The women mentioned in this article are referred to by pseudonyms to protect their privacy.
T here’s something exciting about pouring molten metal, like it’s part of a science show or an exhibition from another planet. Even after countless times watching my co-founder, Corbin, pour liquid sterling silver into our custom jewelry molds, I still feel mesmerized, beckoning others in the studio to notice the way the bright material spills out.
When Corbin and I started Unlocked, our jewelry brand, our goal had nothing to do with jewelry, per se. We wanted to employ and empower women in Nashville transitioning out of homelessness. At best, jewelry was the vehicle for that vision; at worst, an afterthought.
In the beginning, we had no idea what we were doing. It took the wonders of YouTube and two years of hard work to learn an advanced form of jewelry manufacturing called lost-wax casting. Since then, to my surprise, we’ve established ourselves as both an e-commerce business and an off-label manufacturer for much larger jewelry brands. More importantly, we’ve been able to partner with nonprofits and businesses to build a holistic program for the women we employ, offering transitional housing, career and life counseling, and financial training.
Corbin and I joke that we made the right decision in choosing jewelry, but for all the wrong reasons. Initially, we believed that a jewelry brand would require less startup capital than other business models we were considering. That assumption was proven flagrantly misguided once we decided to invest in the machinery necessary for lost-wax casting. We see now, however, that one of the greatest benefits of jewelry is the powerful meaning it holds for our employees, whom we affectionately call “Makers.” Their daily task of turning raw metal into beautiful products serves as a visual representation of their own transformations.
Through intentionality and consistency, our Makers design new lives, grinding away what no longer serves them and polishing parts of themselves they once thought dirty, dull. I always watch with joy and anticipation as the Makers transform themselves along with the metal: softening, glowing, becoming at once more vulnerable and more powerful as they pour themselves into new shapes. I think of one of our Makers, Ramona, who seems like a different person than the one I interviewed when she arrived a few months ago. Although the tangible changes in her life—stable housing, a dog, a car—are all notable, the way she carries herself is the most indicative of her progress. Instead of an anxious, self-conscious woman defined by a recent abusive relationship, Ramona is now confident and creative. She brings ice cream for breakfast, plans team game nights, and writes pages upon pages of ideas to expand the company. Just this past week, she told me she’s “loving life right now,” and that it’s “been a while” since she could say that. “I’ve seen a massive difference,” she went on. “I’m seeing my better self again and Unlocked is bringing that out.” Ramona is both the artisan and the final product. She wears herself proudly.
Design, the first step in creating a new piece of jewelry, is arguably the most important. You can make a product with the finest tools and most impressive attention to detail, but if the design is flawed then the whole thing will be flawed. I’m not a designer, but my lack of expertise causes me to respect the process even more. The way that minute details can change the entire trajectory of a jewelry line is fascinating, and somewhat intimidating. Similarly, when a Maker begins working at Unlocked, we encourage her to meet with our career counselor, Dr. Rena, who comes to the studio weekly to meet with each Maker one-on-one. Dr. Rena helps Makers explore their identities, strengths, goals, and desired career paths, pairing a career-focused curriculum with conversational tactics that often become therapeutic. In essence, she is assisting them in designing their lives. Although the slight re-frames that Dr. Rena helps our Makers enact in their thinking may seem inconsequential in the moment, these changes can define their entire future careers.
After designing a product, we use a highly detailed 3D printer to generate a wax render, which we attach to a larger wax stem and place in a cylindrical flask. Then, we mix a solution called “investment” to form a plaster-like liquid. We pour the investment into the flask and leave it until it hardens. Once hardened, the flask is ready for the “burnout cycle” in the kiln, where it will stay overnight at an incinerating 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit until the wax is completely melted out. In this way, we’re able to create a hardened negative of our original products.
The final step in the casting process is the most dramatic: pouring the molten metal. Using 100% recycled sterling silver, we pour mustard-seed-sized silver beads into the crucible to create a sparkling flurry before they melt at 1,850 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, carefully placing the still-hot flask into a vacuum chamber, we use tongs to pick up the crucible, slowly tilt it, and pour the fiery red silver into the flask. We white-knuckled a fire extinguisher the entire time we first completed this process.
Watching production in our studio, I’ve often marveled at the fact that silver doesn’t get to choose whether or not it melts. When placed in the right environment, it follows its nature; it takes new shapes. I’ve come to believe that the same is true of humans. I used to think of vulnerability as a choice to reveal the deeper parts of oneself, risking loss or rejection for the sake of a greater purpose. I think now that there is also a kind of vulnerability inherent to humans—the choice is how we respond to it. Will we avoid the situation, or lean into the moments of risk, change, and uncertainty?
I admire the courage of our Makers, who show tremendous resilience in their choice to continue pushing forward, despite being some of the most vulnerable people in our society. For them and others experiencing homelessness, vulnerability means inconsistent shelter, food, and water. Women experiencing homelessness are at an even greater disadvantage. Over 90% of women on the streets will experience “severe physical or sexual abuse at some point in their lives,” according to a study by the Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association. Despite these challenges, our Makers do the hard work of consistently showing up both physically and emotionally, placing themselves in environments where they believe they will grow. Change is the natural result.
After our jewelry pieces are cast in silver, the final step is the “finishing”: tumbling, grinding, polishing, and gold plating. An essential tool in this process is the pin finisher. It consists of thousands of tiny magnetic pins that sit atop a large and incredibly strong magnet about the diameter of a beach ball. The pins stand erect when they are on their larger magnetic base, thrashing against the jewelry pieces in the bowl. Though the process looks violent, the jewelry emerges unscathed. The result is a shiny, uniform surface finish and a hardened quality that improves the pieces’ ability to hold their shape.
Many of our Makers share ways that they’ve gone through their own pin finishers, with heartbreaking factors that have piled up over years of trauma. Although for some the pain is still visceral, something brighter and shinier is emerging. Our Makers carry a sense of lightness that I suspect is absent at most manufacturing plants. Even on the busiest day in the shop, it’s not uncommon for a spontaneous dance party to erupt when a good song comes on. We laugh often and heartily, extending jokes over the course of weeks just to watch each others’ reactions.
Even when we furloughed everyone for seven weeks due to COVID-19, our Makers held their shapes. Each week during that period, Corbin and I held group calls to check on everyone, answer questions, and encourage the team. At the end of one call, Makers voiced their individual needs. Carole had mold in her freezer but was allergic to it. Da’Nae still didn’t have a bed. Shaneka couldn’t get to the grocery to get food for four growing kids. As I racked my brain for solutions in the midst of social distancing and quarantine, each of the women volunteered to help the other. Da’Nae would clean out the moldy freezer, Shaneka offered one of her kids’ beds for Da’Nae, and Carole would use her car to help Shaneka get food. I was stunned, filled with pride and gratitude. In the midst of selfishness that led to historic shortages of toilet paper, the women I worked with—women who had already lived the realities others feared—were finding ways to serve each other.
When we began making jewelry at Unlocked, each Maker worked on a distinct piece from start to finish. Once we moved to the casting process, we began assembly-line manufacturing, with different Makers working at different stations on any given day. As Henry Ford famously publicized a century ago, the switch from individual- to team-based production has yielded a far more efficient process. Similarly, when I reflect on what distinguishes Makers who continue to progress in their lives from those who have struggled and left Unlocked, I notice the ways that an affinity for community is correlated with positive outcomes.
All of the women who have thrived at Unlocked sought out ways to connect with others on the team, building relationships that became a source of encouragement, advice, and comfort. On the other hand, those who have left Unlocked were singularly focused on their situation and avoided community-based activities. For most of the women I’ve worked with, lacking a strong network was a contributing factor that led to their homelessness. When our Makers didn’t have friends or family members who could provide emergency rent money or a spare couch, they had to find alternatives in shelters or on the streets.
Regardless of socioeconomic background, these concepts apply. The development of social capital assets like meaningful relationships is crucial for creating a personal safety net and moving out of homelessness sustainably. What’s more is that the entire community benefits, not just the individual. Communal interaction is imperative for a cohesive society, and it reminds us how directly our actions affect one another. This has been made painfully clear to us this year. On national and global scales, issues like COVID-19, environmental degradation, and racial relations are calling into question our responsibility to one another. The answer is a personal one, but its impact is communal.
Just as the women I’ve worked with have recognized value in investing in those around them, both for their own success and that of the group, each of us may benefit from doing the same. Cultivating and maintaining an authentic community is a choice, a brave choice. We can respond to our vulnerability with humility and enthusiasm, or we can focus inward and shut others out. We can place ourselves in situations that challenge and reshape us, or we can insulate ourselves from disagreement and discomfort by resorting to echo chambers and escapist behaviors. If we choose the former—choices I witness daily at Unlocked—then we may change in the process, and inspire those around us to do the same. Transformation, whether of molten metal or messy lives, isn’t easy or painless. And yet, the result can be beautiful.