Fashion and weapons have always been somewhat connected; we often comment that we use our clothing as armor, or remark that we keep red lipstick in our beauty "arsenal."
But fashion actually made from weapons? Far less common. This is what makes new jewelry line Liberty United stand out -- but for the company, refashioning guns into cuffs is about more than garnering buzz.
Peter Thum, the man behind Liberty United, is hardly new to the philanthropic business world; he also founded Ethos Water in 2000. His travels for work at a consulting firm took him to Africa, where he learned that not many people had access to clean water. Rather than sell an expensive bottled water imported from France or the Pacific Islands, he figured he could sell local water for the same price and send the marked up proceeds to fund clean water initiatives and raise awareness for water problems globally.
He sold Ethos to Starbucks in 2005 but stayed on with the company, which brought him back to Africa, where his next idea was born. "I ended up totally by accident meeting little kids and people with assault rifles, and I wanted to do something about that problem," he tells Fashionista. "Because if you meet a little kid with a huge gun -- first of all, it's a little scary -- but it makes you think about what guns mean and the impact they could have on making things better in that situation."
That's how Fonderie 47 began. Thum began accumulating AK47s from the continent, melting them down, and turning them into luxury watches and jewelry. Each piece bore the serial number of the weapon that had been destroyed to make it. Proceeds funded the further destruction of weapons.
Finally, last year, Thum turned his philanthropic eye closer to home with the launch of Liberty United jewelry. Liberty United takes the same concept as Fonderie 47 -- recycling weapons into luxury goods -- and brings everything from the production to the proceeds to the U.S.
Though it took a while, it's an important step for Thum. "I think gun violence in the United States should be no more prevalent than in other industrialized countries in the world, and right now we stand out as a country with remarkably high gun violence relative to the level of economic and cultural development that we have as a nation," he explains.
Liberty United works with established designers to release versions of their popular jewelry rendered in the recycled gunmetal. So far, Phillp Crangi of Giles & Brother and Pamela Love have designed pieces, which means you can pick up a railroad spike bracelet or talon cuff with a special serial number.
Like Fonderie 47, those serial numbers correspond to the weapon destroyed. Serial numbers on guns serve mostly to identify where the weapon was made, but Thum wants to elevate their meaning.
"In the case of what we do, the serial number is the only thing that's left of that gun, so it's a thread back," he says. "It's like a piece of DNA, and it goes back to the source, but the physical thing where it came from doesn't exist anymore."
It's a crucial part of Liberty United's M.O., a way to connect the consumer with object. "I think -- or what I hope -- is that the person who is wearing it is bearing that serial number sort of in opposition to the idea of having a gun, that that serial number has meaning, but it has meaning because you've chosen to carry that around with you as an example of how you think about the world," he says thoughtfully.
"In a way, I think it's edgy because more than purchasing and owning something and putting it on your body, these things make the owner a part of themselves, in a very specific way," he adds.
So where are these guns coming from? Liberty United partners with the mayor's offices and police offices in American cities -- currently, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Newburgh and Syracuse in New York -- to purchase weapons and bullet shell casings. These originate from two places: Gun buyback programs or material released from cases that are no longer live.
"The hard part of it was explaining to the cities what we were doing, how we intended to use this and how we intended to give money back, because it really isn't a normal thing for them to think [about]," Thum explains. "Cities and government offices are typically funded through tax dollars and so they have to be relatively courageous to think about doing something that's completely different."
It's certainly beneficial for the cities, which now have an opportunity to make money on this weapon deadstock. Furthermore, Thum explains that guns actually have a negative value once cut up; the cost of making steel from raw materials is actually less expensive than repurposing the gunmetal. (As Thum is passionate about bringing manufacturing back to the U.S., all jewelry is also "Remade in the U.S.A.")
And then there's that philanthropic component: 20 percent of the proceeds from the Pamela Love collection and 25 percent from the Giles & Brother line go back into programs fighting gun violence. Liberty United is advised by the cities who provide them with the gun material on which local organizations and non-for-profits would best benefit from that funding.
Even just nine months in, Liberty United has been receiving good feedback from these communities. "I just recently talked with a member of the mayor's staff in Philadelphia, they're very happy with the program [...] the resonance from what we're doing has been really good," Thum says. "And it's really just beginning. I think we'll be doing more things together in the next year, and we just talked about that, about taking what we're doing now and expanding upon it."
With such a unique material source, I wonder if Thum is worried about running out of gunmetal. He's quick to inform me that there are somewhere around 300 million guns in the U.S., totaling some 1.8 billion pounds of gun metal. "If we were building ships, we might run into a supply problem," he jokes. "But making bracelets and earrings and necklaces, we're going to be okay for a while."
Of course, Thum would love to get to a point where the demand for his jewelry outstrips his supply. More importantly, he wants Liberty United to play a role in the changing attitudes about gun control. "I hope, collectively, the thousands of people who wear these things, that there's a group of people who together have thought about this, and through their individual thoughts and actions, they've started to move the needle in the direction of reducing gun violence in the United States," he says.
As a new company, Liberty United is still in expansion mode. Right now, the jewelry is just sold through their website, though there are plans to partner with retailers in the near future. I ask Thum if he has a dream collaborator in mind for his next Liberty United line.
"Oddly enough, yes," he responds, a cheshire grin spreading across his face as he politely tells me he can't disclose just who that jeweler might be -- because, as luck would have it, it's already in the works.
"I guess I would say stay tuned for the dream collaborators," he says.