Reimagining Indigenous Jewelry

“Nawa means many things in T’Boli… one’s character or emotions. It could also mean ‘breath’, and in Tagalog it can mean ‘Amen’ or ‘let it be’. We created Nawa to showcase the amazing talent that comes from handmade Filipino jewelry. Around the Philippines, there’s so much talent to be tapped.”

In 2014, Jopie Sanchez was in South Cotabato, Philippines, on the set of a movie being filmed around the shores of Lake Sebu. She was a hair stylist and make-up artist, there for Ida del Mundo’s “K’na the Dreamweaver”. But the film would only be one takeaway from her trip there. Meeting the indigenous T’Boli people in the area, she was impressed by their craftsmanship with brass. She flew back into the city, committing to keep in touch with the people she had met.

That’s why, when a few years later her friend Timmy Potenciano got into the mood to purchase some good quality brass bangles, Jopie just had to pipe up: “I have a contact!”

It was the first step in bringing the craftsmanship of indigenous Southern Filipinos to the city’s attention. Though Timmy had initially wanted bangles for herself, the two soon came to the idea that accessories of that kind of workmanship was just waiting to be shared all about Manila. The idea behind Nawa was born.

Asked about the brand name, Timmy explained, “Nawa means many things in T’Boli… one’s character or emotions. It could also mean ‘breath’, and in Tagalog it can mean ‘Amen’ or ‘let it be’. Nawa.

The same is written on little cards that are packaged with Nawa’s bangles and bracelets. They are bundled together in a colorful little pouch, the cloth of which is also cut from the ‘malong’ or skirts of the T’Boli.

“We created Nawa to showcase the amazing talent that comes from handmade Filipino stuff,” Jopie said, “Around the Philippines, there’s so much talent to be tapped.”

With their brand in mind, and a clear understanding with the craftsmen from Sebu, the pair went online and began to sell the accessories. “From there,” Jopie explains, “it just snowballed. We started it and everything started to fall into place.”

The pair were a business match made in heaven: Jopie was a business major who happily streamlined their partnership’s operation and crunched the numbers; Timmy, meanwhile, took control of their PR and marketing, beautifying Nawa’s face in order to let the spirit of their products come through. Orders were coursed through to the T’Boli craftsmen, and customers generally received the product well.

All was going well – until one day, when a customer’s bracelet snapped and she complained. It was Timmy and Jopie’s first experience with an unsatisfied customer – but also the first step of real development with regard to their product.

“We had to communicate the changes. Before, the bracelets were a little thinner. Now we’ve changed the thickness. We also had to change the opening of the bracelet. If they break, it’s not really good for us, or for the community. And primarily,” Jopie adds, “we wanted to do this for the community.”

It was just one of the problems that forced them to reassess the way they handled the business in its first few months. There were others, of course: the anxieties of not being able to sell enough, as well as the difficulty of keeping up with demand during the Christmas season. On a spiritual level, they also needed to reconcile the frenetic pace of business and dealing with demanding customers, with Nawa’s spirit of “let it be”.

One would think that the toll would be pretty hard on the makers back in Lake Sebu, given the growing number of orders, and every piece of the jewelry needing to be handmade. However, the business started to pay dividends for them as well: the craftsmen were soon picking up apprentices, getting more hands on board.

“What drives me is that we’re able to help people,” Jopie says, “There’s a bigger purpose to this than just selling. It’s beyond us.”

That was specifically one face of the business that the pair wanted at the forefront: They wanted this not only to promote culture, but to preserve it as well. It was a good idea – one that Timmy really couldn’t help but act upon.

“Sometimes, before,” she explained, “I’d have a great idea in my head. But I don’t act upon it. And then, I would see someone else acting upon that idea, and I just think, ‘but I thought of that’! So… if it’s something you’re passionate about, go for it. If you’re hungry enough, go for it.”

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