Jewelry Designed to Disarm

New York Times, November 26, 2012

NEW YORK — As icons go, few things communicate global menace more effectively than the stark silhouette of an AK-47. Designed more than six decades ago by Mikhail Kalashnikov, a former Soviet tank commander, the assault rifle boasts the dubious distinction of being the most abundant and reliable killing device in history.

“In much of the world they are everyman’s gun,” the New York Times foreign correspondent C.J. Chivers wrote in “The Gun,” his 2010 social history of the AK-47 and its myriad knockoffs. “The Kalashnikov marks the guerilla, the terrorist, the child soldier, the dictator, and the thug — all of whom have found it to be a ready equalizer against morally or materially superior foes.”

With such a reputation, the AK-47 would seem an unlikely raw material for art. But a slew of recent creative projects — like AKA Peace, a London charity auction of sculptures made from decommissioned rifles, and a Colombian musician’s campaign to transform the guns into guitars — has helped to give objects designed for death a new lease on life.

The latest, and most precious, effort to fashion beauty from the barrel of a gun comes by way of the society jeweler James de Givenchy and his collaborators at Fonderie 47, a company in New York that uses mangled steel from weapons seized in African war zones to create jewels and rarefied objects.

Known as the Phoenix Collection, the pieces Mr. Givenchy has designed include a ring, bracelet, earrings, and a necklace, all crafted from the mottled steel of AK-47s, sustainably sourced 18-karat rose gold and conflict-free diamonds. There is also a one-of-a-kind, egg-shaped art object riveted with precisely 47 diamonds and balanced on a rose gold pedestal marked with fissures — “like the earth when it dries and cracks,” Mr. Givenchy said.

Proceeds from sales of the jewels — which are sold for thousands of dollars at private events around the world — help finance a campaign managed by the Mines Advisory Group, an international humanitarian organization based in Britain, to destroy rifles in Africa.

Each purchase pays for the destruction of a specific number of weapons. The $240,000 necklace, for example, destroys 800 assault rifles, while the $90,000 bracelet rids Africa of 300.

The serial numbers of the destroyed firearms are passed along to the buyers of the jewelry. So far, the organization says it has destroyed more than 18,000 assault rifles in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“It seemed pretty obvious that we could use the AK-47 to symbolize the disarmament process and to let people intellectually, emotionally and financially become owners of the disarmament process,” said Peter Thum, a co-founder of Fonderie 47, which celebrates its first anniversary this month.

Mr. Thum, a social entrepreneur best known for founding Ethos Water, which was acquired by Starbucks in 2005, had spent years traveling to and from Africa, where he “met a lot of young men who were armed with guns,” he recalled by phone recently. “I started thinking about the implications.”

At a TED conference in March 2009 in Long Beach, California, Mr. Thum met John Zapolski, a management consultant who had been forced to cut a business trip to Tanzania short because of an encounter with armed locals. Struck by their shared concern over the ubiquity of assault rifles in Africa, they sequestered themselves two months later in an upstate New York cabin and brainstormed ideas for a venture aimed at reducing the continent’s supply of weapons.

“I drew two circles on a chart,” Mr. Thum said. “One represented a way of making people aware and the other circle represented the number of assault rifles in Africa. In the intersection was the conversion of the AK-47 into something.”