It’s been far too long since Newark has graced the pages of this site despite its skyline gracing the banner of our homepage. Newark is a city that I adore and struggle with for so many reasons, and when I came across the city in the world of Fab.com – a site I often scan for a quick installment of design and eye candy in between getting some work done. When I saw guns and Newark there, well, I was very intrigued.
Here’s the story: A jewelry maker has recently been acquiring illegal guns confiscated by the Newark Police Department – who amasses a ridiculous amount of guns and shell casings every year -melting them down, and transforming them in bangles (jewelry) complete with up to 8 diamonds infused into the metal, along with the word “Newark” imprinted on the bangle and the serial number of the gun the metal was melted down from. It is called the “Caliber Collection.” Portions of the proceeds from the bracelets – costing anywhere from $150-$1,275 – go to the Newark Gun Amnesty and Buy-Back Program, operated by the city of Newark, that offers up $200 in exchange for illegal weapons. The jewelry sales enable the city to help get guns off the street by providing them with supplemental funding for appealing to illegal gun owners to get ride of their weapon, with the hope of eliminating the ‘senseless’ violence that is so often attributed to the nation’s third oldest city. “The result,” as the maker’s website states, ” is a series of pieces that embody the gun’s transformation from a destructive weapon to a powerful symbol of renewal.”
- Steel Bangle with 1 Diamond, $350
To be sure, gun violence is a serious problem that threatens many lives in Newark as well as myriad other places around the world. Certainly raising money for the Gun Buy-Back program is a positive thing (although I cannot personally account for the relative long-term success or challenges of such a program). There are many civic, charitable, and non-profit programs working in Newark to combat gun violence, geared not only at getting guns off the streets, but providing education and public programming and activities that will attract the attention of predominately young Black men away from the streets. These organizations surely get their funding from a number of partner organizations at the local and national level as well as through their own marketing – often selling goods like clothing, accessories, music, art, etc. to raise money for their cause. It would seem that the “Caliber Collection” is working along the same lines with their idea. And it is certainly a good way of re-purposing such devices into less potentially fatal metallic forms (wonder where all the guns that get confiscated go anyway…back into the gun market? A holding cell at City Hall?).
Despite this I still pause. I hesitate to commend this effort on a number of levels that may or may not be fair to assert – but I will assert them here. The first is the transformation of Newark into an object, not only to be saved by those who would buy the bracelets, but also by the vary design: Is Newark’s gun violence an ornamental accoutrement? The inscription of the city and gun number on the band is meant to remind the bearer of the “transformed gun” of the efforts they (the consumer) are making to stop senseless gun violence in a place that is mostly likely somewhere they have passed by, as we all have, on the NJ Turnpike. I am sure that there are folks who own the bangles who do have a more regular relationship to the city, but the brand of feel-good liberalism that inscription and even the oval-shape of the bangles are meant to invoke make me think that the designer and purchasers of the bangles might not have spent enough time seriously contemplating all the various factors that contribute to creating an environment were so many illegal guns can be freely circulated and used fatally, nor the variety of approaches that many organizations (not only the Newark Police Department) are utilizing to address not only gun violence but the overall economic and social disinvestment that has plagued a city like Newark for close to four decades now. Can the struggles of a community or the friction of a fired gun be translated into a brass and diamond bracelet? As the designer notes:
The Caliber bracelet is shaped as an oval, not a circle. It’s shaped like the trigger cage of a gun, an area that, if you put your finger in and pull, could cause so much destruction. But in this case, when you buy a Caliber bracelet, you’re giving back to the gun buyback amnesty program…The side of the bangles and cuffs are hand-hammered, to show that it takes the hard work of members of a community in order to create the beautiful surface that you see on top of the bracelets.
The bracelets are packaged in a rendering of an evidence bag, [which] was this incredible visual for me—I never wanted to see a caliber bracelet packaged with pretty tissue paper and a bow. If you gave this bracelet as a gift, I wanted to make sure that the recipient understood the story of caliber and what it really represented. So on the front of our packaging, it talks about the meaning of the word caliber, and where the guns are from.
“Guns can now be used to make peace,” as the designer, quoting a customer, notes in a recent interview with Time Magazine. The seriousness should of course be conveyed, but I fail to see the difference between a “pretty bow” and 8 diamonds. Frills are frills.
This brings me around to the second reaction I had to this collection: Can illegality be remedied by aesthetics, by style and, if so, who can afford to transform a gun into a weapon of style, a symbol of piece? Much of my own discomfort with with program is accompanied by my general distaste for capitalist ventures, and particularly practices of consumption, that market the selling of products as a way to combat problems like cancer, gun violence, poverty in African. I am all for bringing whatever skills you have to a cause, because we are certainly in need of creative people who are willing to bring their experiences, insights, and love to places and people that have suffered from long-term neglect and invisibility from the majority of the nation, and Newark is unfortunately an example of this. I am all for raising money for good causes as well, but these are treacherous waters. While campaigns such as the Breast Cancer research funds “Pink” business represent quick ways of gathering a lot of cash for good causes, it seems to me that making progress takes a lot more than throwing money at temporary solutions. I’m sure the bracelet-gun buy-back approach will have an effect in Newark, but I wish it could be a little more discreet aesthetically – i.e. not advertising martyrdom for the inner-city – and perhaps also putting funds towards a variety of ventures in the city that approach gun violence from multiple angles. But then again, it might be just as important to call Newark by its name, and link the bracelets directly to the city’s cause.
I can’t help wondering if there is another way to raise money or to put one’s skills to work in transforming a community. I think about Glassroots in Newark, that works under the auspices of teaching youth (as well as the Newark community at large) the skills of glass-blowing and shaping – offering mentorship, after-school and summer programs, as well as a gallery where community members can come to purchase objects made by participants in the glass-blowing studios – with the belief that the experience of making objects and working with dangerous materials such as glass and fire will be more alluring that hanging out on the corner. Or I think about the BlackLight project or Sadie Nash, both programs near to my heart, who draw upon teaching artists and scholars to share their skills with youth in the Newark community with the intention of building a stronger city through sharing knowledge, creative/artistic skills, and leadership to young people, empowering them to critically and compassionately engage their communities and work for positive change. In terms of addressing gun violence specifically, Stop Shootin’ Inc. continues to be an exemplar of community outreach for the prevention of gun violence (founded by some of Newark’s very own).
From afar it might not be so easy to create something like a jewelry-making school or metal foundry in Newark – although the idea of setting up a shop where gunmetal is transformed into art or other infrastructural pieces sounds like it would appeal to many folks in Newark – so making bracelets might be the next best thing if you want to help raise money to support the city’s anti-violence programs. But does it have to come so heavy handed, and with diamonds to boot? There is nothing beautiful about gun violence, but that does not mean that re-purposing guns into something new cannot be an powerful way to engage in a conversation about what to do about eradicating gun violence. As a friend notes, “The fact that they are destroying actual weapons makes each piece seem much more significant than say, a Livestrong bracelet, etc. But do they need to be so expensive?,” to which another, metal-working/artist comrade replied, “I think it is a viable fundraising tool, I agree about the heightened significance of wearing a piece that was once a weapon. As for the cost, it is not a cheap or easy process to turn the metal from guns into metal for jewelry. The other perceivable advantage to the cost is that it makes raising a significant amount of money more of a reality.”
Must it call Newark by name and champion the cause of saving the city? Who can afford to combat gun violence in this way? Couldn’t they just write a check for $1,275 directly to the Gun Buy-Back program? My intention is not to overly critical because Newark needs all the help it can get, but nevertheless there is something off-putting to me about the endeavor. I understand that these pieces may be incredibly valuable to people, perhaps those who have even had loved ones killed on the streets of Newark, however I wonder if there are better ways to address the issue of gun violence in such a way that does not make it commodified, branded, object of neoliberal pride in helping the inner-city. Nevertheless, the designer takes the issue of gun violence seriously. Here is one of their promotional videos, shot in the style of “The Wire.” What do you think?