Wednesday, April 12, 2023

The Early Days: Dunitz & Company Stories Part#2

Many of you are familiar with Dunitz & Company's fair trade jewelry collection. It's beautifully and consistently made. For many years now, you can count on us delivering exactly what you assume you will receive. Being able to do that didn't happen overnight.  When I first jumped in and started my business, things didn't always happen so smoothly. Let me share some stories here and on some future posts.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I was working a corporate job at MGM/UA when I first decided to explore business opportunities in Guatemala. Initially I was focused on starting a business offering home decor items. After my initial trip to Guatemala, I knew I wanted to keep at it. 

You won't believe, but you must, a few of the serendipitous situations that resulted in my decided to jump ship and leave my position at MGM/UA. Believe it or not, I learned that my boss intended to promote me on the very day I offered my resignation. It was an easy decision. At that point, I'd already garnered a large order from a prestigious department store.


On my first trip to Guatemala, I had discovered some exquisite glass bowls at a fancy gallery-like store in a more monied district of Guatemala City. Intuitively, I knew pounding the pavement in this neighborhood would trigger ideas for higher end decorative accessories I might find in-Country and offer to stylish patrons in the US. I had decided to hire Ray Morales, who I had met on a previous trip at a smoky bar that many x-pats patronized to be my driver and guide. I shared my find with Ray and before I arrived he had visited that fancy store on my behalf. The glass artist had left her pieces there on consignment, and Ray had told them that he had an artist friend that wanted to study glass making. Somehow he finagled Patricia Crowe's home studio address from the store and we went to meet her. I think we drove by a few times before we found her at home and discussed my desire to offer her work in the USA. She explained how she made her fused glass bowls and hand-painted each piece with traditional Guatemalan iconography from villages all over the country. I bought some samples to hand-carry home. We worked out pricing. And we also negotiated that the designs I offered in the US, she would not offer to others. With his resources, Ray helped me get a contract drawn up. Contracts are meant to keep honest people honest. If Patricia had sold the designs I wanted to offer to others, there really wasn't going to be much I could do.


After I returned from that second exploratory trip with my glass samples in tow, I showed them to a friend and colleague at MGM. Crazy as it is, she had previously worked at I.Magnin, an upscale department store (that no longer exists) and knew the home decor buyer very well. She made the introduction and I swear, 10 days later, not only had I met the buyer, I had a $8000 purchase order. In my entire career, I am certain I've never written another order that easily. It was the sign to change my life. (It was after that, oy, I had to learn how to import heavy glass items, custom brokering, packing glass and dealing with a Department Store!) *[BTW, We still have many gorgeous bowls and trays. Inquire if you'd like some!]


There were other events that might have deterred me from continuing. I previously mentioned that when I started my business, Guatemala was in the midst of civil war, something that I clearly ignored. Guatemala is most known for artisan made textiles and weaving.  My hope was to offer traditional designs and also modern takes on traditional designs. With this in mind, Ray had a Guatemalan friend, Linda who was a teacher in a village above Ciudad Vieja, not far from Antigua. If you were brave enough to visit Guatemala in the late 80s, Ciudad Vieja was on the tourist route. Ray thought his friend might introduce me to some of her student's mothers and they could create weavings for me to offer in the States.  With this in mind, we drove to the village located in the volcano foothills, where I met with some of the mothers. I had a series of questions. "How long does it take to make a placemat?"  "Can you create custom designs?"  "What is the cost?" After a lengthy discussion about possibly working together, we told the women we'd be back in 10 days to learn their answers. No pressure. 


What happened was outright scary. Linda was fired from her teaching position. And the message that came back was "this is Guerilla territory and we don't want any foreigners messing with our Indians.  If she (that's me) comes back, she won't be going back. We suggest you don't mess with the Indians living over that mountain in the next village because that is Mafioso territory, and they don't want you working with their Indians either." Decision made. I didn't pursue that project and I never returned to that village. Sad, right?


Which carried more weight?  A big order or a threat on my life? It seems the desire and promise of building a business won. I worked laboriously, making many mistakes and accomplishing some wins. I carried on. I do wish I had had a mentor early on, which I never did. I learned by trial and error and a lot of hip shooting. It was hand to mouth for me for several years. But in the end Dunitz & Company, my fair trade business succeeded. Stay tuned for more stories. I have plenty of them. -ND