Silversmithing business helps fund Ugandan orphanage

Matthew James learned silversmithing and started his own business called The Gem Studio. A portion of the profits he earns goes to fund a Ugandan orphanage he started five years ago. (Cassie Bingham)

Creativity and forging art with greater meaning: those are the elements that motivated 26-year-old Matt James to try silversmithing in his bedroom one night.

His first creation? A ring.

Within a year, those original motivations powered a profitable jewelry-making business and helped keep a Ugandan orphanage funded and intact.

James said he had a love for turquoise jewelry ever since he was a kid. His childhood home was adorned with Southwest art, and at age 8, James bought his first piece of Native American sterling silver jewelry.

Coupled with his love for other cultures, James said he had a deep appreciation for the outdoors. As a young boy, he was fascinated with Bear Grylls, an interest that later led to him working in wilderness therapy.

“All of that really prepped me to loving stones,” he said. “Loving nature, stones and learning how to wear them in a way that is not all done up, just simple.” 

James said he was studying political science at UVU when he read a book that said he needed to do something creative to be happy.

He decided to follow the book’s advice, and after a few failed attempts trying painting and photography, James turned to his childhood roots — stones.

One silversmithing lesson later, James finished his first ring in his bedroom. He described the 3 a.m. experience as “falling in love with the process.”

James said he started out just making jewelry for himself, but once he started teaching his friends, his passion for the project grew. When he realized he could start charging people to make their pieces, things really started picking up. James said he suddenly saw something else: opportunity.

After three months of teaching lessons to friends from his bedroom, James and his roommate decided to convert an old shed in the back of their yard into what is now known as The Gem Studio.

The two tore out the inside, drywalled and insulated it, slapped gray paint on the outside and transformed the shed’s interior into a boho, eclectic studio. Polaroids adorn the walls and various silversmithing tools rest across white tables burnished with small ashy marks, the stones themselves placed in a wooden tray between two couches.

James said he initially thought he’d teach lessons once a week, but he and his staff were teaching 10 to 12 people per night within three months.

The very first lesson was on Sept. 16, 2017.

“I am still new to this. I mean, I’m operating out of a shack in the back of my yard,” James said. “But I am very proud of creating a profitable business model that is fueled by creativity. People come here because they want to get their hands dirty and forget the world.”

He and his crew play loud music and engage with their customers, who pick stones and design their own pieces.

“I feel like I’ve been able to create this little escape where me, my instructors and a bunch of strangers are able to indulge in this creative, beautiful process where we are able to use fire and melt silver and shape stone,” James said.

Although The Gem Studio hasn’t been open for even a year, James said they already have plans to expand.

“I would rather be a poor man doing this than a rich person in a cubical,” he said.

Matt James says his relationship with kids from an orphanage he started in Uganda fiver years ago has grown from a white savior complex to a real, deep relationship. (Matt James)

The most important thing though, according to James, is what his business does for children halfway across the world.

James has deep connections with the orphanage he started in Uganda five years ago with the help of a woman named Caroline Bisquita.

He met Bisquita when he was hired as a HELP International Uganda country coordinator, and the two spent a summer doing small development projects together.

At the end of his time in Uganda, James said he didn’t want to leave. He wanted to leave a real mark, so he and Bisquita started an orphanage — a goal he always had, especially after he served African refugees on an LDS mission and volunteered in India.

James said his experiences in India taught him mostly what not to do.

“I definitely had the white savior complex in India, but I’m a lot more humble now,” he said.

James said one of the deepest lessons he has learned from all of this is suffering is relative. He described it as a mental trade-off where he has compassion for everyone, not just people in foreign countries. People suffer in America as well, he added.

“My orphans are like the happiest, bubbliest kids in the world. Sure, they cry and they suffer and they don’t have the best situations. They don’t have parents, but they’ll dance all night long. I don’t feel pity for them,” James said. “I view them as equals on this world. I am lucky enough to serve them, and they are lucky enough to serve me.”

According to James, the orphanage was originally a tin shack building they built for about $2,500. The structure was shabby and immediately started to fall apart after he left.

“It’s grown over the past five years from being this tiny, little shed on a hill to now we have 60 orphans that we take care of full time,” James said. “We provide education for another 100 orphans, and we are in the process of building a whole new school on five acres of land we purchased last year.”

It is a huge endeavor, and James said the pressure is crushing sometimes. The only reason he originally created The Gem Studio was to help with fundraising.

Keeping communication up can be difficult, but James said it doesn’t feel like his life in America and Uganda are two separate identities anymore.

“It just feels like this is my life,” he said.

James returns to Uganda every six months. Over the past five years, he said he has spent more than a year in the country.

“I guess being somewhat of a father figure for dozens of little baby orphans in Uganda brings me more joy than anything else,” he said. “I am most proud of creating a safe home for children to grow up in.”

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