Bottles to Beads: Transforming Junk to Jewellery

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Bottles to Beads: Transforming Junk to Jewellery

Beads speak universal language. Every culture around the globe makes and uses beads. Beads are also known to be one of the earliest forms of trade and have many religious, cultural and aesthetic uses. Women wear beads as jewellery in Nepal too, but the beads are mostly imported. Seeing Nepali women wearing foreign beads when they could be made locally, Marie Ange Sylvain came up with an eco-friendly idea to bridge this gap with an ethical business called ‘Bottles to Beads’.

 

Identifying Opportunity

Marie Ange Sylvain’s personal experience helped her find a gap where she could create business value. Born in Haiti, Sylvain, 61, worked as a civil servant for the UN. She has lived and experienced the life of many countries. At some point of her life, she saw African women make their own beads out of glass, and she wanted to bring them to Nepal when she first visited 20 years ago since people were using imported beads then. 16 years later after her first visit, Nepali women were still wearing imported beads. This was when she decided to open Bottles to Beads. It was in late 2013 when she opened Bottles to Beads as a cottage industry with an aim of training women in mountainous villages of Nepal to make beads and other items from discarded glass using locally available resources.

Marie Ange Sylvain is currently the director of Image Ark (a creative agency, art gallery and boutique) and founder of Bottles to Beads.

 

Pilot Project of Image Ark

It was easier for Sylvain to start Bottles to Beads as a pilot project of Image Ark. With Image Ark funding the project, Sylvain was able to bring trainer from Ghana to teach her, along with the first batch of women, the technique of making beads out of glass in 2013. She and her family rented a house in Sanepa that had a backyard where she could organize their workshops. Even though the only means they used was word of mouth, women from Kathmandu and villages of Rasuwa, Dhading and Kavre made their way to the workshop to learn how to make beads out of old, discarded glasses and take the technique home to their villages.

 

Crafting the beauty from broken glass

The production process seems simple but requires a lot of skill. Women collect discarded glass bottles that litter cities and mountain tracks of Nepal. "One glass bottle goes a long way. One bottle equals about 400 beads," says Sylvain. Glass is crushed with mortar and pestle and the powder is poured into moulds made out of clay that are then positioned into the mud kiln for firing. The glass melts in the kiln and when still soft a hole is made at the centre of the bead which is then left to cool.

Further steps are done to make the beads attractive. Acrylic paint is used on freshly made beads, which are then put back to the kiln to fix the paint. The designs are inspired by Mithila art and Asthamangal. Then they are grinded in sand for polishing. Each bead is treated individually by the women. The final step is quality control to ensure that each one is a perfect piece. The beads that do not pass quality control are crushed again.

The process uses locally available resources and technology. Although made of mud, there is a technology behind the kiln, and that, according to Sylvain, is what the Bottles to Beads helps with. “We help them build the kiln and get started on their work. Then, the rest is up to them.”

The beads are collected in Kathmandu and Sylvain makes jewellery from them at the workshop in her backyard, and are then put for sale online and sent to shops across the world.

 

Ethical Social Venture Model

Bottles to Beads works in an ethical social venture model. It attempts to do so by cleaning the environment through making optimum reuse of locally available resources while transforming unskilled and unpaid women to empowered income earners.

The venture focuses especially on the issue of women empowerment. The team comprised women from Dhading, Rasuwa, Kavre and Kathmandu, among whom the women from Dhadhing and Kathmandu are currently working full time; the women in other places are unable to work after the earthquake. They work five days a week, seven hours a day in a safe environment and earn Rs. 8,000 per month on an average. 

Women have specialized in different processes and this improves their productivity as a team. They specialize in the engineering of the kiln and tools, firing of beads, and painting. The women are yet to learn the art of matching colours and making jewellery from the beads. Each team member knows the steps but have their own temperament. Sylvain states: "The women who were first trained have become trainers. It is organic, the way we have developed."

The business earns about Rs. 70,000 a month from the sales of glass jewellery and glass items are priced at minimum cost of Rs. 800 (for bracelets), and the maximum price can go to Rs.10,000. "The idea behind the pricing is to sell the beads quickly so that the women can earn," expresses Sylvain.

 

Two years of successful operation

Bottles to Beads has come a long way since its inception in 2013. Just in a year into the business, it was able to sustain itself with the revenues collected from the sales of beads. At present, the beads are sold at two shops in Australia, two in Sweden, Image Ark in Patan, 'The Art Market' held every month, and also through their website (www.bottlestobeads.com). Their main buyer is from Germany who sells the discarded gems online.  They also have a client in California, USA, and a place in Bali that sells their beach culture jewels. 

The beads are marketed online, and mostly through word of mouth. People buy the beads and upload photos on Instagram. "We ask our buyers to use the packaging, which is done using cotton bags made in Nepal and has a small description about us. Our buyers refer us to others and we receive inquiries from new buyers. We also wear the beads ourselves. So it's mostly word of mouth," says Sylvain.

 

Hurdles along the way

Even though beads are popular in foreign markets, they are not considered Nepali enough locally. "Different markets have different preferences and market study is a must. In Singapore, they like black and white beads. In the US, yellow beads are a no-no. People in Europe like pastel colours. But our market in Nepal is very small and limited to artists and tourists because glass is not considered jewellery here,” says Sylvain. “We are trying to see what appeals the Nepali market. I sometimes use some brass and silver to bring a little bit of shine, and make it look more like jewellery."

In addition to the marketing issue, Bottles to Beads also faces social and cultural issues among the bead makers. Women do not want to return to their villages after receiving training. Their families do not value their work as glass is not considered jewellery, and their husbands do not want them to work. The motivation for the women is that foreigners like their work and that the beads are exported. However, the changing perception of Nepali people is a massive hurdle.

The major purpose to empower women with bead making skill is to help send their children to school. But there have been instances where the children are put to work behind her back, defying the purpose. Sylvain finds it tough to control this. Bottles to Beads has distributed safety kits among women as they have to work with glass and fire and are always advised to used them.  

With these problems existing, the past year has been tough after the great earthquake. Kilns in Kavre were damaged, and people lost the courage and incentive to work. Bottles to Beads is trying to rebuild these kilns. Beads are currently being made in Dhading and Kathmandu only. 

 

Plans for the future 

Bottles to Beads is experimenting with various glass items to appeal to Nepali audience. They have recently started making earrings, key-rings and candle holders. They also want to make plates to serve as platter. Seeing the popularity of beads among Nepali men and their increasing interests in beads, they also plan on making more beads for guys. The business is also expanding soon with its training in Pokhara. 

 

Words of wisdom

Sylvain is a believer. According to her, Nepal has many opportunities and a lot of space for entrepreneurs. She does not come from a business background and does not understand the technicalities, but she advises young entrepreneurs to have faith and not give up easily, have passion, be original and pay attention to detail. "Don't do something because you think it will bring you money, it is not going to work. Do something because you love it. Find things that are original, look for something that is new, that people are going to need, and something that’s unique. Then I think that it can work. There is no reason it shouldn't work." 

 

Comments

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    Suman Thursday, 26 May 2016

    Great going on your venture, good luck and best wishes! (Suman Rai from Bihani Social Venture)

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