For most adults, working from home would be a luxury. For the Women of the Cloud Forest, it’s a necessity and the only way they have to support their families. The brainchild of a young American couple has proven to be a fine example of what a life-changing experience an opportunity can be for someone.
After getting married in 2000, Michael and Amy Sobkowiak were looking to travel somewhere exotic and settled on the mountain community of Monteverde, Costa Rica. They began volunteering at a new community arts center, helping teach classes, run the small gift shop and better organize the art center’s structure.
In the summer of 2001, we decided to head back to Pittsburgh,” Michael said, “but we wanted to stay in touch with the community and help some of the women who had become part of our lives.”
They decided to try a small volunteer project with four women producing hand-embroidered bags and jewelry using seeds from the rainforest, with a plan to sell the items at local arts and crafts fairs and other community events around the region and reinvest all of the profits back into the project.
“The women who produce our jewelry have learned the skill from the free classes that we offered,” Michael said. “We would personally take them step-by-step through the process, focusing on quality control and consistency. Now that we are no longer living in Costa Rica, we have two women who are experts in the art of jewelry making and they lead the jewelry making sessions and train any new women to the project.”
There currently are 80 women involved in the project, all from a modest background and living in the “campo” (rural) area around Monteverde. Many have kids, some have husbands and, for many of the women, this project is their only opportunity to earn any money for the family.
When they started the business six years ago, the Sobkowiaks had little training in the art/retail side of the business. “However, with my educational background in environmental sciences and my wife’s in photography and design, this project has been a great blending of our talents,” Michael said.
The talents of the women are what make the product so unique. Using seeds collected in a sustainable manner from the surrounding forests, stream beds and backyards, the women in the project combine the natural elements with beads, stones and glass to create an ever-changing line of jewelry designs. The durable seeds are used in their natural state, unvarnished and undyed. Since they’re real seeds, being immersed in water for extended periods of time, such as swimming and bathing, will cause the seeds to swell and change shape.
“After the seeds are collected, our team of drillers take a few kilos of seeds at a time to their homes where they drill each one individually,” Michael explained. “Many of them do this work as a supplement to their regular farming duties, returning the seeds to the art center where
Twice a week, women come to the art center by bus (some as far as two hours away) to create the unique jewelry. Working in small groups of eight to 10 women with no quotas and endless pots of Costa Rican coffee, the women love to make the jewelry because it’s low stress and they can get together and talk with other women instead of doing housework, Michael said. The final results of this process are earrings, bracelets, eyeglass cords and necklaces.
When deciding to merchandise, they knew they would have to rework the jewelry designs to appeal to the U.S. market, so they combined the seeds with bright glass beads and natural stones. The product also has the fair trade component, an affordable price point and informational hangtags to accompany each piece.
“In the first couple of years, we attended a handful of events,” Michael said. “The products were so well received, we were able to add more women to the project to increase production. We slowly transitioned to specialty shops such nature centers, botanical gardens, natural history museums, backyard bird centers, fair trade stores and natural food co-ops.
“We’ve found the shops that are most successful purchase an adequate amount to create a vibrant display. Stores that make it a goal to educate their customers on the unique products they carry and the reasoning behind them have more success. Due to the unique nature of the product and the educational material we provide, the artwork becomes a fun conversation piece.”
As the focus has changed from retail to wholesale, the Sobkowiaks have taken the personal approach they had with single retail customers and translated it to their larger retailer customers, believing the only way to have long-term relationships with their retailers is to have a product that works for their customers.
“We have always been willing to exchange any of our products, even across product lines,” Michael said. “This way stores can see if a certain product appeals to their customers. If it doesn’t, they can send them back for the items that do work.”
The couple currently is focused on marketing more jewelry products. Although they have a long list of women who are waiting to join the jewelry portion of the project, the Sobkowiaks need to grow the jewelry market in the U.S. before that can happen. “One of our new projects this year, our ‘Sterling Silver Rainforest Seed Earrings presented in a hand-made Costa Rican pine box’ has become an overnight success,” Michael said. “It appeals to small gift stores, as well as larger museum and cultural institutions looking for a slightly higher end but unique product. We hope to grow this line and offer more diversity in terms of designs and seed selection.”
There have been many obstacles, or “learning opportunities” at each stage of growth, forcing them to create new solutions for each trial faced. When they increased production of the rainforest seed jewelry, they needed to collect more seeds.
“In the past we personally had collected the seeds and had stock piled a large number of seeds, but those stockpiles were quickly depleted when we ramped up production,” said Sobkowiak. “We had to call out to the community to see if they could find and collect seeds. We were pleasantly surprised at the number of people who were interested in collecting seeds — especially once they found out how much we were paying per kilo.”
One very rural and marginalized woman was able to collect $400 worth of seeds — enough money to feed her six children for three months — and this gave them enough seeds until the next harvest.
Always looking for new colors of beads and stones, they’ve put the word out for new seeds from the community. “It has been fun to watch our product evolve and diversify over the years,” Michael said. “We have some new ideas for the future, including involvement with Zoo and Aquarium Buyers Group. Now that we better understand what the large institutions are looking for, we hope to create some new products that will appeal to their markets.”