Gem News International Gems & Gemology, Spring 2019, Vol. 55, No. 1

Reinvesting in Cartagena: Jewelry School of the Caribbean

Alfredo Diaz (Caribe Jewelry, Cartagena, Colombia) spoke to the authors about the Jewelry School of the Caribbean (FEJOCAR), a nonprofit organization that teaches at-risk youth the art of jewelry making.

Working as a tour guide in his native Colombia, Diaz was frequently asked by tourists where to buy jewelry. He and his brothers opened a small jewelry repair workshop in 1983, catering to both tourists and locals. They expanded into selling their own small jewelry pieces, often featuring Colombian emerald. They sold through other businesses at first but eventually began selling pieces directly to the public. As they made more money, the brothers realized it was important to generate more employment in Cartagena. In 2009 they formed FEJOCAR and began outreach to poverty-stricken areas of the city, focusing on young people from neighborhoods with heavy gang and criminal activity.

The school accepts 75 students per year. Once enrolled, the students may choose between the jewelry design, manufacturing, gemstone polishing, and goldsmithing tracks. Caribe hires the most promising students for their own business. The education at FEJOCAR involves knowledge of jewelry techniques and training in software so that the students can use CAD/CAM and create prototypes. The gem polishing and jewelry design programs take four to six months to complete, while the jewelry manufacturing and goldsmithing tracks take one year.

The Diaz brothers faced challenges at the outset of the program. Some found it hard to believe that the brothers would trust their new employees, some of whom had criminal backgrounds. In fact, Diaz said, trust is essential to their working relationships. Employees appreciate this trust and respond in kind. While investigating student absences, they found out that many did not have the money for transportation or meals, so they started providing transportation fees and breakfast and lunch on-site. Today, FEJOCAR provides 30 full scholarships to help students in need enroll and complete their programs. Of the 120 employees at Caribe Jewelry’s stores, about 40 were recipients of scholarships.

About 60% of their students are women, a dramatic shift from when the program began; at the start, all of the goldsmithing students were men. Diaz also intends to set up home workshops for employees who are mothers, to reduce their need for childcare while maintaining production. They have plans for one employee to polish emeralds at home; the other will have a goldsmithing station.

Emeralds are very important to Colombia and to Caribe Jewelry; to that end, the Diazes have set up the Emerald Museum at their store on Bocagrande Calle in Cartagena. The highlight of the museum is “Petra,” the largest emerald in matrix ever to emerge from Colombia. They also have space dedicated to other varieties of beryl, including heliodor, aquamarine, red beryl, and goshenite.

The success of the school led the Diazes to move to a larger building to accommodate their students; they have also been able to increase their in-house production. Diaz said their long-term goal is to produce 90% of their own jewelry and buy 10% of their goods from wholesalers; at this point they produce 60% of their own pieces (up from last year’s 30%). One of the benefits of local craftsmanship is the ability to maintain a distinctive look that incorporates pre-Columbian indigenous imagery, separating it from Chinese or European designs. Another is the interaction between employees and tourists. The school offers a class for tourists wherein each visitor is paired with a FEJOCAR student. Visitors tour the museum before sitting down to make a piece of jewelry and getting to know a Cartagena local, a wonderful experience for both tourist and student. The Diaz brothers look forward to expanding their business, the school, and their students’ horizons in the years to come.

Jennifer-Lynn Archuleta is the editor of Gems & Gemology.