Passion for jewelry from Ecuador gives birth to Saphi Artisans

Ecuadorian semester abroad transformed into a business

By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer

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Saphi Artisans is a single-person business run by Terri Kidd, bringing hand-selected, sustainable artisan products from the Andes to Minnesota.

After 15 years of selling real estate, Terri Kidd decided to go to college. She began studying Spanish and art and one thing led to another. A study abroad program took her to Ecuador, which introduced her to local jewelry and developed into a business opportunity.

Kidd began the real estate season of her life when she lived in Phoenix in 1995. After five years she moved back to Mankato and continued with her successful career.

“I had decided I was only going to do that as long as it was fun, and when the real estate market fell and I was not making any money, it was time to stop,” said Kidd. “There wasn’t any particular passion grabbing me at the time.”

Kidd decided to go to college, something she had bypassed earlier in her life. She enrolled in open studies at Mankato State, not having a clear focus.

But she did enjoy her Spanish classes and was interested in the study abroad program. She arrived in Ecuador in January of 2012 for three months of study, living with a local family.

In addition to classes, Kidd volunteered at an orphanage, La Esperanza — meaning hope and expectation. “I led art projects there on Saturdays,” she said. “Even a bag of pipe cleaners can be used to make fun projects for them.”

She walked everywhere and also took up running, losing a lot of weight in the process.

Walking through the markets nearly every day, she began to randomly pick up pieces of jewelry, intending many of the items to be gifts for family and friends.

“The designs are so individual – just like children,” she said. “I fell in love with every one of them.”

It was during lunch two weeks before she was leaving Ecuador that she met a gentleman in an Internet cafe who noticed her love of the local jewelry.

“There are a ton of American retirees in Ecuador, some Canadians and a handful of Europeans,” Kidd said. “This man is from Oregon and exports tagua and silver jewelry to two friends in Oregon as a hobby business. He thought I’d be good at it.”

Kidd at first thought that she really didn’t want to get involved in selling jewelry, and told the man that she would think about it. But that night at home she changed her mind.

“When I thought about it, bringing this to rural Minnesota creates an economic opportunity for women in the country who have fewer opportunities to participate in the global marketplace,” she said. “This is a way for me to take my developing passion and bring it back to Minnesota not only for myself but for other women.”

Kidd had acquired so much jewelry while in Ecuador that she wondered how to transport it home. It turned out not to be a problem. Since she had lost so much weight while she was there, she just left the clothes that didn’t fit anymore in Ecuador and filled her bag with jewelry instead.

The sale of this jewelry is an opportunity not only for women here, but for the mostly women who make the items in Ecuador. The minimum wage in Ecuador is $1.60, but that is in the city. There are no jobs available in the country.

“There are not a lot of job opportunities there, so it is a very entrepreneurial country,” Kidd said. “Many people sell handmade crafts and jewelry in the markets. They produce incredible textiles, knitted and woven items. Their wood carvings are beautiful.”

The name “Saphi Artisans” is Kidd’s inspiration, her own brand. “Saphi means ‘root’ in one dialect of a native Quechua language in Ecuador,” she said.

She also designed her business logo, a stylized drawing symbolizing women rooted in the ground reaching up, raising themselves out of poverty.

Many of the items are made from tagua nuts, which are the seeds of a tree similar to a palm tree. They are sometimes referred to as “vegetable ivory.”

Tagua trees take about 15 years to produce a first harvest and continue bearing fruit for decades. It is harvested three times each year, yielding between 15 to 16 heads each time.

The seed pods take between two weeks and two months to dry.

Other natural nuts used in the jewelry include acai, pambil and coconut. They are dyed with natural materials.

“The nut is the tool these women are using to pull themselves out of poverty by creating an industry. Women all over the world are doing this kind of thing and I wanted to be a conduit to a larger marketplace,” Kidd said.

Once she returned to Minnesota, Kidd declared a Spanish major and art minor, continuing her studies at Mankato State. She drives down for class a couple days each week.

She is making plans to return to Ecuador for the spring semester of 2013.

“I would love to see this growing to include buying trips,” Kidd said. “People buy these products because of the story behind them; they are made by real hands by someone who had a family. They are artisan-made.”

The items are not “fair trade” certified, but a fair price is paid. “The artisans dictate their own prices,” said Kidd.

Kidd doesn’t order particular items with specific colors. She requests a certain number of items of one style or another, and delights in whatever comes. The things are all shipped to Oregon and Kidd’s items are repackaged and sent to her.

The jewelry is sold at nine different stores between Mankato and Little Falls. Kidd will also do home parties.

“This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my life,” she said.

To take care of some of the details of her business, Kidd hired a disabled friend to do all the online social networking.

“He uses his nose and chin on a pad with his computer,” she said. “He’s doing a fantastic job.”

Saphi Artisans products are stocked at Ambiance @53 and at Stephanie’s Thrift and Consignment, both in Little Falls.

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