Designer Elizabeth Suda promotes peace by turning war scrap metal from Laos, the most heavily bombed country per capita, into luxe jewelry. The charismatic philanthropist left her corporate job at Coach a few years ago, before landing in Southeast Asia, where she discovered evidence of the “Secret War” in the form of spoons, recast by village farmers from metal that was once part of a bomb. To Suda, bracelets were the obvious transition from flatware, and she has since created a system where Americans are effectively buying back the bombs—in the form of gorgeous, geometric necklaces, earrings and more—once dropped over Laos by the U.S. Army. The project now supports the livelihoods of many village artisans and allows Suda to regularly travel back to Laos, a country she loves. She recently gave IN New York the inside scoop on her chic new collection.
Could you please tell us about your new jewelry collection?
The new collection, A22.2, is an extension of the first line of jewelry, A22.1, which we made to tell the story of the Secret War in Laos and engage the talents of the artisans we met there. The new collection mixes our signature Peacebomb metal cast from Vietnam War bombs and scrap war material with semi and precious metals finished in Vientiane and New York City. I see the jewelry as historical heirlooms made from a specific Vietnam War history, but with a universal message of transformation from negative to positive. The new collection extends that theme through intricate designs that carry an unexpected story in an even more unexpected object. I am especially happy to launch the Bomb Shard Necklaces, which are castings of safely demined iron shrapnel.
How did you develop the designs? Where did you draw inspiration?
Inspiration really comes from the history and the people we meet. The new collection was inspired by the Laotian and international de-miners who work for Mines Advisory Group in Laos. Their courage, patience and commitment to making land safe and productive led us to think about how we could pay homage to them. They gave us small bits of shrapnel and we realized that we could transform it into necklace pendants that raise awareness of their work and funds for survivors of unexploded ordnance.
Where are the pieces made? Can you tell us about the people making the collection?
Our Peacebomb metal jewelry is made by twelve farmer-artisan families in one of the most heavily bombed provinces in northern Laos, Xieng Khouang. As subsistence farmers, they have little disposable income, however through our work with ARTICLE22 we are able to provide them the equivalent of an average Lao government worker salary. As subsistence farmers by nature, for them, farm to table means they eat what they harvest. Income from ARTICLE22 helps them cover basic costs like fuel, phone cards and medicine. Then, in order to finish the new collection, we work with silversmiths in Vientiane and New York City.
Can you tell us about how you actually access and then process the materials out of Vietnam War bombs?
We only work with war scrap metal that comes from planes, the magazine of a rifle, or parts of bombs that have already detonated. Nothing our artisans work with is live. The Peacebomb aluminum is bits of scrap procured through local foundries. The iron bomb shards, from which the Bomb Drop Necklaces are cast, are provided by Mines Advisory Group. This incredible non-profit works globally to educate locals and make areas safe by removing landmines and unexploded bombs.
How does the Vietnam War still impact places in Asia today?
Laos is the most heavily bombed country in history per capita. More bombs were dropped there than in Europe during World War II equating to about one B52 plane load every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 years between 1964 and 1973. What shocks me is that the Secret War (as it is called) was unofficial and unknown to the American public. Even more shocking is that while our history tells us the Vietnam War ended in 1975, for the people of Laos, the war is still alive in the form of unexploded ordnance. Of the 250 to 270 million bombs dropped, 30 percent did not detonate. That’s about 80 million bombs that are still active and pose a threat to the Laotian population, of which 70 to 80 percent are subsistence farmers and rely on this dangerous land for their livelihoods.
But Laos should not be solely defined by the war. Its people have great spirit. The creativity of Laotians ranges from their cuisine and rich weaving and craft heritage, to their ingenuity transforming decommissioned weapons into canoes, stilts to uphold houses, watering cans, planters, spoons, and of course our ARTICLE22 jewelry collections.
How do purchases from A22.2 work to clear bomb-littered land?
For each piece purchased, we donate 10 percent of the product cost to clear unexploded ordnance. For our Bolts rings and bangles in the A22.2 line, for example, that’s a donation to clear 25 (or more) square meters of bomb-littered land. The shard necklaces are different in that they support the training and employment of survivors of post-war explosions. We donate 10 percent of the purchase price to address this underserved group. Since 1975, an estimated 50,000 people have been maimed or killed from cluster bombs and other unexploded ordnance in Laos. As price increases, we are able to give back more.
How has Article22 evolved from its first collection?
The first collection, A22.1, was all about designing within limits. We stretched the skills of the artisans who, since the 1970s had only ever cast melted bomb metal into spoons. In 2010, the first new design was a simple bangle bracelet, which extended to a series of more technical wrap bracelets, pendants, and earrings which tell the Peacebomb story with engravings like “dropped and made in Laos” and “love is the bomb.” The mark of this collection is transforming something negative to something positive and, quite directly, engaging people to “buy back the bombs.” The new collection, A22.2, is an extension of the first but more abstract and luxe because of its mixed metals and design. The technical challenges of the collection open us to innovate seasonally with the help of additional artisans from Vientiane to New York City. This season’s theme is Ashes to Angels, which juxtaposes smooth and rough metal with eye-catching finishes that inspire moving conversations. I want our jewelry to make people ask, “Where’d you get that?” It is a real story.
How did Article22 get its name?
The brand is named from the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1946, just after WWII, the Declaration was commissioned and Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the international Drafting Committee that brought it to life here in New York. The 22nd article is our ethos. It states the necessity of national effort and international co-operation to ensure everyone’s economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for dignity and the free development of personality. I love the way it reminds us that the future is not fated and that it takes consciousness and dedication to build the world we want.
How can the fashion industry as a whole do more to promote social welfare and sustainability?
We all know the world has problems. So often, these problems feel so big that they are beyond us. We become numb to them. But an emerging group of business leaders across sectors is making it possible for consumers, to do the buying and sharing they already do, but better, by offering quality over quantity and meaningful connections. Fashion, which is so influential, especially here in New York, is defined by continuous innovation. For me, innovation is defined by both aesthetics and ethics—how and by whom something is made. The Fashion community has an incredible business opportunity to harness its influence and create beauty intrinsic to the design and extrinsic to the world of its makers. As a next step, I’m looking forward to collaborating with local leather artisans here in New York City to make bags finished with Peacebomb hardware. What is better than merging the expertise of our artisan partners in Laos with the talent we have here in our native city? To me, that’s the best kind of globalization.