Politics

01.25.13

Cory Booker’s Murder Accessory: Turning Buyback Guns Into Jewelry

With the Caliber Collection, Newark’s confiscated weapons are being turned into a fashion statement against violence. Now former bullet casings and handguns have become $375 bracelets for a cause.

It just got a lot easier to wear a concealed weapon in New Jersey.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker is collaborating with jewelry designer Jessica Mindich to repurpose guns and bullet casings into accessories—the legal kind.

The always-innovative mayor’s new project, The Caliber Collection, features utilitarian-chic bangles and cuffs made from the steel of 250 confiscated guns and brass of shell casings swept from the ground of crime scenes. Each piece has the weapon’s original serial number stamped into the hammered metal that wouldn’t look out of place on the arm of the Alexander Wang-wearing set.

The collection’s beauty is in its cyclicality: the pieces range in price from $150 to $375, and 20 percent of the funds raised support gun-buyback programs—the weapons purchased there, in turn, create more jewelry and more money for future buybacks. The collection has become an instant hit, raising $20,000 for Newark’s gun-buyback program in less than two months. The newly minted fashionista Booker called the line “very hot,” telling WBGO radio on Wednesday that “not only do they look good, they’re becoming very popular.”

The idea was sparked at the end of 2011, when Booker and Mindich, who runs the philanthropic company Jewelry for a Cause, met at a retreat and began brainstorming about a way to address gun violence. Before long, The Caliber Collection was born. During their talks, Booker told Mindich a story that inspired her design: “When he first became mayor of Newark, an artist had done a rendering of the word ‘Newark’ written in Uzis, and he said, ‘My God, if this is what you think of us, if this is how you envision us, we have such a high hurdle to overcome,” she remembers.

In that tale, Mindich found inspiration for the collection. “I knew there couldn’t be anything on this bracelet that was looking back, it all had to be positive and looking forward,” she says. A few months later, she was visiting Newark’s ballistics lab and transporting the firearms to a metal company in Jersey City for shredding.

What resulted from the trove of weapons were two designs in brass and steel: a cuff shaped like the negative space of a gun’s trigger cage, and a bangle, both with hammered metal on the side, the gun’s serial number and “Newark” stamped on it. (The more expensive models have an embedded diamond.)

“I’m taking the whole horrible scene and I’m transforming it and creating this virtuous circle and giving back to get those guns off the street so that scene can’t occur again,” she says. “You wear it as much more than jewelry—you wear it as a symbol of solidarity with the important cause that you’re reducing illegal gun violence in America.”

Within six weeks, Mindich has sold more than 400 and already proudly presented a $20,000 check to the Newark buyback program.

It’s an eerie symbolism: an accessory with a dark past—possibly a murderous one. But the heavy background makes its repurposing even more important, Mindich says. “Everything about this is taking an instrument of violence and destruction and turning it into an object of beauty and a symbol of hope,” she says. “There is such positive energy coming off of them and it is not weird—it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever put on my body.”

Booker has been an advocate of stricter gun legislation throughout his political career. He’s a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and in December made news for his tirade against ineffective gun-control debates on This Week. “I don’t know if anybody here has seen anybody shot,” an impassioned Booker told panelists. “I have. I don’t know if anybody here has had to put their hand in somebody’s chest and try to stop the bleeding so somebody doesn’t die. I have.” The Caliber Collection is turning out to be an effective way to combat illegal guns without engaging in the messy conversation dividing the nation.

“This is not a cure-all, but everybody has the power to do something little to make a difference,” Booker told Rachel Maddow when he appeared again last week. He called the bracelets “an instrument of peace.”

The line was supposed to premiere this weekend at the New York Gift Show, but after Booker mentioned it on the Maddow show at the end of November, demand for the bracelets skyrocketed. Within six weeks, Mindich has sold more than 400 and already proudly presented a $20,000 check to the Newark buyback program. She’s in talks to spread the project to four more U.S. cities, and two other countries have contacted her as well. She’s been inundated with emails from people as far as Malta and Luxembourg, offering support for the project and requesting it come to their city. As she spoke on the phone with The Daily Beast, a flood of new messages came in, from professors to retired police officers. “You make me proud to be an American,” one read. At the inaugural ball, an attendee from another state even showed Booker the one she was wearing.

Not everyone was confident in the venture’s effectiveness at first, but the rapid success has won many over. “Other than the fact that the mayor was my boss, and I had to do it, I really wasn’t that interested in it,” Newark’s Police Director Samuel DeMaio told The Star Ledger. But now, DeMaio and his family all sport the pieces enthusiastically. Booker, who doesn’t wear jewelry, is holding out for the cuff links Mindich is designing.

In 2012, there were 855 guns confiscated in Newark—enough for a few more batches of bracelets. It might be bad for business, but one day there may no longer be much material for The Caliber Collection. Better get yours now.