By Michelle Graff
A BeadforLife employee in the U.S. makes higher-end, one-off necklaces using the hand-rolled paper beads. This year’s necklace, the East African Market Infinity, retails for $220 and is available in three color variations.Las Vegas--MJ Christensen Diamonds sells bracelets that have created buzz for the store in the Las Vegas community, given them a terrific annual event for the last five years and benefitted women in Uganda looking to lift themselves out of poverty.

The retail price on these bangles, which are created by the women of BeadforLife, a nonprofit founded in 2004: $6.

Jennifer Miller, who works in business development for MJ Christensen and is the daughter-in-law of owners Cliff and Darlene Miller, picked up the BeadforLife line a few years back after seeing an article about the charity in one of the industry’s trade publications. 

A member of the global Fair Trade Federation, BeadforLife teaches women in Uganda how to roll paper beads and make jewelry. Twice a week, the women sell their goods to BeadforLife, which then handles the sales and distribution of the products worldwide. 

The organization also has women in the northern section of the country who once were displaced by warlord Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army harvesting nuts from African shea trees for use in skin- care products. 

After 18 months in the program, the women apply the skills they’ve learned, and the money they’ve earned, to develop a plan for opening their own business, which doesn’t have to be jewelry related--Miller says they can choose to open a produce stand or sell other handmade products out of their home. 

BeadforLife, which is among the businesses profiled in Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book, A Path Appears, is looking to expand its fair trade programs beyond Uganda.

As Miller sees it, the benefits of carrying the line, or any cause-related jewelry, are three-fold. It helps retailers engage with their staff and lets them know that their employer stands for something besides turning a profit on engagement rings. Carrying a cause-related line like BeadforLife engenders this same sentiment among customers and potential customers.  

“People need to know it’s not just about diamonds and affluent (people) and people spending money,” she says. “We’re all global citizens. The world is so small. Everything we do has an impact.” 

And, of course, there is the direct benefit reaped by the women in Uganda who make and sell the jewelry via BeadforLife. The program, Miller points out, really is changing lives. 

As with any line, retailers must have a display strategy for cause related jewelry: where in the store is it going to go? Does it need to be kept in a locked showcase, or can it sit out where customers can touch it, feel it and try it on freely?  

At MJ Christensen, they display the $6 bracelets in a heart-shaped basket on top of the repair counter, along with $4 BeadforLife shea soap and lip balm. On top of the showcase next to the repair counter are the actual pieces of jewelry that the women have created, all of which retail for less than $100. 

Miller says the strategy behind the placement of the BeadforLife merchandise is the physical manifestation of the store’s philosophy that service starts at the repair counter. That counter is where many customers get their first introduction to the store that, hopefully, sparks a relationship.  

The placement also helps shift the perception of customers who might come in to have their watch battery replaced but don’t look around because they assume the store doesn’t carry anything they can afford. “It’s just amazing what it does to break down that threshold when they enter a very fine jewelry store,” she says. 

Two weeks from now on Nov. 12, MJ Christensen will hold its annual Runway for Life Event. Now in its fifth year, the event, which is both a party and a special sale of BeadforLife merchandise, has grown in size and scope. 

This year, Miller says they are holding the party at Emerald at Queensridge, a Las Vegas event space. She says other local businesses wanted to get involved with the Runway for Life event after they saw the size of the crowd MJ Christensen attracted each year.

Pulling in other local businesses to help with events is a good idea for retailers. It gives them the ability to provide guests with services they can’t offer--MJ Christensen, for example, is bringing in Elements Massage to give hand massages with the BeadforLife lemongrass cream, a well-known stylist to show women how to wear the paper bead jewelry at a “style bar,” and has a local florist donating bamboo. 

In addition, the retailer will have African-themed cocktails, food and drumming, raffle prizes and, of course, a larger-than-usual selection of BeadforLife jewelry, including three special one-off necklaces that retail for $220. 

“It’s been really magical to see how it’s impacted our community over the past five years,” Miller says of BeadforLife.

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