Jewelry has the mystical way of bolstering one’s self esteem, empowering the wearer to feel distinct, beautiful, and confident. Taking this theory to heart is Rebel Nell, a new Detroit-based jewelry line that hires women who are down on their luck, and teaches them the art of jewelry making as a way to overcome their financial hardships. Not only is the brand employing the Motor City’s locals, supporting an impoverished economy that saw American companies outsourcing to foreign countries, it is also making use of the leftover, crumbling materials that are abundant in the former booming metropolis—namely, graffiti.
An art form in and of itself, graffiti is marked by its striking colors and bold, expressive shapes that are meant to convey the underlying social and political injustices that occur in urban communities. But ever since Detroit’s downturn, the once radiant murals have turned to scraps—a clear analogy to how much the city is suffering. Finding the dazzle behind the decay is Rebel Nell’s co-founder Amy Peterson. She has made it her mission to revitalize her community, using something that has the power to make anyone feel special—jewelry.
Check out how Peterson came up with this novel idea, and how Rebel Nell is supporting Detroit economically and ecologically.
Where does the name Rebel Nell come from?
It was very important for us to create a name that reflected our mission, which is to empower women who are ready for a transitional opportunity from shelter living. The name actually pays homage to a woman who embodied the drive for social change that we, as a company, strive to emulate. Eleanor Roosevelt was a true trailblazing woman who championed many issues that still resonate today, including women’s rights, civil rights and social justice. Her father nicknamed her “Little Nell.” We felt she was worthy of a stronger nickname so we came up with “Rebel Nell.” Not only is the name reflective of our mission, but it also describes the women we hire who are rebelling against life’s situation. Plus, we use graffiti, which is a rebellious art form.
How did the idea of repurposing scraps of graffiti come about?
We knew we wanted to make Detroit-centric jewelry, and decided to use graffiti scraps for two reasons: to show support for the city we love, and to financially sustain the programs that we offer at Rebel Nell. While on a run one day in Detroit, I found a piece of graffiti that had fallen on the ground from a peeling mural. At first glance, it looked interesting on its surface, but when turned to the side, I could see that it was made up of several different layers of paint. I took it back to my apartment and called my business partner, Diana, and told her that I had an idea. We spent four months prototyping and developing ways to expose the layers of paint and then transforming it into high quality wearable art.
How you describe the aesthetic of the jewelry line?
The jewelry is absolutely beautiful, and each piece is one-of-a-kind and truly unique. The jewelry is not only stunning because of the unique cross section of graffiti, but because of the woman who made it. The vision for each piece is with the designer herself. She has complete creative freedom to cut and select whatever graffiti pattern and shape she feels is beautiful. You can see the artistic patterns most prominently in our signature sterling pendants and sterling drop earrings. The jewelry is reflective of the city we live in and the women of Rebel Nell. People rush to judgment when hearing stories of Detroit or learning of personal past struggles, but when you take time to see what is underneath and expose the layers, amazing things are right in front of your eyes.
What makes Rebel Nell eco-friendly?
We pick up pieces of fallen graffiti that would otherwise seep into the ground or become trash. We collect the chips of discarded murals once they fall of the walls and repurpose the fallen scraps into beautiful works of wearable art.
How do you incorporate sustainability into your design?
We pride ourselves on being a sustainable social enterprise that supports not only the wages of the women we hire, but also the programs to help with their success. In order to do that, we have to come up with new and exciting items constantly. In the past year we launched a cuff bracelet, brass pendants and earrings, tie bars and tiepins. We believe that it is important to listen to the needs of our customers, and we try our best to incorporate the most requested item from the previous year. In 2016, we are exploring other items that expand the collection beyond jewelry. We want our customers to keep coming back—not only because they love our mission, but also because they can’t wait to own the latest and greatest Rebel Nell item.