The Toolbox Initiative: helping jewelers worldwide

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Calling all metalsmiths: have a few extra pliers that you thought might be handy when you bought them, but you find you never use? How about saw blades, still in their Rio bags, that you doubt you’ll ever use?  Consider donating them to jewelers working with limited resources across the globe.
tim and matthieu
Tim and Matthieu in Senegal.

The Toolbox Initiative is a volunteer effort created by metalsmiths Matthieu Cheminée and Tim McCreight in 2014. Tim and Matthieu met in 2013 when Matthieu brought the beginnings of a manuscript for his book, Legacy: Jewelry Techniques of West Africa to Tim to consider for publication at Brynmorgen Press. Tim was intrigued by Matthieu’s decade of research into jewelry makers in West Africa, and they traveled together to Senegal for more research. There, they met men who work in what we would consider primitive conditions, with very few tools, creating masterpieces of jewelry with unsurpassed craftsmanship. They were struck by the lack of resources affecting their metalsmithing counterparts and brainstormed ways to change that imbalance.  They formed the Toolbox Initiative to “assist the metalsmithing community in West Africa and to recognize them for their kindness and generosity during the research for the book.”

400 lbs
On a recent trip Tim and Matthieu (pictured) carried over 400 pounds of hand tools to West Africa in their luggage (with the help of a few jewelry-making friends!)
So what, exactly, do they do? When I met Tim in June of this year and heard about the initiative first-hand, he used the phrase “jeweler to jeweler, hand to hand.” They literally hand jewelry-making tools to their fellow craftsmen in West Africa, new or gently-used tools gathered from metalsmiths across the US and Canada and carried in their luggage to Africa. They visit the studios of the jewelers (mostly men) and visit, exchange stories and demonstrate techniques. They share meals and laughter, learn from each other and build lasting friendships. They give the donated tools to the jewelers, who may previously have had only a single pair of pliers that has been passed down at least one generation.
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A jeweler in West Africa will typically own a hammer, pliers or tweezers and a few other odds and ends that they keep in a hand-made toolbox. When I consider how many pliers currently sit unused on my own bench, I find that extraordinary. This video demonstrates the amazing skill of a West African jeweler, taking an ingot of silver, melted down over an open fire from scrap, and using rudimentary tools, including engravers crafted from old screwdrivers, to fashion truly stunning works of art. 

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Some handmade engraving tools. 
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A master craftsman hard at work in his studio. 
For some of these jewelers, these tools can literally change their lives. A simple wire-pulling plate may replace something that they had fashioned out of wood or scrap steel, and a hammer may replace a length of steel pipe. 
supply shop
An average jewelry supply store in Senegal. 
Supplies and tools are scarce in the villages in West Africa, so for some of these jewelers, the tools that the Toolbox Initiative distributes may be the first that they have received in generations. 
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If you would like to donate any tools or scrap silver to the Toolbox Initiative, you can find more information on their website. Cash donations are used to purchase tools through a partnership with Rio Grande Jewelry Supply, and all tools, purchased or donated, are distributed to working jewelers at no cost. Their YouTube channel has more videos of their travels to West Africa and the extraordinary people (and jewelry) that they find along the way. 

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Tim McCreight teaching at a Master Class at the 2016 Bead and Button Show in Milwaukee, WI.
Tim McCreight is a jeweler, teacher, author, and publisher who has written and produced dozens of books and videos covering all aspects of modern metalsmithing. He runs Brynmorgen Press, a publisher of practical, high-quality textbooks on jewelery design in his home state of Maine. 

Matthieu Cheminée is a jeweler, teacher, author, and photographer who has been visiting West Africa and researching the jewelry trade there for almost 20 years. He is based in Montreal but has lived all over the world. Learn more about him and his travels on his website.


FIND MORE: wirework , metal , forging

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