staff, August 1, 2015

The setup is like something from a James Bond movie: A mysterious visitor arrives in an African nation to conduct a major arms deal. But little do the local warlords know that he?s planning to thwart their violent ways with a clever scheme.

Just call him Thum. Peter Thum.

Northwestern_PeterThum4This graduate of Northwestern?s Kellogg Business School is no secret agent, though. Thum is a social entrepreneur who owns and operates a company called Fonderie 47, which takes illegally purchased firearms, melts them down, and transforms the raw materials into high-end jewelry.

The idea came to Thum during a 2008 trip to Tanzania and Kenya to monitor a clean-water initiative started by one of his previous ventures, Ethos Water, and the Starbucks Foundation. At the time, Kenya had recently gone through a fierce internal conflict following a contentious national election, and the peace that followed was tenuous.

?When we were there, we met these kids and young men who had assault rifles ? The guns were bigger than some of the kids,? Thum said. ?That experience, like the one I?d had eight years before in South Africa, inspired me to want to transform guns into something to address illegal small arms proliferation and gun violence.?

He started Fonderie 47 in 2009, despite ?not knowing anyone in high-end jewelry.? Still, he quickly lined up some big-name partners from the world of fashion, including Philip Crangi, who won the 2007 CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America)/Vogue fashion award for best designer.

Thum?s first ?mission? involved purchasing a bulk order of AK-47s in the Congo, destroying them, bringing the metal from the guns back to the United States and then shipping the steel as needed over to Switzerland to be turned into jewelry. He sourced the weapons from guns that were confiscated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by the Virunga National Park service.

?The first time we went there for about five weeks, and we were driving through places where people were actively fighting,? Thum said. ?Going into a warzone or conflict region is very difficult. It can be nerve-wracking, [but] at times the eastern Congo can be very peaceful ? there are times where nothing is happening. It waxes and wanes in terms of the level of risk.?

Each of Fonderie 47?s finished pieces includes, in one form or another, some of the original steel from a destroyed AK-47 assault rifle and its serial number. Its offerings range from rings to cufflinks (perfect for the tuxedo-clad spy?s night out in Monte Carlo). Thum?s personal favorite is the Inversion Principle Timepiece watch. Only 20 of them have been made, and they were all crafted by hand in Switzerland?s Vallée de Joux.

Fonderie 47's Inversion Principle Timepiece

While it?s all for a good cause, Thum isn?t giving his wares away for free. For instance, the Inversion Principle Timepiece has a price tag of $195,000 - which exceeds the cost of a college education for some. But customers understand what they?re buying: That watch funds the destruction of 1,000 AK-47s.

To date, Fonderie 47 has removed about 40,000 AKs from Africa - a remarkable feat in light of the fact that they?re often prized possessions.

?People with a lot of AK-47s in conflict zones generally don?t want to give them to you,? Thum said.

As significant as Fonderie 47?s accomplishments were, he noticed that the problem of gun violence wasn?t just a problem in Africa. It was an issue much closer to home - near his current residence in New York and just a few miles south of his alma mater in Chicago, for example. Spurred on by his wife Cara Buono, an actress who?s starred in Mad Men and The Sopranos, and inspired by the birth of his daughter, Thum opened the U.S.-based Liberty United in 2012.

?Bringing this to the United States was something that I started thinking about from the inception of the idea of doing it in Africa,? Thum said.

Liberty United partners with police and sheriff departments in places like Philadelphia, New York, Syracuse and Chicago to take guns either collected in buy-back programs or released following investigations.

The Liberty United jewelry pieces are significantly more affordable, ranging from under $40 to a shade over $1,500. But as with Fonderie 47, the revenue is put to good use.

?Every piece of Liberty United that we sell contributes funds to grants that we make to programs to stop gun violence in the U.S.,? Thum explained. ?We donate at least 20 percent of our profits to this. We make grants to these programs with the specific aim of saving and improving the lives of young people.?

Thum sums up the philosophy behind his ventures by explaining how these companies can do things that traditional not-for-profit charities can?t.

[btn-post-package]?Let?s say that you make a donation to the department of your college that you majored in,? Thum said. ?You might talk about that with your family members, but it?s not something that you?re constantly going to be thinking about. It?s something you may never tell anyone about. [Fonderie 47 and Liberty United jewelry] can make your position and your emotions and your intellectual commitments about these issues something that?s part of your daily life and part of your interaction with the people you know and the people you don?t know who you run into.?

In other words, it?s a fashion statement that?s just as much statement as it is fashion.

?They can make an issue that is confined to your nuclear family something that extends and becomes part of your interactions with friends, with colleagues and with strangers,? Thum explained. ?And that makes that behavior part of the fabric of not only that person?s life but, more broadly, society.?

By Ben Goren