NEW YORK/BAN NAPHIA (AFP) – Forty years after the end of the Vietnam War, US bombs dropped along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos have become expensive jewelry worn by American fashionistas.
Delicate bracelets encrusted with diamonds, bronze pendants, necklaces and drop earrings – all made from ordnance left over from America’s deadliest war – are on display on the sidelines of New York Fashion Week.
Crafted by artisans in Laos, who smelted shrapnel in straw-roofed workshops, they are distributed by Brooklyn startup Article 22 and now sold in nearly 40 countries.
Inscriptions such as “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,” said Elizabeth Suda, cofounder of Article 22, which is named after the universal declaration of human rights.
“When you see someone wearing a bomb, you’re gonna ask, what’s it all about? Why? In a very literal way, it tells a story,” she said.
Article 22 calls its jewelry line “Peacebomb” and in a sign of their growing stature, items have been selected to appear in a stall operated by trendy fashion-forward boutique The Curve on the sidelines of Fashion Week.
But not only has the jewelry been endorsed by American actresses Zoe Kravitz and Olivia Wilde – it also prides itself on being ethical.
Since being set up in 2010, Article 22 says it has paid to demine 700,000 square miles (65,000 square metres) of land in Laos, the most bombed country per capita on the planet.
Profits from the simplest bracelet clears 32 square feet, while their most expensive piece, a $1,250 necklace, clears up to 840 square feet.
“The problem of unexploded bombs could harm the health and opportunities of Lao people for generations to come, if not for efforts like Article 22,” said Channapha Khamvongsa from the Legacies of War advocacy group.
Many of the tens of millions of bombs dropped from 1964-1973 never exploded, leaving behind about 80 million tennis-sized bomblets that have killed thousands of villagers and children.
In the highlands of Xieng Khuang province, artisans in the village of Ban Naphia smelted ordnance fragments into a thick, shiny liquid that they first fashioned into spoons.
“They were able to take something so negative and turn it into something that was positive and useful and that could generate income,” said Suda.
“It was really a way of them reclaiming their land and their place in the world.”
Discovering their work, she came up with the idea of making bracelets for export, promising to buy the first 500 for four times the local price. And thus her initiative, Buy Back the Bombs, was born.
Over the intervening years, they have refined and diversified their designs into a full collection of bangles, necklaces and pendants.
Jewels made from Ban Naphia bombs now sell in 39 different countries through 150 different retailers.
“People really like those a lot because they are unique pieces that they can’t find anywhere and it allows them to become story tellers also,” said Suda’s business partner, former banker Camille Hautefort.
Nevena Borissova, founder of The Curve chain of high-fashion boutiques in New York and other US cities, was happy to showcase their work.
She praised the “amazing” jewelry.
“They make money, they employ and support the local communities. I was like, we’re behind it,” she said.
Sass Brown, acting associate dean of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s School of Art and Design in New York, said Article 22 is part of a trend for similar projects.
Falling Whistles sells whistles fashioned after those used by child soldiers to raise money for war victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Emi and Eve sells jewelry and metal clutch bags out of recycled bomb casings and bullet shells from Cambodia, and Fonderie 47 makes watches and jewelry from Ak47s from Africa.
Brown said the best fashion is subversive.
“I think the best fashion makes people think and does challenge people. That’s the role of art, in its purest form,” she said.