Paper Is the New Bling in This Eco-Friendly Jewelry Line Made by Ugandan Women

Proceeds from the colorful collection, handmade with recycled paper, support women’s health care and business classes.
Women wearing 31 Bits Rustic Rotunda necklaces. (Photo: Courtesy 31 Bits/Facebook)
Nov 6, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sara Mohazzebi is a writer and on-camera reporter covering culture, social good, innovation, and entertainment. Her work has been featured in Esquire, Marie Claire, Teen Vogue, and she is a contributor for The Daily Beast. She is based in Los Angeles.

Forget diamonds—this fall season, paper is the new bling, thanks to 31 Bits, a jewelry line featuring colorful beaded necklaces and bracelets, each handmade with recycled paper and other materials by a group of more than 170 female artisans in Uganda.

Founded in 2008 by four college friends united by a love of travel, 31 Bits founders Jessie Simonson, Kallie Thomson, Anna Toy, and Alli Swanson are committed to creating a brand that provides financial and sustainable benefits for the women they employ. 31 Bits also debuts a new collection every season, and every item purchased is a limited edition, making it unique to wear or give.

The company has more than 400 retailers around the world and a flagship store in Costa Mesa, California, and it is only planning to expand its impact. I spoke with the founders about the inspiration behind their socially conscious jewelry line—which also has a kids’ counterpart known as Bitsies—and how they’re helping transform the lives of some incredible women.

Enter our sweepstakes for a chance to win a piece of jewelry from the 31 Bits collection

Wild Willow necklaces. (Photo: Courtesy 31 Bits/Facebook)

TakePart: Why did you travel to Uganda in particular, and how did a group of college students end up launching a jewelry company that impacts East African women?

31 Bits: Kallie went over first with plans to volunteer at an orphanage. She met women making this jewelry out of recycled paper and was blown away by their craftsmanship. She started listening to their stories and quickly realized she was talking to women who had been through more than anyone should ever go through. They had lost loved ones in the war, they had been kidnapped as children into the war and later escaped, some were HIV positive, some were single mothers. And the craziest thing is that they were our age. They dreamed of starting businesses, going back to school, etc. We put two and two together and realized we could help them make those dreams a reality, and all with the gorgeous jewelry they hand make.

TakePart: How does purchasing a 31 Bits bracelet or necklace help the women in the program?

31 Bits: We purchase the jewelry directly from the Ugandan female designers at fair trade prices and purchase a set amount of jewelry each month, so they know exactly how much they will be earning. Their monthly wage is comparable to a schoolteacher in Northern Uganda (approximately $100) and enables them to provide housing, food, and health care for themselves and their families. Profits generated through jewelry sales are invested back into the company for operations, purchasing more jewelry, and developing and improving educational programs.

Acholi Sunset bracelet set. (Photo: Courtesy 31 Bits/Facebook)

TakePart: In addition to providing a wage for the female designers, the 31 Bits program also offers health counseling and business mentorships. How do these services translate into an improved quality of life compared with that of other Ugandan women?

31 Bits: We provide health education where the women can learn how to provide nutrition for their families, how to use contraceptives, how to take medicine to treat HIV, and more. We teach them how to identify the skills and resources they have to start businesses that could thrive in Uganda and help build the local economy. Since starting 31 Bits, we’ve had 16 ladies graduate from our program and start successful small businesses of their own. Compared to the average woman in Uganda, 31 Bits designers have been 63 percent more likely to be tested for HIV in the last year, are 60 percent more likely to have control over the money they earn, and earn eight times more money than they did before working with 31 Bits.

Bramble Bundle bracelet. (Photo: Courtesy 31 Bits/Facebook)

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TakePart: Your fall collection is diverse and affordable. What are a few of your favorite pieces?

31 Bits: This new fall collection is a little darker, a little more rock ’n’ roll than what we normally produce. We have 27 new necklaces and bracelets in the fall collection. Some of our favorites include our Wild Willow necklace—it is an edgy bohemian necklace with a spike design that pairs with just about any outfit. And the Bramble Bundle is a multistranded bracelet that mixes neutral and colorful tones. It looks great by itself, but we also love pairing it with some gold bangles.

TakePart: You also offer a fun kids’ collection called Bitsies for “the world’s cutest game changer” with matching necklaces and bracelets. What are some of your favorite pieces from the Bitsies fall collection?

31 Bits: The Acholi Sunset bracelet is inspired by the Acholi tribe in Uganda and the gorgeous sunsets that settle over their village. It comes in a set of two and combines hot coral, blue, and fuchsia tones, and it’s made on elastic, so they’re easy for kids to take on and off.

TakePart: What are words 31 Bits lives by?

31 Bits: The one thing we always come back to is to “remember why we started.” 31 Bits is what it is today because we simply believe that people are capable of way more than they think they are. Whether it’s the 21-year-old versions of ourselves or the artisans we’re working with in Uganda, everyone has talents and dreams and skills and potential. Doing good means noticing the needs of those around you and helping to meet them. Whether that’s in little ways or on a larger scale, we believe in putting others before ourselves.

All pieces featured above can be purchased at 31 Bits or at various retailers (the full retail list is on the 31 Bits website). You can also enter our sweepstakes for a chance to win a piece of jewelry from the 31 Bits collection.