A little over a year ago, Detroiters Amy Peterson and Diana Russell founded Rebel Nell, a jewelry company that’s unlike any other. While running along the Dequindre Cut, Amy noticed graffiti chips on the ground that had fallen off some of the murals. She took a piece home and tinkered with the layers, realizing that by exposing some of the colors underneath the surface of the piece, wearable art could be made that is truly reflective of Detroit.
She and Diana wanted to do something in the city to empower women, and the thought of combining that with jewelry making led to the birth of Rebel Nell. They met and grew a relationship with three women at the COTS Detroit shelter, and they knew they could make a difference in the lives of these women seeking a better life, and they could do it in a creative and empowering way.
Opportunity Detroit visited the Rebel Nell workshop to learn more about how the business and their mission is restoring independence in the women who create the jewelry. Amy shared some of their keys to success and how she and Diana are dedicated to the growth of their business and the empowerment of the women they employ.
You and your business partner have made special relationships with the women who create the jewelry. Why is that so important?
Amy: It is important to instill the value of trust in all of the relationships at Rebel Nell. The women we hire rely on us just like we rely on them. You can’t have that without trust. Trust is empowering, and it shows that we believe in them and their capabilities. It is very much like a sisterhood at Rebel Nell. We look out for each other. This creates a bond and a positive work environment. We are not successful individually, but successful as a whole.
You’ve made a commitment to include learning business skills and life skills as part of the Rebel Nell career experience – why?
Amy: We believe that education is paramount to the success of Rebel Nell. It is one thing to give them a job; it is another to teach them the skill and provide them with the education they need to change their lifestyle and break out of the difficult poverty cycle. Knowledge is power. We believe that financial management and life wellness are very important lessons for all women to learn. It creates independence!
Describe your workspace and the environment you strive to create.
Amy: Our workspace is relaxed but efficient. It is also a place that inspires creativity. On any given day we have a variety of music playing and laughter filling the air. Some days we start with yoga or will go out and scavenge for graffiti. We use it not only to manufacture the jewelry but to have classes and seminars as well.
Amy: We have been averaging about 30–40 pieces a week. A typical work week involves Monday and Thursday evenings working from 6:00 – 10:00 p.m. Some nights we will integrate a class, meeting to discuss the business, upcoming events or something fun like “family dinner” as we call it. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays the women work five hours at their own schedule. They inform me of the hours they work, but this allows them the flexibility to be home when needed to pick up their children from school. Family is a very important part of Rebel Nell. We include the families in many of our activities. In fact, we have even worked with the Michigan Women’s Foundation to get some of the children scholarships to camps this summer.
Amy: No training is necessary prior to being employed by Rebel Nell. We provide a two-week training course before they are brought on as employees. No creativity is required. The beauty of our jewelry is that it really allows each woman to express her own unique style. All of the pendants are uniquely created to reflect the personality and creativity of the woman who designed it. This does wonders for confidence restoration. They truly start to believe in themselves when someone buys a necklace that they designed and made from start to finish. It is a beautiful thing to witness.
How do you obtain the graffiti pieces that are used in the jewelry? How often do you search for pieces? Do you ever use outside volunteers?
Amy: We collect the graffiti once it has fallen off the walls around the city due to the weight of layers of paint or damage caused by Mother Nature. We typically use the graffiti collection process as a team building exercise. We will go searching several times throughout the warm months. We have had some wonderful people donate pieces to our efforts, particularly The Alley Project in southwest Detroit.
Amy: We like a bare minimum of three layers. The pieces don’t have to be large. We can make a pair of earrings from a relatively small scrap of graffiti. I would say at a minimum it would have to be about 2 inches in diameter.
Without giving away all of your secrets, what is the basic process once the graffiti is in hand?
Amy: Our process is pretty well protected, but I will say that we put a lot of time, love and care into each piece. Once we get the graffiti processed so that all of the colors are exposed, the shape is cut and then put onto silver. The metal edges are carefully sanded down, our logo is stamped on the back and then the piece is polished to ensure top quality. Finally, we apply a protective coating over the graffiti to ensure that it will be well preserved. We also put a tag on each necklace that identifies the location where we found the graffiti. Every single piece is a one of a kind.
Amy: Each piece goes through a strict quality control process. We have a standard, and the women are very good at producing top-quality pieces. Only those that adhere to our high-quality standards are sold.
What are your plans for the near future? Do you plan on growing your team?
Amy: We are very happy with the growth that we have accomplished in just a year. We have gone from working two days a week to now working five. We are hoping that we can hire at least two more women out of the shelter by the end of the year. Every purchase truly makes a huge difference.