Caliber Collection: Newark mayor plugs jewelry made from guns

He dragged a woman from a burning building, went on food stamps to be one with his poorest constituents, and has made a couple of "sexiest" lists, but Newark Mayor Cory Booker isn't resting on his leading-man laurels.

Now he's diving into the effort to combat gun violence with the extra oomph his followers have come to expect: by plugging jewelry made from the metal of guns seized by Newark police.

Booker heralded the Caliber Collection, created by jewelry designer Jessica P. Mindich, during an appearance Wednesday night on MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show," a few hours after President Obama urged Congress to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and toughen background checks for gun buyers. Booker supports all those proposals, and others -- such as bracelets engraved with the serial numbers of melted-down weapons.

“It’s a really innovative program,” said Booker, whose city -- the largest in New Jersey and one plagued by gun violence -- is the first to publicly embrace the Caliber Collection, a new line from Mindich’s Jewelry for a Cause business.

Booker was noticeably bauble-less as he spoke with Maddow, but he did give her two bracelets from the collection, each made in part with metal from guns either seized by Newark police or handed over to them. Last year alone, the city collected more than 850 firearms. Newark Police Sgt. Luke G. Laterza Sr. lamented to Mindich when they met last year that on some days, the floor of the department's forensics lab is so covered with seized weapons that it's hard to walk.

“We’re using them as an instrument of buybacks, an instrument of peace,” Booker said of such weapons as Maddow examined the shiny objects crafted from the melted-down metal. They sell for $150 to $375 depending on the type of metal and other materials used; Mindich gives Newark 20% of her proceeds, and this month she handed the city its first check for $20,000.

Mindich started Jewelry for a Cause in 2008 with the idea of making and selling jewelry to raise money for causes both domestic and foreign. In 2011, she met Booker at a conference and the conversation turned to gun violence and to the gun buyback programs that Newark had used to try to get weapons off the streets.

“My company’s entire ethos is to give back, using jewelry,” Mindich said Thursday in a telephone interview. The Caliber Collection was born, but not before Mindich had to convince Booker and his police that she was legit and that the idea could work.

She described her knees shaking as she walked into a meeting with the police director, Samuel A. DeMaio. “He said, ‘Hey, she seems really passionate, it costs the city nothing, let’s give it a try,’” said Mindich, who had planned a public launch of the Caliber Collection later this month in New York.

“Then the world changed,” she said, referring to the Newtown, Conn., school massacre on Dec. 14, which killed 20 first-graders and six school employees. It catapulted combating gun violence to the top of many politicians’ agendas, and spurred interest in the Caliber Collection, which Mindich -- who is from Connecticut -- had shown to friends and associates. She had already set up a website.

“I was ready. Everything was set up. So we started selling,” Mindich said.

The idea behind it is simple, but it is logistically challenging given legal restrictions on the handling of weapons in police custody.  

Mindich could not be given the guns as is -- she had to get them shredded. That meant transporting boxes full of weapons from the Newark Police Department’s forensics laboratory, under police guard, to a metal management plant in Jersey City. Once the guns were destroyed, Mindich began crafting the steel bangles and cuff bracelets that make up the Caliber Collection. Each item bears the serial number of a weapon and the city’s name.

The money that goes back to Newark will be used to buy back weapons from people who are granted amnesty in return. “So it’s a virtuous circle,” said Mindich, who hopes more cities soon will want their own names on Caliber Collection items.

She is also hoping to expand the collection beyond just bracelets to include perhaps cuff links. Those would better suit Booker, who isn't known for donning bling and whose wrists weren't made for delicate bangles. This is a man who once played tight end for Stanford, after all.

In the meantime, Mindich is sorting through the orders for Caliber Collection bracelets, a volume she described as “astronomical.” They’ve come from as far as New Zealand and the Netherlands.

 “I'm not even sure if they know where Newark is,” said Mindich. She's also getting advice from would-be jewelry designers suggesting items they’d like to see crafted from old guns. Among them: hoop earrings, medic ID bracelets, and tooth grills.


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