It’s likely that we are unaware of where our everyday fashion staples come from – not just the store they were purchased at, but the materials as well. Forming a connection with the individual who made that favorite necklace or bracelet is a rarity. In the world of artisans, that is not the case.
Colorado is home to a variety of locally-owned businesses boasting handmade pieces. When it comes to fashion, artisans bring jewelry and accessories to life. Handcrafted pieces are filled with love and devotion – and are often rooted in efforts of sustainability.
Several businesses in our own backyard embrace artisans and artful fashion locally, nationally and globally. One thing they have in common is giving back to communities in need in the process.
Husband and wife Adam and Taylor Tessier are the founders of Taylor and Tessier, an Aspen-based company featuring handmade jewelry. Together, the Tessier’s run the brand – Adam handling mostly business-related tasks while Taylor designs featured pieces.
“Jewelry has always been kind of my obsession since I think I was like eight years old,” Taylor said. “And it’s just the only thing I ever knew I wanted to do was to be a jewelry designer.”
The company began 11 years ago when the couple would collaborate together after returning home from their day jobs. They each put $500 into the brand and now, Taylor and Tessier has grown immensely with over 150 accounts nationwide.
To Taylor, the pieces she makes are wearable art. “I just love to see how you can create something out of an idea which is art and to see how it unfolds and then to be able to wear your vision,” she said.
“I think that’s a huge part of being an artist, whether you’re a musician or painter, a jeweler, you know is sharing what’s so important to you and then giving that away to somebody else, and then you have that connection and that’s really special,” Adam said. “I don’t think there’s a lot of things where you can say that you know that trade or that relationship happens with some stranger so it’s pretty cool.”
At Taylor and Tessier, being an artisan is much more than making jewelry. The love that is put into each piece is felt by customers and establishes a relationship with those who purchase Taylor and Tessier pieces. Additionally, the brand gives back to a cause dear to the Tessier family’s heart – Action in Africa.
This nonprofit organization strives to support women and children in Nakuwadde, Uganda. Through partnering with companies like Taylor and Tessier, Action in Africa gathers resources to foster education, medical help and more for members of the Nakuwadde community.
“We came up with this design that was one of our most popular and we brought the price down a little bit and we took basically all the profit from it, and it goes right back to families,” Adam said. The funds go towards “care packages that help families eat, get what they need, and it just really helped out tons of families and so we felt honored to be a part of that with our jewelry and our customers who love what we do, you know we could take that and leverage that and turn it into some good.”
Taylor and Tessier’s inventory consists of layering necklaces, coin pendants, wire bracelets and more. Some of the most popular items include shreds – leather-wrapped bracelets featuring a variety of stones – and custom word bracelets that can be stamped with names, dates, etc. customized to the customer’s needs and wants.
While artisans can emerge at the individual level to bring handmade jewelry to the community like Taylor and Tessier, communities of artisans may also come together in a gallery setting. Balefire Goods, an artisan jewelry gallery in Arvada, carries handcrafted pieces made by jewelry artists, fine artists, ceramists and more.
Owner Jamie Hollier studied metalsmithing and art history at Metropolitan State University but took a hiatus from making jewelry. After receiving a master’s degree in a different area of study, her life changed course and Hollier’s love for metalsmithing flourished again, leading to Balefire. Her biggest influence was familial ties to artistry.
“My grandfather was a machinist so when I discovered metalwork I knew it was the right fit for me, I had all these family influences but it made sense. I was like ‘Oh I can make jewelry? Yep, that’s it,’” she said.
Art itself is very rewarding for a variety of reasons, but many artisans find comfort in creating unique pieces fit to an individual. Often, jewelry serves as a reminder of moments within one’s life to cherish forever. Therefore, some consider the value of handmade jewelry as priceless.
“There can be art that is intended to spark conversation and make you think. There can be art that is very personally expressive,” Hollier said. “For me, a lot of what I imagine for the work I do, because most of it is custom, is I think of my artwork as a way to take people’s lives and their sentiments and their aesthetic and the things that matter to them and create a physical staple for those items.”
Balefire’s collection is comprised of pieces made by local and national artisans. Hollier emphasizes ethically sourced materials in the pieces that enter the gallery and takes pride in knowing where the gemstones and materials within each item come from. This unique aspect of Balefire Goods attracts customers far and wide and reminds community members of the importance of shopping locally.
“We’ve seen a lot of amazing support already and I think for people to just continue to think about shopping small first, is huge,” Hollier said. “There are a lot of amazing small businesses and artisans in our community and buying from them versus buying mass-produced goods is not only helping your community, but it’s also just getting you items that last longer and that means more to you. So just that trend, if people continue to really invest in their community and locally made and handmade products, I think that’s amazing.”
In addition to creating unique pieces, Balefire supports local nonprofits in the process. Every month, 5% of retail sales from inventory featured in the gallery is donated to local nonprofits of Hollier’s choice. One of the organizations that Balefire supported in the past includes the Cat Care Society, where Hollier adopted her own cat from.
For the first time this past December, Balefire chose to donate to a local business rather than a nonprofit. The Arvada Tavern, a community staple, was suffering immensely due to the local COVID-19 closure. As a result, Balefire “didn’t even choose a nonprofit, we chose people that we knew from our community that needed it. So I guess that’s kind of our goal is to be able to be flexible with [the donations] so we can figure out where the need is and meet it.”
Fashion serves as a method for individuals to express themselves functionally, and jewelry often plays a huge role in portraying personal identities. Custom handmade jewelry builds a connection between the wearer and what is being worn.
“A lot of times we’re making engagement rings, or wedding rings or we’re taking an old piece that someone may have inherited and we’re making it into something new or we do memorial jewelry or graduation gifts so all sorts of things,” Hollier said. “But all of those are about a connection to a person, they’re about an important event or they’re really about this moment in a life that has sentimentality and value so my job is to make symbols for those that stand the test of time.”
In addition to featuring local artisans, Denver is home to Artisans Thrive, a fair trade brand focused on “raising awareness of artists and handmade products around the world and making sure that the art and artisans receive fair wages and that they have access to other things that empower them,” said Rachel Hartgen, co-founder and co-owner of Artisans Thrive.
Artisans Thrive is home to a fair trade boutique at Edgewater Public Marketplace. The store features a variety of brands created by global artisans. Alongside Hartgen, Andra Breazeale, co-owner and store manager, works to give global female artisans the opportunity to sell their products to western society and gain the necessary skills to be successful.
The idea surfaced in 2013 when Hartgen and fellow co-founder Dana Camp Smith were working in international development. The two started thinking “‘okay, how can we work with these groups to build their capacity to help them make better products that would sell better and then, how do we help them also access a U.S. market,’” said Hartgen. “So it really started out small, working with a few groups helping design better products, bringing their products to the U.S.”
According to Hartgen, Artisan Thrive’s mission is two-fold: “our mission is really accelerating skills, income and capacity for female artisans worldwide, while emboldening customers to make ethical purchases,” she said.
Through fostering growth for the artists that work with Artisans Thrive, female artisans gain access to a customer base, receive fair wages and can provide for themselves and their families. “It’s increasing their agency as women because the more money than they make, the more power they have within their households and also within their communities,” Hartgen said.
Often the groups that Artisans Thrive work with are small and have never had access to a fair trade market. As a result, it’s likely they have not shipped their items to the United States and have little to no understanding of selling to a western customer base.
In 2017, the “Artisans Thrive Training Program” emerged where founders work one-on-one with partners to establish their brands. The store opened in 2019 and now Artisans Thrive works with more than 60 partners. As a result, they have identified three different levels of partners.
According to Hartgen, the process itself has been “a metamorphosis, [an] evolution I should say of like looking at what is it that we want to do what is our mission: how do we fulfill that with our partners and how do we evolve to continue to serve our partners and, at the same time we’re not a nonprofit we’re a business so we’d also make sure that we are bringing in other partners that can help us fulfill our mission, because if we’re ultimately not financially sound we can’t fulfill our mission so that’s been kind of where we’ve morphed.”
The levels of partners are broken into categories A, B and C. Level A, referred to as “Establish,” supports groups formed and trained by Artisans Thrive. Level B, “Emerge”, consists of “existing groups with whom artisans thrive partners with to build capacity, design exclusive products, and expand their access to global markets.” Finally, Level C manages already established artisan groups and extends their business processes and abilities.
Through these levels of partnership, Artisans Thrive helps female artisans find their purpose. To be an artisan allows these “women to find something in themselves,” Breazeale said. “Whatever their talent and skill are and being able to bring that into their community to share with other people, whether that’s to make money or not to make money, it could just be to share with our community, to bring joy to teach each other.”
For Breazeale and Hartgen, it’s inspiring to see the brands that join the Artisans Thrive community and observe their progress and growth.
Anchal, a brand based in India, is one of Breazeale’s favorites. The artisan’s name is stitched into every product, building a connection with the customer and the brand. “This great combination of the woman behind the piece and really good design is something that we want to bring quality products that can compete with what you might buy at Target, you know something that someone really loves and wants,” she said.
Hartgen admires Level B brand Tribalogy, based in Jordan. “They work with a number of refugees and internally displaced people in Jordan from Syria, from Palestine and elsewhere,” she said. “They’re really providing artisan training and a sense of sisterhood and camaraderie to this refugee group and together they make a number of really beautiful products, purses and different bags.”
Purchasing items from Artisans Thrive supported brands greatly benefits customers for several reasons. In addition to obtaining a high-quality product, customers are making an impact and know where their financial support is going. The love put into making these products establishes a unique connection between the artisan and the customer. This connection is rare in the fashion industry where large corporations operating regardless of fair trade is the norm. Artisans Thrive challenges the issues associated with the fashion industry by supporting artisans and customers alike.
Shopping at Artisans Thrive is overall a rewarding experience. “You can impact people here in Colorado, support a business that’s run by women here in Colorado and you’re also supporting women globally and you’re also getting a quality product so it’s like three wins,” Hartgen said.
Coloradans are lucky to be surrounded by the creativity, functionality and contributions of local artisans. Especially during this difficult time economically due to COVID-19, it’s more important than ever to support small businesses like Taylor and Tessier, Balefire Goods and Artisans Thrive. Our jewelry boxes will thank us.
Taylor and Tessier ● @taylorandtessier on Instagram
Balefire Goods ● 7513 Grandview Ave, Arvada, CO 80002 ● @balefire_goods on Instagram
Artisans Thrive ● 5505 W 20th Ave Suite #154, Edgewater, CO 80214 ● @artisansthrive on Instagram