Photo courtesy of Jamie Jockwig

At Large in Ballard: The answer is always yes

In Africa villagers sometimes pull up silver or gemstones when drawing water from the river. I had the same feeling of unexpectedly finding something precious when I went to the third floor of the Ballard Building to ask Jamie Jockwig about a trip to Africa advertised in the office space he shares with jeweler George Smith.

Though Phil’s Jewelry is no longer a storefront on Market Street, owner George Smith still plies his trade upstairs. I had previously met Jamie when picking up a jewelry repair; he sticks his head out if George isn’t there. I just thought he was another jeweler.

Jamie Jockwig could more accurately be described as a man on a mission. Not only does he have a plan to improve the lives of children in Africa, he wants to change the entire jewelry industry, and until a few years ago he wasn’t even trained as a jeweler.

An only child raised in Michigan, Jamie had been around the world 23 times by age twenty-eight. He led service teams for a faith-based organization in many different countries, always asking of himself, where did he most want to get involved? It was Africa that caught him.

In 2002 when Jamie was on a community service project in Tanzania he asked someone, “What’s one thing that I can get only in Tanzania?” The answer was a gem called tanzanite. Jamie had always loved gems and minerals, even collecting rocks as an adult. He purchased some tanzanite very reasonably, had the gemstones appraised favorably in the States and then put them away while he completed his Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology in Seattle. He started a private practice but continued to be drawn to Africa.

Seven years later he was in Kenya doing AIDS education work through schools and orphanages. He contacted the original dealer in Tanzania. The tanzanite was still the same price. Jamie recalls, “As I put my head to the pillow that night I wondered if this was one way I could make money to really help kids in these orphanages.”

Jamie decided to stake everything that he had on creating an import business for gemstones that would allow him to make money for orphans in Africa. He cashed in his savings, left his practice and “jumped.” This was even before he met the man who would become his mentor and teach him, “The answer is always yes.”

An acquaintance hearing his idea told him, “You need to meet George Smith.” Within hours Jamie was sitting on George’s back deck confiding his plans. George had over 40 years in the jewelry business and his own history of international philanthropy. Within a few meetings, George had given Jamie a key to the office and equipment allowing Jamie to transform “playing with the earth” into a business: Baraka Gemstones and Jewelry. Baraka means blessings in Swahili.

Jamie’s original business model has expanded, from just importing to creating jewelry. He uses natural resources from East Africa to create jewelry for sale; with currently 10% of all profits going directly to the organization FOCUS (Families Orphans and Children Under Stress). He aspires to gain a following, perhaps even create a movement of customers who want to know the source of their gemstones, similar to how consumers are increasingly aware of their food or Fair Trade coffee source. Jamie also wants customers to know who benefits from their purchase. What is the story behind the stone, and how will it become part of the story of a child’s future in Kenya?

Jamie’s designs also reflect a closer relationship to the source. Often he uses a process called drop metal, in which a stone is dropped into liquid metal allowing it to meld naturally. He also refashions estate jewelry to sell on his Etsy site, perhaps redeeming a jewel’s history by repurposing it to benefit children in Africa.

Jamie watches the movie “Blood Diamond” before every trip to Africa as a reminder that the history of precious metals and gems is also one of exploitation. To the best of his ability Jamie is committed to working with materials that have been gathered humanely and are “conflict-free.” Jamie hopes that creating educated consumers will lead to greater accountability throughout the industry.

In three years Jamie has gone from private practice counselor to part-time jeweler and barista. He works 22 hours per week at Starbucks to finance the business. He would like to be able to set up equipment in East Africa, just as he would like to be able to find more investors, have help with the website and find someone willing to update followers by Twitter. He would also like to be able to donate more than the current 10% of all profits from the products he sells as Baraka Gemstones and Jewelry and he’d love to be able to trade the role of Starbuck’s barista for one of sustainable trade ambassador for them.

Jamie is also launching Baraka Tours. His plan is to lead tours to the areas he knows in Africa, combining community service with tourism. That way he can show travelers the country and people that he considers it his mission to support. Even as he fashions a tie pendant necklace that is popular with men,

Jamie can envision exactly what the $150-200/month he is able to send to FOCUS is providing. At the FOCUS drop-in center located in Kenya children are able to have a meal of porridge before school and a second meal before afternoon tutoring and activities. The contribution from Baraka buys food, medical care and necessities such as fixing the leak in the roof.

Jamie says that George Smith taught him that in jewelry, and perhaps in his mission, anything is possible. “Can you do it? The answer is always yes. The question is just how?” Jamie has the passion, the materials, the message – he just needs more hours in the day, more money and people to help him spread the word, even if it’s one tweet at a time. As if there were still any doubt of Jamie’s passion, he wears his heart on the outside; suspended by sterling silver chain is Africa itself.

Baraka Gems is at 2208 NW Market Street, Ste.310, 425.422.9290. A new website is under construction at barakashop.com and they are on Facebook.