The Wall Street Journal
By RALPH GARDNER JR.
Elizabeth Suda founded Article 22, which makes jewelry from bombs dropped over Laos during the Vietnam War era. Ramsay de Give for The Wall Street Journal
As the parent of daughters approximately her age, I was curious about the reaction of Elizabeth Suda’s mother and father when, at 24, she told them she was quitting her promising job at Coach Inc.COH -2.49% to travel to Laos and work with local weavers.
“Everyone was like, ‘But your Coach discount!’ I got 50% off the retail price. I’d get them gifts for Christmas,” Ms. Suda told me.
But on a more serious note, were they concerned?
“They were,” admitted Ms. Suda, who today—seven years later—is the founder and creative director of Article 22, a company that makes recycled jewelry from bombs dropped over Laos during the Vietnam War era. “My parents were worried. I was going alone.”
And at the last moment, the unpaid job—her task was to create a textile foundation to support the weavers—fell through.
“I’d been sold something that didn’t exist.”
She decided to go anyway.
“I had self-funded my plane ticket and six months there,” she recalled. “I left my French boyfriend in New York.”
Article 22 spoons. Ramsay de Give for The Wall Street Journal
They’re married now. She also told herself: ” ‘This is the moment in my life I need to take this risk.’ “
One thing led to another after her arrival: Ms. Suda, who wasn’t a fashion designer, created a line of clothes and held a runway show that ended up on the pages of the Vientiane Times, a newspaper in the Laotian capital. (“It was a very humble runway,” she explained.)
The write-up gave her some credibility and got her known among Vientiane’s expat community.
Her first experience with the legacy of the so-called Secret War, where Laos served as a covert battlefield, came when she traveled to several remote villages as a consultant to Helvetas, a Swiss nonprofit that was bringing hydropower to the area. Her vehicle was waved off by a local crew about to detonate a bomb in a farmer’s field.
“I didn’t know what the Secret War was all about,” she said. “Not only is Laos the most heavily bombed country in history, per capita, but 30% of the bombs they dropped didn’t detonate. There are 80 million bombs today that are still active.”
Perhaps as much an eye- opener as the problem was the locals’ response: They were melting down bomb metal in earthen kilns behind their homes and using it to make spoons.
Bangle bracelets. Ramsay de Give for The Wall Street Journal
“A woman brought me over to a shed of scrap metal,” Ms. Suda said. “[One piece] literally said ‘Rocket mortar.’ In that moment I had the idea to create a bracelet to serve two purposes: It could expand their production potential and link to a global market; and the object had the ability to tell a story. That would literally allow us to buy back the bombs.”
The result was the “Peacebomb” collection and a polished gunmetal bangle bracelet with the words “Dropped + Made In Laos” on the interior.
“At first [the villagers] were a little skeptical about how it would be sold,” said Ms. Suda, who grew up in Bay Shore, Long Island, and graduated from Williams College.
“A lot of people want to come help, but after there’s not follow-up. I said, I can’t promise anything except I’ll buy the first 500 bracelets.”
These days, Ms. Suda travels to Laos once a year for several months and her jewelry line has expanded significantly.
Now, there are leather bracelets bound with bomb material, charms that feature a tiny bomb, medallions with the cheeky messages such as “Peace is the bomb” and bomb shards cast in bronze and silver.
Article 22, by the way, takes its name from U.N.’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Charms. Ramsay de Give for The Wall Street Journal
“It’s a little bit kitschy,” Ms. Suda said of her accessories, “but people seem to love them. It’s a feel-good item.”
“When I first started I didn’t know if people would find this offensive,” she added. “But so many Vietnam vets wrote in asking for bracelets and telling me a little bit about their story.”
The jewelry is sold through Article 22′s website and at 120 boutiques in 39 countries, including at the New Museum and starting this summer at a boutique called Curve—both on the Bowery.
Ms. Suda said the artisans, most of them subsistence farmers, are paid the equivalent of the average Laotian salary. Also, for each object sold, funds are donated to village development funds and to clear live ordnance from the land.
“To date we’ve donated to clear 50,000 square meters of land,” she said.
Ms. Suda’s father hasn’t visited Laos but her mother has.
“Clearly, I have incredibly supportive parents,” Ms. Suda said. “Growing up I had the vision that politics was the only answer if you wanted to make the world a better place.
“Business is an incredible tool to create market solutions to problems. I’d never have envisioned at Williams that I’d be an international arms dealer.”
Corrections & Amplifications: The name of Bay Shore, Long Island, was incorrectly spelled as Bayshore in an earlier version of this article.