By Anne Opatz
In a small home on the side of a lush mountain in the southwestern region of India sit a group of women. Their fingers work swiftly with the precision of a surgeon. Their intentions and purpose are noble and good: to do everything they can to provide for themselves and their families. With each bead they thread and every bangle they twist, works of art are created from what was once litter on the streets. These women, the epitome of strength and resilience- along with dozens of other women throughout India- tirelessly work towards a better future. With weary fingers and aching backs, their resolve does not falter. In a country which women are mistakenly considered demure, these women find strength in the dignified ambition of a young American women who wants nothing more than to help. Working together with one common aspiration to improve lives this cultural collaboration is how the seeds of cathartic creativity were sown and the Didi Jewelry Project was born.
The Didi Jewelry Project (DJP) is a grassroots organization designed to empower and benefit impoverished Indian women and their families. By learning how to make and sell their own jewelry, these women are able to provide every day necessities for their family and community. The DJP is the brainchild of young jewelry designer Laurel Gunnarson. Having grown up in affluent Northern California, Laurel was exposed to numerous cultures at a young age. Little did she know that her life would be forever changed at the age of 15 when she took her first trip to India. It was “an attack of the senses” she said, “more flavorful food, more vibrant colors, and the kindness of the people.” It was a trip that would inevitably guide her down a path of creativity and humanitarianism. Laurel went on to study photography at the California Academy of Arts, yet she often found her heart fluttering back to India. During her time studying at the Academy of Arts Laurel began teaching jewelry making to homeless women in Berkley. She immediately saw a change in her students. They told her it was like their “therapy session.” Taking this reaction to heart, she knew that the same kind of cathartic outlet could greatly benefit the women she had met during her travels.
Although she had traveled back to India several times after her initial visit, it was in 2011 that she began teaching jewelry making at six different NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) in India. The jewelry made by those she taught would then return back with her to the United States where she would sell the handmade pieces at local boutiques, craft shows and farmers markets. She would return the money to the original creators in India in order for them to provide a better living for themselves and their families. Laurel’s goal in creating the DJP was to empower underserved women of India. Through teaching them a specific trade they learn that they can be a valuable asset to their families, their communities and their country. In the three years the project has been alive and active, Laurel has already seen a major change in the demeanor and outlook of these women. “They (the women) are more appreciative, more confident” she says. Speaking of one HIV positive woman she meant during her teaching she says, “she doesn’t have to think about illness when she is making jewelry.”
In addition to the positive financial and emotional gain created by the DJP, the pieces created by the women act as a bridge between two different cultures. Because the designs of the jewelry hold heavy Indian influence, women in America are able to receive a piece of India, made by the hands of strong Indian women. Made from materials they find in India, such as broken bangles and flip flop straps, these pieces which include earrings, necklaces and bracelets, can only be described as colorful, unique and eclectic. Averaging in price of about $12.00 per piece, the jewelry reflects the rich cultural traditions that these women are so eager to share with the world.
Looking towards the future, Laurel holds only positive hopes for the women of the DJP. She hopes to continue expanding the projects into other regions throughout the country, allowing more women the opportunity to “step out of their comfort zone” and provide for the ones they love. “’Didi’ means ‘sister’ in Hindu,” Laurel adds. “In buying these pieces you help these women help themselves create the life they deserve.” Laurel’s message is simple, “Follow your dreams and don’t doubt yourself. It just wastes time when you think you can’t do it.” For the women of the Didi Project this message can be found in every bead, they thread, every bangle they twist, and every piece of art they create.
For more information on the Didi Jewelry Project, or to contact Laurel, please visit her website:
To purchase one of the beautiful handcrafted fair-trade pieces visit the Didi Jewelry etsy page: