Gun buy-back program turns weapons into jewelry

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Gun serial numbers typically flash from holsters on hips, but Jessica Mindich would rather they flash from arms and dress shirts.

The serial number is all that remains after Jessica Mindich turns weapons from buy-back programs into jewelry.

A philanthropic jewelry maker residing in Connecticut, Mindich, 45, created the Caliber Collection to turn illegal and unwanted guns into something that can do no harm: jewelry.

Mindich will use weapons gathered from this Saturday’s Cash for Caliber buy-back program at the Mathis Community Center in Detroit for her next set of bracelets and cuff links. During the program from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., anyone can turn in an unloaded gun — no questions asked — and receive a $50 Visa gift card in exchange.

Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, Judge Greg Mathis of the courtroom reality TV show “Judge Mathis” and Mindich organized Cash for Caliber in an attempt to get guns off Detroit streets and prevent unnecessary loss of life.

“Gun-related violence is taking a toll on our communities, especially when innocent children are dying because they’ve gotten hold to an unsecured weapon,” Napoleon says. “We want to help reduce the violence by helping people safely surrender weapons they don’t want around or that they’re afraid to have in their homes.”

This is the first buy-back program that Mindich is financing in Detroit. Over the past four years, she has turned more than 1,500 guns into jewelry pieces sold in 85 countries.

“The guns brought in from this weekend’s buyback, once rendered inoperable, will be turned over to me to create a virtuous cycle to get more guns off the street,” Mindich says.

Caliber Collection pieces can be bought online or at the Detroit Shoppe at Somerset Collection, the Detroit Institute of Art or She stores.

Gun violence resulted in 296 deaths in Metro Detroit in 2015, according to the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office. Police officials say Mother’s Day weekend this year was “particularly deadly,” with more than 21 victims of gunfire and six fatalities. The violence hasn’t spared children. In a two-month span ending in May, eight children were killed or injured by gunfire in Detroit.

The jewelry can be purchased online at CaliberCollection.com or locally at the Detroit Shoppe at Somerset Collection, the Detroit Institute of Arts gift shop and the She stores in Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Pointe. Detroit pieces range from $160 for a steel cuff bracelet to $1,325 for a brass bangle with eight diamonds.

Mindich donates 20 percent of sales to police department buy-back programs in Newark, New Jersey; Hartford, Connecticut; San Francisco and Detroit. So far, she’s raised over $135,000. Of that, $25,000 was allocated to Detroit’s buy-back event to cover the gift cards, marketing and set-up expenses.

Before Newark Mayor Cory Booker contacted her in 2012, Mindich mainly produced innovate pieces for nonprofits and fundraisers. “I didn’t know anything about guns, gun violence or how to make jewelry out of guns,” she says.

At the time, Booker was frustrated with his city’s high homicide rates, she says. So he asked her to collaborate on a collection using weapons from a ballistics lab in Newark.

“He wanted the money raised to go back to the most profound purpose, ‘peace,’ ” she says. “That meant funding gun buy-back and amnesty programs.”

After 10 months embedding herself in the ballistics lab and “an incredible amount of research,” she launched Caliber Connections. Sixteen days later, Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre happened, where 20 students and six adults were killed from gunfire.

Caliber Collection became a hopeful story in a “very painful 24 hour news cycle,” she says.

“I never wanted to be the Livestrong bracelet of gun violence,” she adds, “but if this was predestined for me, I am damn well going to make an impact.”

The Caliber Collection began with 250 guns and bullet casings from the Newark Police Department. Mindich then expanded to other cities and used 74 weapons and shell casings that the Detroit Police Department swept from crime scenes.

The brass cuff links are $325. They’re made with the serial numbers from guns and metal from bullet casings taken off the streets by the Detroit Police Department.

Mindich says street artist Shepard Fairey — who has tagged several Detroit buildings — was “instrumental” in helping her launch the buy-back program. In February, Fairey and the Library Street Collective in Detroit donated 20 percent of sales from his artwork sold at the gallery to the Caliber Foundation, started by Mindich, to help victims and families affected by gun violence.

Fairey, who designed the famous Barack Obama “Hope” poster, was charged with destruction of property last year after allegedly tagging 14 Detroit buildings and walls he wasn’t commissioned to paint. He was, however, hired to design a mural on the east side of the Compuware building owned by Dan Gilbert. Fairey is set to appear for a pre-trial hearing at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice on Friday, according to his attorney Bradley Friedman.

“Coincidentally, minutes after he completed his mural at One Campus Martius — with paint still drying under his fingernails — I ran into him and ... told them about my work combating illegal gun violence in Detroit,” Mindich says. “It is an issue he is very passionate about, and he wanted to lend his support.”

According to the Caliber Collection website, the name “Caliber” was chosen for its two meanings: “the caliber of a gun and how the caliber of a city is raised when illegal guns are taken off its streets.”

Napoleon acknowledges that it will take more than Saturday’s Cash for Caliber program to reduce the violence on the streets of Detroit, but it’s a start.

“We know that the challenge of gun violence won’t disappear overnight,” Napoleon says. “However, it is our hope that by taking in guns this week, it will prevent a number of gun-related incidents and deaths in the near future.”

ssteinberg@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

Cash For Caliber

When: Saturday, June 11, 2016 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: Mathis Community Center 19300 Greenfield Rd., Detroit, Mi. 48235