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Trading Poverty for Jewelry Making

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BY LANE FLORSHEIM

From multilayered bib necklaces made of smooth, vibrantly colored tagua beads to thick, hand-loomed alpaca shawls, the Andean Collection is full of exquisite statement pieces, a phrase that transcends its fashionable definition. The jewelry and accessories that comprise the collection carry an important message about the potential for sustainable change in impoverished communities.

The Andean Collection was founded in 2008 as the culmination of Founder and CEO Amanda Judge's field research for a master's thesis on poverty reduction strategies in Ecuador. Judge spent a significant amount of time interviewing women in rural communities as part of her analysis on the different streams of household income in the region.

"I saw that most households were making jewelry as a secondary income," she says. Judge saw a substantial opportunity for sustainable economic growth for these households through the accessories industry. Late in 2008, she started to work with a number of the artisans she had gotten to know through her research.

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When the Andean Collection employs an artisan, the company finances his or her completion of the government-run training program that grants official artisan status in Ecuador, which complements the brand's own training program. The Collection's 2012 training program included instruction on financial management, computer literacy, and family planning.

As the multi-dimensional curriculum indicates, the Andean Collection's mission goes beyond providing artisans with a stable source of income. In addition to its standard training program, the company also offers a scholarship program, a no-interest loan system, an emergency relief program, and a staff of trained members to aid artisans in making productive, long-term investments in education, technology, and health.

To ensure they are fulfilling these complex objectives, the company administers a well-being survey once a year. The survey evaluates everything from income level to the type of roof and floor the artisans have to the number of electronics they own. "These are all indicators of quality of life," Judge explains.

So far, the results have been remarkable. Judge told me about Nancy, one of the artisans employed by the Andean Collection who has been working with the company since its inception. Today, the Andean Collection is collaborating with Nancy to build up her own workshop and hire more employees; Nancy currently employs seven other artisans. Her income has increased by an astounding 800 percent, which Judge describes as the typical success rate for Andean Collection artisans. "The artisans are now living in the middle class," she says.

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Nancy, like many of the Andean Collection artisans, sold her jewelry at the local market before gaining access to the more profitable global market. And it is profitable indeed. The Andean Collection has partnered with major retailers like Anthropologie and Free People, experiences that have allowed the company to attract a broader audience. "It's so fun to walk down the street past an Anthropologie window and think, 'Oh there's the necklace!" says Judge. "Brands have been great about displaying the Andean Collection name and story on the tag."

Judge maintains a close connection to Ecuador and the Andean Collection artisans, traveling there from New York five times last year alone. She aims to ensure that the brand uses all-natural, local materials. Seeds have been used to make jewelry in Ecuador for generations, and the Andean Collection approaches traditional mediums and methods from a more fashionable angle.

What's next for the Andean Collection? Judge highlighted recent travels to Swaziland and Cambodia, so look forward to even more distinctly beautiful jewelry--and expanding progress in alleviating global poverty-in the near future.

All Photos Courtesy of the Andean Collection