In the Southern spirit of lifting others up during times of hardship, Atlanta native Brittany Merrill Underwood started a jewelry business with a backstory as beautiful as the baubles. This month, pieces from her new holiday collection with Neiman Marcus launch in stores and online.
While working in Uganda as a college student, Underwood founded Akola Project in 2009 to provide economic opportunity for women in need. (In the local Ugandan dialect, Akola translates to “she works.”) Since then, 448 women have trained in her jewelry-making program—earning three times the typical fair-trade wage to craft paper beads and carve horn. The income allows the women to provide healthcare and food for their families, send their children to school, and save money to start their own businesses.
In 2014 Underwood launched a similar model in Dallas, providing 100 women the economic means to escape urban poverty stateside. Items in Akola’s Neiman Marcus collection retail for $250 to $500, helping ensure that the women who make each piece reach a $15-per-hour living wage. The newest pieces introduced for holiday (above) are a mix of pearls, crystals, and black agate, with materials ethically sourced from Africa including hand-melted glass and paper beads made by the women employed by Akola Project in Uganda.
“I grew up in Georgia with a love of pearls,” says Underwood. “I think Southerners will love them because they are beautiful statement pieces, but most of all because the necklaces design a new story for women in poverty, which makes them truly beautiful.”