When Peter Thum stares down the barrel of a gun, he thinks “jewelry.” This creative thinking has long been an integral part of his world-changing businesses. “I think that creativity is essential to inspiring people to want to give of themselves in some way to anything,” he explains.
A social entrepreneur, Peter founded Liberty United in 2013 with his wife Cara Buono (you may know her as Karen Wheeler, or Mike’s mom, in Netflix’s Stranger Things). Working in the areas of the US most affected by gun violence, the company obtains seized illegal guns and ammunition from local police, and transforms them into high-end jewellery and accessories. A portion of their sales helps fund after-school programs for at-risk kids.
Liberty United’s mission is clear cut: using creation to fight destruction.
Peter has a talent for creating connections between problems and solutions that resonate with people and start movements. It began in 2001 with Ethos Water, which sells bottled water to fund projects providing access to clean drinking water in developing nations. It was an idea that Peter says no-one believed would work – he was proved right when the company was bought by Starbucks in 2005.
Peter’s knack for seeing and doing things differently made him a pioneer of this kind of socially-conscious entrepreneurship. “Very few people were creating business ventures for the purpose of addressing social problems, so we were making up most of what we were doing from scratch,” he says.
While working on Ethos Water programs in Africa, Peter met children armed with assault rifles. These encounters inspired him to start Fonderie 47, a company transforming illicit AK47s from African war zones into jewelry, luxury accessories and works of art. The sales of these items then funded programs to destroy more assault rifles in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi.
The problem of gun violence back home in the States became more urgent for Peter and Cara when they became parents in 2012. Shortly after their daughter was born, the Sandy Hook school shooting happened. “We thought for sure that things would start moving in the right direction with this terrible event as a catalyst, but efforts in Congress fell flat,” Peter says.
Liberty United uses seized weapons as the foundation to create something new, something beautiful. Although guns don’t easily lend themselves to be transformed into refined jewelry – the team has had to invent processes to render the steel re-usable – it is important for Peter that what is created from the weapons is positive and inspiring.
He sees his organization as a communication catalyst, and jewelry as the perfect vessel for wearers to pledge allegiance to the cause. “jewelry is personal and it is a statement about oneself. People wear it to express who they are,” he says. It was Peter’s idea to finish each piece with the serial number of the gun it was made from – “I wanted the serial number to be the only recognisable thing left of the deadly weapon that it once labeled.”
The inspiration behind each new Liberty United collection comes from art, philosophical concepts, ideas about violence and peace, and the designs of the guns themselves. The Be the Change collection is a wearable reminder of Gandhi’s words, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” while the Winchester collection takes inspiration from the shape of the barrel of the Winchester Model 1873 rifle (seen as an American classic). Unlike the historical rifle, the pieces in this collection are dainty, set with mother of pearl, white sapphires and Czech crystals.
The latest offering from Liberty United is a range of pens in collaboration with A.T. Cross. Cross has been the US presidential pen of choice to sign bills into law, used by leaders from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama. Peter hopes the thousands of Cross x Liberty United pens that have been sold will be used to, “ live up to the words of Edward Bulwer-Lytton from 1836 – The pen is mightier than the sword.”
Even better, a Liberty United pen could one day be used to sign tougher gun control legislation.