Ousmane Mahmoud sat on the earthen floor of his shop, which is perched on the edge of the Sahara desert in Senegal. Before him was a beautiful bracelet that he had forged and filed with judicious attention to detail. "Then he picked up a handful of sand, and he rubbed it," Tim McCreight says. "That's what sanding is there."
In this part of the world, sandpaper is a luxury that few jewelers have access to. You might spend half a day on a motorcycle in order to borrow a saw blade; being handed a full package of sharp, toothy blades can be a life-changing gift.
Jewelers Matthieu Cheminée and Tim McCreight have spent the last several years traveling to West Africa to meet artists just like Ousmane. The experiences they encounter often contrast dramatically with their own as jewelers. "I think even with all the trips, every time I go into some of their shops, I'm still surprised by how they can make incredible tools," Matthieu says. "If they need a polishing machine, they're going to get an old fridge motor and a pump and transform it into one."
Back in Matthieu and Tim's North America, tools and supplies are as ubiquitous as grains of sand in the desert. "It becomes particularly poignant to see the discrepancy," Tim says, "between what we have in abundance and what they do with so little."
That, in a nutshell, is why Matthieu and Tim founded the Toolbox Initiative in 2014. The nonprofit collects used tools and new supplies on this side of the Atlantic, then distributes them to resource-strapped jewelers in countries such as Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo.
Perhaps even more important than the tools is the human element—the act of meeting jewelers, discovering each other's insights and forging enduring connections half a world away. "There is always a relationship with the jeweler before anything," Matthieu says. "We don't want to just give tools away everywhere."
Rather than shipping freight containers full of rolling mills and other heavy-duty equipment, the Toolbox Initiative focuses on small, frequently used items like files, pliers, tweezers and ring clamps. Each Toolbox representative is responsible for two suitcases loaded with 50 pounds of tools apiece—the maximum weight they can carry without paying airline baggage fees. Then, one by one, every item is personally handed to a jeweler.
In that light, it makes perfect sense that the initiative quickly outgrew Tim and Matthieu as its sole ambassadors. A sister program, Toolbox Travel, now coordinates with volunteers who are interested in making the trip as well. So far, all of the Toolbox Initiative volunteers have been jewelers themselves.
"After our first or second trip, we became aware there was a limit to how much we could carry," Tim explains. "But more than that, there was almost a limit to how much I could carry in my heart. Because it was so powerful, it just seemed selfish to keep it to ourselves."
Over the course of the trips, the volunteers learn techniques by working "elbow to elbow" with their African counterparts. But, as the volunteers move from one shop to the next, there's little time or space to practice these new skills. Access to training is even more tenuous for the African jewelers. The region of West Africa is roughly two-thirds the size of the United States, encompassing 18 countries, countless cultural and artistic traditions … and only one jewelry-making school.
So the next development of the program is a permanent workshop facility in downtown Dakar, Senegal. They're calling it Keur Toolbox. In the indigenous West African language of Wolof, "Keur" is the word for "house" or "home."
"I like that title because it's us and them," Tim says. "It's the Wolof and the English language brought together in the same way that our cultures are being brought together." The new home of the Toolbox Initiative will host workshops by both African and Western jewelers, while providing a physical address for equipment that won't fit in the overhead compartment of an airplane.
Keur Toolbox is just one example of how the Toolbox Initiative has evolved in direct relation to the people it serves. (It's made by jewelers for jewelers: How could it ever be one-size-fits-all?) Tim says being driven by passion and opportunity, rather than a five-year business plan, "lets the tendrils of our project reach further into corners that we didn't know existed before."
In this way, the Toolbox Initiative has come full-circle. Because in West Africa, resourcefulness dances hand-in-hand with scarcity. The solutions that jewelers devise require ingenuity, adaptability and community, and the patter of those steps becomes the rhythm of daily life.
As it goes for the jeweler, so it goes for the Toolbox.
Obaorin Mounirou (Cotonou, Bénin) poses with his new tools.
Robert Hadzra is a jeweler and farmer in Tsévié, Togo.
The tool collection of Amededjisso Marcelin (Lomé, Togo)
The Toolbox Initiative gratefully accepts donations of new and gently used hand tools and supplies, silver scraps, and money in any amount.Visit Toolboxinitiative.org
Toolbox Travel volunteers transport and distribute tools in Senegal, while learning from local jewelers in the Keur Toolbox workshop space.Visit Toolboxtravel.org