which can be traced to the Spanish Conquistadors — takes decades of experience, skill, and practice.

Fortunately, using hand tools and raw skill comes with tremendous advantages. It was this flexibility that allowed RJ to maneuver yet another existential crisis: the shift from a wholesale focus to custom and repurposed design work. Of course, we have also embraced the most modern techniques, including computer-generated CAD/CAM renderings that allow our team to bring to life virtually any design that you can imagine.

As artisan makers, we see the value in a handmade craft — something which is rapidly fading into the background of today’s world, and risks being lost to time. And as socially- and ecologically-concerned activists, we also strive for business practices that not only reduce harm but actively build a better world.

We have always done our best to supply gemstones of a known and ethical origin. And in 2011, we began using Fairtrade Gold. In April 2015, after eight years of trying to get Fairtrade Gold into North America, RJ became the first certified Fairtrade Gold jeweler in the US. (As of 2024 we are still the only one, despite supporting the launch of Fairtrade Gold to US markets as FLOCert’s only commercial jeweler liaison.)

Marc has for many years taken action against dirty gold and the blood diamond atrocities. He’s been writing, speaking, campaigning and “whinging" to anyone who will listen about issues surrounding the ethical sourcing of jewelry for nearly 18 years. (Kyle has been doing the same for 7.) Marc has served on several Santa Fe nonprofit boards, and both initiated and co-led Santa Fe's opposition to a proposed gold mine Marc’s website,, was the first ethical jewelry blog online. And in 2009, he used the site as the basis for co-founding Fair Jewelry Action.

The challenge for Reflective Jewelry has been that in the US market, the growing “responsible/ethical jewelry” narrative is based on hiding crimes in plain sight. Initiatives for producer communities that have little impact on the broader supply chain are magnified — creating an effective diversion which allows business for large-scale multinationals to continue business as usual. The same can be said of greenwashing claims around terms like “recycled gold.”

Essentially, far too often, jewelry buyers are led to believe they are making a difference for producer communities or our planet — when in fact they are supporting the status quo.

All this is explained in great detail on this website. In October 2018, RJ 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. Unfortunately, little has changed for the better since then.

Even now, we continue to push the industry forward. In 2021, RJ sent Kyle to the Democratic Republic of Congo to represent North American jewelers to a $13 million USAID-funded project known as Zahabu Safi (“Clean Gold.”) (We hope to share some exciting developments on this front in 2024!) For reasons explained in our seminal article, "Where Black Lives Don't Matter to Jewelers," we are looking for new opportunities to broadly impact the US jewelry market by bringing in gold from small-scale miners at a market-viable price.

(By the way: Helen, Marc, and Kyle believe in the “smaller” things, too. Click here to learn more about our eco shop practices.)

Over time, Helen and Marc’s understanding of what it means to be in business evolved. They started out just trying to make enough money to survive. They created a strong company — then nearly lost everything, and had to start over. Marc likes to tell people he got his MBA in Haiti, because that is where he 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.”

RJ’s efforts have not gone without recognition. Over the years we have won numerous awards — including being named Santa Fe New Mexico’s Green Business of the Year — quite an honor, especially for a jewelry company in our very green business city.

With decades of hindsight, we have come to understand this: in order to move the industry forward, we must be radically innovative. (Hence our updated tagline.) Here at RJ, we hold 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 RJ wants to initiate.

When the US consumer market adopts truly ethical gold — gold that supports regenerative economic models for small-scale miners — hundreds of thousands (or possibly even millions) of small-scale miners will find their lives improved. When this happens, Reflective Jewelry will be able to point to our small studio on Baca Street as one of the catalysts. And Helen and Marc will be able to tell stories about a young couple not afraid to take a few risks for something they believed in.


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Only Fairtrade Gold Jeweler in the USA 
since 2015

Santa Fe, NM Green Business of the Year

Catalyzing the Ethical Jewelry Movement

Winner of MJSA Responsibly Sourced Design Challenge

Founder of First-Ever Ethical Jewelry Blog

Collaborators of USAID Zahabu Safi (Clean Gold) Project