Peter Thum, working in Africa for Ethos Water, noticed something while travelling in Kenya: Everywhere he went, people had guns. Lots and lots of guns.
"I met men and boys with assault rifles. It was a particular time in Kenya after election violence, and I began to think about this issue beyond the fact that I was in the place where people had a lot of guns," says Thum.
In fact, the continent of Africa has around 40 million guns, half of which are assault rifles—getting a clear estimate is understandably difficult—because they’re cheaper there than anywhere else. The AK-47 has become most ubiquitous and symbolic of failed struggles and misallocated resources.
Historically, lots of weapons were brought to Africa after the Cold War, explains Thum. "They last a long time. Those AK-47s are really robust. It’s like an old Volkswagen car driving around; they still do what they were originally intended to do, even though they’re really old."
A year after his trip to Kenya, Thum found himself at a TED conference discussing the gun situation with John Zapolski. Last November, they formed Fonderie 47, a company dedicated to removing guns from the African economy and reusing them to make beautiful jewelry to sell in the U.S.
This is how it works: At the end of armed conflicts, the UN tries to collect weapons from combatants. Fonderie 47 originally obtained AK47s that were confiscated from poachers in the Virunga National Park. They paid to have the guns destroyed locally then shipped the parts back to the U.S. to give raw materials to the designers. The funds then go back to the nonprofit, which generates more money for weapon destruction. So far, Fonderie 47 has contributed to the destruction of more than 25,000 weapons through NGO partners like Mines Advisory Group.
"We don’t buy weapons from combatants, and we don’t repatriate," says Thum, adding that the company already has more than enough material from its initial group of guns to make the jewelry. Each piece of jewelry is imprinted with the single serial number of the gun used to make it. Additionally, when any Fonderie pieces are purchased, the buyer receives a list of the serial numbers of the guns that the purchase destroys.
The company has worked with three designers, making necklaces, rings, earrings, and cufflinks. They are now working on a mechanical watch. There are challenges to working with the metals found in guns, says Thum. For one, guns are made in different places so that the material isn’t consistent even within one weapon.
In addition, the steel tends to be very hard, which is a challenge compared with traditional metals like gold and platinum. "The designers with whom we work are unique—they want to take on the challenge of working with steel," says Thum.
Ultimately, Thum says he’d like Fonderie 47 to change the way people think about assault rifles and the role they play, and also bring some beauty out of the conflicts. "If we can raise awareness about removing these weapons in significant numbers, we can increase the cost of killing someone."