What do you look for when you’re going to buy fashion accessories? Fairtrade, zero waste, upcycled materials that are made by hand by artisans from women’s co-operatives? How about a brand that does all of the above, and also empowers women from marginalised communities. We are proud to introduce Jewelled Buddha.
We chatted to founder Harjit Sohotey-Khan upon her return from India where she went to meet the artisans that make her products.
When you were travelling, what was it that inspired you to set up Jewelled Buddha?
It was a combination of many experiences and a change in mind set that inspired me to set up Jewelled Buddha. I quit my nine to five job and took a brave step to travel for a year with my husband, as I was tired of how my life had become robotic and a routine. Travelling extensively throughout Asia opened my eyes to new experiences. We saw so many beautiful places and I felt inspired by people and empowered within myself. Living out of a backpack taught me that I needed very little to survive and I realised my attachment to materialism was falling away. The catalyst for me was seeing artisan communities all over Asia, mainly women, handcrafting beautiful textiles and jewellery. Many of these techniques were handed down through generations. It was the stories of the artisans that really inspired me to want to be part of what I now see as a whole movement for influencing people’s attitudes to fast fashion. Behind this is a force for ensuring that those who create our products get paid fairly so that they can enjoy what we take for granted – a dignified wage and a life that progresses financially and emotionally.
You’ve partnered with social enterprise House of Wandering Silk. How did you find House of Wandering Silk, and how did you form those meaningful relationships?
It was whilst I was travelling that I came across House of Wandering Silk. Having lived, worked and travelled in over seventy countries, Katherine, the founder of House of Wandering Silk, has written about her extensive travels in a blog. There are some epic destinations on there, well off the beaten path and they inspired many of the places I visited. On returning home, I started taking more of an interest in HOWS as a social business. I fell in love with the textiles and Katherine’s passion for wanting to help those who create her wonderful textiles. So I emailed her and we hit it off straight away. I think our love of travel and the fact that we connect on many levels meant that seeing Katherine in India was like meeting an old friend! In fact it was a bit strange as I’d only seen her in a picture on the internet and actually sitting in her studio in Delhi drinking chai was so surreal!
Following your journey across India was amazing and it was so insightful to see live video footage and imagery of the places and of the people who are making the products. For those that don’t follow Jewelled Buddha and simply want to buy a good product, how do they get to know the products story?
Yes, India was everything I thought it would be and more. There’s been a huge amount of development since I was there some ten years back. But it’s still an amazing place that never ceases to inspire, amaze and shock at the same time. The website is a great place to start to get to know the product story. Here you’ll find our blog highlighting regular artisan spotlight features that tell the personal stories of artisans and how fair trade has had an impact on their lives. You can also explore the upcycling journey of how a simple sari is transformed into a scarf and necklace. We ship internationally and of course UK delivery is free.
Do proceeds from the garments go back into the community of artisan workers?
The artisan groups I visited are supported by not-for-profit partners of HOWS, who charge us additional fees that are then used to support artisans through training, healthcare, loans and running costs. All this enables the women to work, produce beautiful products that we then market internationally. Each purchase of a scarf or necklace empowers rural women to earn a dignified income. It’s like a cycle of interdependence where the customer is not just a consumer but an important link in the chain that enables these women to earn a sustainable income.
How has working with Jewelled Buddha and House of Wandering Silk changed these women’s lives?
Good question and one I was keen to find the answer to. One artisan named Sujata, said her life had improved in so many ways. For the first time she was able to save for her sons future to help with his education. The money helps feed her family and living in extended families means there are more mouths to feed. Being able to earn a wage and not depend on their husbands has given these women a sense of personal empowerment. They can contribute as individuals to the household and have a greater sense of freedom and independence.
Tell us about working life in India. You mentioned that women are expected to look after the house, raise a family, and work, whereas in western society, thanks to technological advancement and rights, women have been able to share domestic expectations between the sexes. Was it a shock to the system meeting the artisans or a trip that you would repeat, and encourage other brands to do?
Although India is developing and many women work in the cities, rural India is still a place where women are governed by social and cultural expectations. Looking after children whilst the men go out to work is considered a duty of the woman. What I found particularly crucial to this empowerment of rural women was the ability for them to have flexible working hours, enabling them to look after their children and families, whilst still being able to work in the afternoon and evenings from home or together with other women in the cooperative centre. The artisan groups I met had a real feeling of sisterhood, where they supported each other personally.
I wouldn’t say it was shock to the system. Being from Indian heritage, I’ve been to quite a few rural villages where I’ve visited relatives of my parents in the past. I guess it was almost like going to an aunt’s house, where you’d be greeted with food and a steaming mug of chai! For me, there was something familiar about it. I think the only challenge was the language as they spoke Bengali and I only spoke Punjabi. But somehow we managed to communicate, even with my bad attempts at Hindi!
I would definitely encourage brands to visit the makers of their products. For me, it just wasn’t enough to just sell the products whilst trying to be part of a story I was just watching from the side lines. I felt it was important to my brand and to my customers that I actually visit Katherine and the artisans. It means I now have a deeper understanding of the products and brands that I carry that goes beyond just selling products. It’s connecting with real people and seeing how our partnership makes a difference to the lives of rural women.
Founder Harjit Sohotey-Khan with the artisans.
Have you any future plans for Jewelled Buddha?
Lots! As a young brand I’ll be concentrating on growing the product range and sourcing more artisan products from around the world. My aim is to build a community of people who appreciate quality, timeless, artisan products that they’ll treasure for a very long time.
To see more of Jewelled Buddha, click here.