While travelling in Africa in 2008 visiting programs funded by Ethos Water, Peter Thum–at that time a Vice President of Starbucks Coffee Company and Director of the Starbucks Foundation–encountered all kinds of boys and men armed with assault rifles. Inspired by the hardship, violence, and suffering he saw during these travels, the humanitarian entrepreneur declared a new goal: to transform the world’s most well-known assault rifle, the AK-47, into something positive. A year later, he founded Fonderie 47 with the aim of turning weapons into jewelry, watches and accessories, thus reducing the number and impact of small arms around the world.

Ethos Water is important to understanding how Thum’s mind works. Appalled by what he had seen in South Africa while on assignment in 2001 for global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, he developed the idea of cultivating a “fashionable” bottled water brand to generate funds to finance water programs in developing countries. “If people were willing to pay a premium for water named after its source [think Evian],” Thum reasoned, “wouldn’t they want to pay for a brand devoted to funding humanitarian water programs?” It turns out that Thum was right about that on a few different levels: to date, Ethos Water has contributed more than $12 million in water, sanitation and hygiene education in regions including Africa, Indonesia and Latin America.

Peter Thum
AK-47s captured by the Virunga National Forest Forestry Service.
Men and boys in the DRC armed with AK-47s.
Men and boys in the DRC armed with AK-47s.

Ethos was bought by Starbucks in 2005, and Thum founded the non-profit organization Giving Water in 2008, before he turned his attention to Fonderie 47 and Liberty United, a jewelry line. “It was our hope from the outset to create a brand–and objects by that brand–that would engage people of influence and means to think differently about armed conflict; to see the possibility to be inspired, to inspire, and to have a personal connection and a real impact on life and death problems in war zones in Africa driven by the availability of these guns,” Thum explains.

Thum has proven himself one of those rare managers able to directly connect a cause with consumerism, creating products that are desirable and collectable enough to capture the attention of the world’s rich and famous while providing them with the feeling they are doing something good for the world. “In general, I believe that experiencing problems firsthand is what usually inspires people to do something about trying to help solve them,” says Thum.

Peter Thum
Proceeds go to protect, save, and foster the lives of children growing up in neighbourhoods with severe gun violence in the United States.
Proceeds go to protect, save, and foster the lives of children growing up in neighbourhoods with severe gun violence in the United States
Proceeds go to protect, save, and foster the lives of children growing up in neighbourhoods with severe gun violence in the United States.

Rising To The Challenge

Luxury brands deliver products and experiences that are at the pinnacle of human creativity and craft; such objects are desired by many and out of reach for most. “So it made sense to try to transform the AK-47, this very basic and commoditized tool, and turn it into something inspiring,” says Thum. “And creating a mechanical Swiss watch from an AK-47 seemed like a most natural way to deliver this idea.”

Finding designers was a parallel challenge. “Working with us involves a different kind of commitment and risk for any designer, but particularly for a luxury designer, primarily because they are signing up to make a statement in an industry that does not often make statements,” Thum explains. “Secondly, they are working with a material that is not traditional and a concept that requires courage not only on their part, but also on the part of the customer, whose own self-confidence plays a large role in defining the piece and the idea.”

From a proprietary gas-powered forge in Brooklyn, New York, Fonderie 47 transforms rudimentary AK-47 steel into usable material; the material earmarked for the $195,000 Inversion Principle timepiece is then sent to independent watchmaker David Candaux in Switzerland, who works with technicians to transform it into functioning components.

Inversion Principle is nothing short of a mechanical work of art, and bringing the watch to fruition was a feat in itself. The Swiss watch industry could be described as a closed-off old boys club and finding the right craftsmen was an almost impossible hurdle. Eventually, a breakthrough came through an angel investor who was also a serious watch collector. Using his connections, Thum found Adrian Glessing, a well-known watch designer, as well as Candaux, who built Inversion Principle’s beautiful and complicated movement according to Thum’s wishes and Glessing’s designs.

Fonderie 47 – Inversion Principle
Fonderie 47 – Inversion Principle's Tourbillon

Inversion Principle contains rare mechanical artistry: instantaneous jump hours and retrograde minutes combined with a central three-minute tourbillon. The hour digitally shown in a window at 12 o’clock instantly jumps at the top of the hour, while the minutes are shown on a scale that arcs along the lower two-thirds of the dial. When the indicator reaches the 60th minute, it zooms back across the scale to the start. The seconds are shown in a scale stretching from 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock on the dial by a little pointer surrounding the central cutaway revealing the unusual three-minute tourbillon, a complicated mechanical device that adds to the accuracy of the movement. A three-minute tourbillon like this has never before been seen in a wristwatch.

But despite all those mechanical fireworks, just one component–visible through the caseback–symbolizes the entire purpose of this timepiece: a round dark plate forming the spring barrel lid made of material from a repurposed AK-47 assault rifle.

“Making a watch was part of the original idea for Fonderie 47 in early spring 2009,” Thum says. “But it became clear that this idea would take a long time to realize. Making jewelry was a logical parallel step and easier to implement, so we first began creating cufflinks with Roland Iten, then jewelry with Philip Crangi in 2010, and in 2011 with James de Givenchy. We announced our watches in 2013 and began delivery at the beginning of 2015.” Proceeds from the jewelry running under the brand name Liberty United goes to protect, save, and foster the lives of children growing up in US neighborhoods experiencing severe gun violence.

Fonderie 47 – Inversion Principle
Fonderie 47 – Inversion Principle

Mightier Than The Sword

Making Ethos Water profitable involved years of self-denial and sleeping on couches. Still, Ethos went from idea to Starbucks acquisition in less time than it took Fonderie 47 to complete one example of the Inversion Principle timepiece. Obtaining assault rifles from Africa was a big problem because, naturally, the weapons trade in Africa is shrouded in secrecy. “The weapons that we had to obtain were illicit; the people using them were operating outside the law,” explains Thum. “Obtaining AK-47s captured by the Virunga National Forest Forestry Service took about a year and a half. Without these guns, we never would have succeeded at producing products. We also worked in parallel to figure out how to move this material legally because exporting guns from Africa to the US is not legal.”

Once the material was in the US, Thum and his people had to find a way to transform it into the alloy needed for Fonderie 47’s products–not a simple process. Additionally, finding funding for this venture was challenging. “To date, however, we have been involved in the destruction of over 55,000 assault rifles in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi,” says Thum.

Thum is now taking the next step in Fonderie 47’s future: writing instruments. In 2015, he introduced the first collaboration with A. T. Cross: the limited edition Peerless Fonderie 47 fountain pen. Recently, the two companies introduced a new collector’s edition of the Cross Peerless writing instrument, also made with recycled AK-47 steel and each bearing the unique serial number of one of the guns removed from circulation. Each pen funds the destruction of one assault rifle in Africa. While the first limited edition retailed for $4,700, the new edition goes for a more affordable $350–which will hopefully allow more people to experience a practical luxury item with a conscience.

Fonderie 47’s future: Writing Instruments
Fonderie 47’s future: Writing Instruments
Fonderie 47’s future: Writing Instruments