Buying back the bombs

In 2008, during her trip to Laos (the most heavily bombed country in history), Elizabeth Suda’s desire to create a social business was born. The New York based designer founded ARTICLE22, a brand that designs accessories out of Vietnam War bombs. She created an online funding appeal and listed the help of family and friends. Project Peace Bomb assisted artisans who melt bomb metals into bracelets with the distribution network of ARTICLE22, a sustainable fashion company – they call it “buying back the bombs”

Inscriptions like “love is the bomb” and “dropped + made in Laos” are engraved into the metal, a play on modern slang in which “bomb” means “cool,” not just a lethal weapon of war.

“We want the jewelry to be conversational pieces, when you see someone wearing a bomb, you’re going to ask, what’s it all about? Why? In a very literal way, it tells a story,” says Elizabeth Suda, co-founder of Article 22, which is named after the universal declaration of human rights, which states everyone’s right to social, economic, and cultural security.

The story of a bracelet is just a beginning, behind it there is a legacy of a secret war waged by America on Laos. Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. Between 1964 and 1973, during the Vietnam War era, a “Secret Air War” was being conducted on Laos. The US dropped over 250 million tons of ordnance, averaging one B-52 bomb load every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. Approximately 80 million failed to detonate. The majority of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Laos are cluster bombs, the size of a fist or a soup can. They often remain buried in the ground undetonated, and prevent countries and communities from redeveloping UXO littered land.  ARTICLE22 collaborate with the expert demining organization MAG and also provide risk education to the local population about the clearance of UXO from farmlands and the safe collection of scrap metal. At the current rate of removal, it is estimated that it will take approximately 800 years to completely remove the bombs that did not explode and are still embedded in the land of Laos as UXO.

It all started with a spoon… Essentially the idea was the villager’s innovation and initiative. While the exact details are a little hazy in translation, in Ban Naphia, which is also known as Spoon Village, in 1975 a lone traveler journeyed through the Plain of Jars in northeastern Laos, a landscape covered with ancient stones and scarred with thousands of bomb craters. He settled there and taught one of his neighbors the art of converting bomb scrap metal into aluminum spoons. The war scrap metal is melted in an earthen kiln by these creative artisans, cast in hand-sculpted molds of wood and ash, and finished by hand.

In one of the villages, Elizabeth encountered some artisans who were making spoons – the same spoons used by Laos citizens in their meals each day. On closer observation, she found that the spoons were made from a pile of scrap metal being melted and contained shrapnel from US bombs that read “ROCKET MORTAR”. This sparked the idea of turning something as negative as war into something useful, and she started forming business alliances with the artisans on her first ARTICLE22 design: The PeaceBomb bangle.

ARTICLE22 is now based in New York and operates as a sustainable fashion company. Suda is both the founder and designer of the beautiful and meaningful PeaceBomb Jewelry Collection. With the collection, she seeks to intimately give shape to her ideas. Pieces are designed for those individuals who are concerned about authenticity and quality, those curious to discover. Made from PeaceBomb metal, the ARTICLE22 Collection is essentially a mix of different types of aluminum scrap metal including the stabilization fins of cluster bomb casings and rockets, flares, certain fuses and parts of fighter jets, and other military hardware.

The jewelry is hand crafted by creative artisans in rural Laos and collaboratively finished in Vientiane and New York. The collection started with the Exterior Story PeaceBomb Bangle and has expanded to necklaces, rings, and home accessories with additional items allocated as pieces become set with more precious metals and stones. Each piece tells a powerful story of transformation of bad into beautiful and helps to give a useful meaning to the still bomb littered landscape of Laos.

ARTICLE22 cultivates the untapped talents of artisans in forgotten or off-the-beaten-track places, promoting entrepreneurship and community development. Artisans are paid a minimum of four times more than the local price of a spoon. For other products that take longer to make, the artisans are paid more than 100 times the price of a spoon, and for even more time-consuming products, they are paid up to 200 times more. Today, 15 Artisan jewelry making families earn supplementary income working from earthen kilns behind their homes and have the freedom to work from, part-time, per order and still look after their families and tend to their land. Equally, men and women in each family are part of the ARTICLE22 story.

ARTICLE22 helps support income generating activities and the creation of sustainable businesses so that the next generation can build upon the foundation set by their parents. The approach is to cultivate sustainable economic development, protect culture by capacity-building upon preexisting skills and use local resources. 

Part of the proceeds from each purchase help rid the land of UXO, from one square meter up to 30 square meters depending on price. The Exterior Story PeaceBomb Bangle demines 3 square meters of land so Laotians can utilize their land safely and make it sustainable for future generations. Additionally, ARTICLE22 donates to the Village Development Fund, supported by Swiss NGO Helvetas, a further 10% on top of product orders to benefit the entire community, from electricity in communal areas to micro-financing livestock investments.

Over the years, ARTICLE22’s collaboration with the artisans has contributed to making the village one of the most exciting eco-tourist attractions in the province. This allows villagers to generate income through the sale of other crafts.

Today, Article 22 has evolved into a full-range accessories brand comprised of luxury bracelets, necklaces, rings, and earrings that are sold at more than 100 boutiques throughout the world, including The New Museum of Contemporary Art and Curve in New York City. The company currently offers two lines: Article 22.1, story-driven jewelry with lower price points, and Article 22.2, abstract pieces that mix in other precious materials such as sterling silver, rose gold, and black rhodium.

“The first collection is all about working within the limits of whatever can be done in the village. Everything is totally handmade—it’s so of the earth,” says Elizabeth animatedly, proudly whipping out a picture of the homemade kiln where a Laotian woman sits, smiling, melting discarded bomb material. “The second collection is really about saying, OK, we’re going to take what the artisans can do in the village and extrapolate upon it in New York.”

Though Suda currently designs all the pieces herself, she is interested in working with other artists so as to see the diverse interpretations of the story. “The best part is that this was their idea—and their innovation—and people everywhere can support that. If we invest in their culture, that will bring their culture to us. They can continue to live with their culture, instead of just having it in a museum. And it kind of benefits everybody because consumers get really unique and authentic pieces that tell stories,” says Elizabeth.

As of 2014, PeaceBomb customers have contributed to helping clear more than 65,000 square meters of bombs littered in Laos. ARTICLE22 jewelry are the perfect pieces for sharing a story and engaging with the wider community.

ARTICLE22 PeaceBomb Collection is available for purchase in the UAE, through the Pop Up and Online Boutique – ByeByeRascal.

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