In a world of seemingly similar jewelry styles, it’s difficult to find a piece that wows and expresses one’s personality. With subtle sophistication and a truly good story, Alfaro Clubiné designs stand out in a crowded marketplace. Each piece is handmade and guaranteed to get you noticed. Inspired by Canada’s natural beauty, Carmen Clubiné designs pieces that celebrate what we often miss.
Style maven, designer, and creative thinker, Carmen has a passion for helping others. Growing up in El Salvador, she has seen poverty, and is committed to making the world a better place. In partnership with Joel, a 23-year old deaf man living in Paraguay, the pair are creating quality jewels for fashion-forward individuals. With few options for employment in Paraguay, particularly for the hearing impaired, this social enterprise is directly supporting Joel and contributing to his community. Our purchases can make a difference, and one from Alfaro Clubiné goes a long way.
Read on for the rest of our interview.
Thanks so much for meeting with me Carmen. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? Where are you from?
I was born and raised in El Salvador, which is a tiny country in Central America. It’s absolutely gorgeous there. It’s tropical, and volcanic, but it’s a country with a very sad history. There’s always been wars and earthquakes. I lived through the 12 year war when I was a teenager which was difficult.
Growing up, I was very close to my father. He was a man ahead of his time, an architect with a social mission. There was so much poverty in El Salvador and he wanted to change this by improving housing. He became the architect for the poor. I was fortunate enough to get an education when I was young. I attended a British School, but I always saw these two worlds. I didn’t realize how much those experiences shaped who I was until I started Alfaro Clubiné. Helping others has always been in me and important to me.
It’s funny how life seems to only make sense in retrospect. You look back and you see how all your experiences have brought you to where you are today.
Exactly. Like my father, I’ve always been interested in design. But I had to think why don’t I want to just become a designer, why is that not enough? For me, there had to be more.
So what happened next? How did you end up settling in Waterloo?
I came to Canada to study industrial design and I met my husband Paul during this time. After university, we moved back to El Salvador and started our own business. It was a gift store more than anything, but I also designed baby rooms. This was a dream job! The business was thriving after the war, it was a peaceful time. I had 2 of my 3 children there. After 7 years though, my husband said we had to leave. I didn’t want to come back to Canada, but things were starting to change in El Salvador. The crime rate was rising, and it wasn’t as safe anymore. So we left, and came to Waterloo. The country we returned to though wasn’t the same. There were no jobs. My husband worked with furniture, and now all the furniture was made in China. It was a challenge to adjust, but we love Canada, and Waterloo especially, so we’re happy to be here.
Wow! What a story! How did you get started in jewelry then?
When we came back, I decided I was going to stay home and raise our children. When our youngest was just a baby, I dabbled a bit in jewelry design, more as a way to get out of the house. I took lessons and just loved it! It was something beautiful that I did. It was only a 6 month thing though. I did a lot of freelance graphic design while the kids were in school, and when they were old enough, I took a job in London as a designer. This was about 2.5 years ago now, but the job only lasted a year.
Then I didn’t know what to do, so I went to The Working Centre which connected me with the Ontario Self Employment Benefit Program. Unfortunately they are ending the program this year, but it helps entrepreneurs start their own business. My original idea was to create a design-thinking, design-experience company, but that all changed when a good friend of ours came to visit. He lives in Paraguay and works for a non-governmental organization there.
Around the time I was to submit my business plan, he visits and brings a pile of jewelry telling me I have to help me sell the pieces. I didn’t like the jewelry designs, they were beautifully made, but very generic. Our friend said he had met this young guy, who was deaf and didn’t have any opportunities. His own community didn’t even want him around. It was very sad. I tossed the idea around, trying to see if there was a way I could help. I really felt for this boy Joel. He lived in a small, poor town, and I knew this life myself. I had seen it growing up. I decided to change my idea. I just felt that this was what I needed to do.
What is life like for Joel?
Joel is a wonderful young man, but life is certainly a challenge for him. He doesn’t hear and he doesn’t speak. He signs a little bit in his native tongue, and he lip-reads. When our friend met him, he had a temper because he really couldn’t communicate, he was frustrated. It got to the point where everyone in their community was saying we don’t want him here, he’s crazy, please lock him up.
Was Joel trained in jewelry making?
He is actually from a family of jewelry makers. He has 12 brothers, who all make jewelry. In Paraguay, this is work done by men. When Joel was young, he really didn’t have anything to do. He did go to school for a short-time, but there was no structure in place to support his needs. Basically, they tried to teach him to sign, and when it didn’t work, that was the end of school. To keep him busy, his brothers taught him to make jewelry and work with filigree silver. He’s very skilled. Once the brothers grew up, they moved to Argentina to make a living. There are very few jobs in Paraguay. That’s when things really changed for Joel and his family. Joel, again, had nothing to do, and no one would hire him because he was deaf. He wasn’t in a good place when our friend met him. When we would skype initially, he would just look at the screen and then look down.
What was it like when your started the partnership?
Communicating was definitely a challenge. There were problems in the beginning where I didn’t get him and he didn’t get me. I loved the work that Joel did, but I didn’t like the designs. They were the same as everyone else’s. I wanted him to make my designs. I drew up some prototypes, and sent the drawings by e-mail. When the actual pieces were sent back to me, they were exactly how I wanted them. I wasn’t even in the same country as him, and he brought my vision to life. Apparently when Joel started working, he became a different person. He no longer had a temper, it was really amazing! That to me was a wow moment. That’s when I realized this was what I needed to do.
I know. By working together, we can make the world a better place. Now when we skype, he is all smiles and waving. His parents are so grateful as well. When our friend gave him cash for the pieces he made, he told his interpreter that he was going to buy running shoes. He had never owned running shoes before, so this was a huge thing. He always wore flip-flops and got hand-me-downs from this brothers. A few months ago when we were skyping I said you need to show me those running shoes, so he bends down and sticks his feet in the air so excited haha! It was so cute. Coming from Latin America myself, I have seen poverty. It’s hard to help everyone you see, but this is making a big difference in the life of a man, his family, and his community.
Oh my goodness, what a story! He does do beautiful work. Where do you get your inspiration for the designs?
My first collection was inspired by the seasons in Canada. I just love Canada and think it’s such a magical place. Coming from El Salvador, sometimes I step back and I just can’t believe I’m in a country like this. When I designed the collection, I was looking at it through these eyes. My second collection was inspired by Mennonite gardens, and country flowers. Natural elements are what inspire me, especially around Waterloo Region. I just doodle ideas, and Joel makes them come to life. When we started though, it took me a few months to realize that some of the pieces I designed wouldn’t work. There’s definitely been a learning curve for both Joel and I, but it’s been a wonderful journey.
Do you have plans for another collection?
I do. Right now, I’m actually focusing more on creating mini designs. I have larger pieces which are just gorgeous, but I find our customers are really drawn to the smaller designs for everyday wear. Joel absolutely loves to make these as well. The experience has just been so great that it’s now my dream to work with another artist in a different country and medium. I want to help people and use design as a means to help people. Together, we can create something really beautiful.
What are people supporting by buying Alfaro Clubiné pieces?
They are providing a job to someone who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to have a job. No one will give Joel an opportunity just because he is deaf. That’s Latin America. There’s no forgiveness when it comes to that.
Thanks so much Carmen!
Stunning, unique and handcrafted jewelry that does good can be purchased online, at the Cobblestone Gallery in Waterloo, or the Distillery District in Toronto. To stay up to date with Carmen and Joel, be sure to like Alfaro Clubiné on Facebook and follow them on Twitter and Instagram.
To learn more about what you will be supporting, watch this video.
To see a video on how Joel makes each piece, visit the website.