It’s one thing to give back to a local community. Doing charitable work in a foreign country is another task entirely. Matthew Gross, owner of Berkley, Michigan-based MHG Jewelry Studio, heard from his customers about an artists’ colony in a mountainous region of Mexico. His first trip there in February has created a life’s mission to increase jewelry making education and manufacturing for the creative community.
MHG customers have told stories about this artists’ colony to Matthew on several occasions over the years. In February Matthew had to see it for himself. “Michigan winters can be brutal,” says Matthew. “So a place that has 75-degree weather pretty much year round sounded very appealing. When I drove in to the town of San Miguel de Allende it reminded me of the little towns in Spain with amazing architecture and gardens.”
Matthew’s description totally nails it. San Miguel de Allende is located in the far eastern part of Guanajuato, Mexico and is 170 miles from Mexico City. The Spanish Empire colonized the area centuries ago. That colonial-era influence, mainly the town’s baroque Spanish architecture, is a signature look for this idyllic community and neighboring areas.
San Miguel de Allende is well known as a thriving artistic colony. Places such as this one speak to an array of creative skills and endeavors, from painting and textiles to metal work and jewelry making. Even cooking and music is an art form. It’s no wonder the city has won a place in Matthew’s heart.
Dreamy adventures aside, Matthew is still a problem-solving and immensely practical Midwesterner at heart. As much as San Miguel de Allende thrives in many areas of creative endeavors, Matthew would like to increase the population of jewelry makers.
As the Chinese proverb goes, his first step of a thousand mile journey began at the home and studio of Jesus and his family. The local jewelry maker’s Airbnb traveler’s ad caught Matthew’s eye. Jesus and his wife teach local children about jewelry while growing vegetables for needy families in the community.
In the time spent in San Miguel de Allende, Matthew learned much about the people and the arts from Jesus, but also from a fellow American jeweler who calls the artists’ colony home and does his own philanthropy work.
Matthew returned to Michigan a changed man. He wanted to help Jesus and others by donating jewelry making tools and equipment. The next phase of his philanthropic journey was research and ways to overcome the arduous and logistical nightmares of shipping heavy equipment and machines to the Mexican colony and clearing customs.
The Toolbox Initiative, an organization that helps Africans cut the gemstones sourced from their mineral wealth, served as a learning tool for Matthew. “I spoke with one of the founders of the Toolbox Initiative and he gave me some great advice and cautioned me on other things when working with other countries with different rules that we are not used to in the US,” says Matthew. “My goal is to go on that mission. I think they are doing an amazing job as well as Roger Dery with the Gem Legacy that also goes to Africa to help young gem cutters.”
Taking a page from the Toolbox Initiative’s playbook Matthew started with the first steps in becoming a better bench jeweler – education and infrastructure. “The current jewelry making education in the area is very much lacking in equipment, tools supplies and teachers to teach better skills,” says Matthew. “And, helping Jesus to better streamline his operations would give him more time to teach.”
Rolling precious metal for Jesus was an all-day affair of long bus rides and multiple visits to related businesses. Upon returning to Michigan Matthew promised help to simplify this essential jewelry making task for Jesus. When Matthew spoke to a friend and industry colleague from AU Enterprise the company was in a position to donate a rolling mill machine. Then came the challenge of shipping the large machine along with other jewelry making equipment and related supplies.
“BOOM,” says Matthew. “The fund raiser started and that’s when I made calls to jewelers I know and said do you have any equipment you can donate to my fundraiser. Some gave equipment, tools or supplies, and others donated money. Then I started the GoFundMe page.”
Opportunity, timing, old-fashioned networking and lucky breaks helped Matthew achieve his goal of moving a 500-pound crate from Michigan to San Miguel de Allende. The crate contained the rolling machine plus an array of equipment needed to assist Jesus with his educational efforts and studio work. The logistics to send $7,000 worth of equipment in a crate had a $1,000 price tag.
Inspired by the success of his first mission Matthew has his sights set on bigger and bolder initiatives to help make jewelry making more of a craft for the good people of San Miguel de Allende. Now Matthew hopes to reach his goal of raising the $20,000 to finish buying the tools and equipment Jesus needs to complete his teaching studio. It’s an ambitious project to say the least.
In February 2023, Matthew is planning to expand his original two-week stay to a one-month visit. He’s working diligently to form alliances with like-skilled jewelers and like-minded people willing to help by seeing this artists’ colony for themselves. He’ll also network with expatriates from the US, UK and other countries doing similar philanthropic work in the region.
Hardly a lover of Michigan’s tough winters, Matthew’s next goal is to spend three months in San Miguel de Allende to explore the possibility of pursuing his audacious aspiration.
“In an ideal world I would love to rebuild the art school jewelry department in San Miguel’s Instituto Allende, raising $500,000 to $1,000,000 to give the students amazing equipment to learn on,” says Matthew. “And to create a working studio that the graduate students could rent time from the school at a very low cost to get their businesses off the ground, like a co-op. And the school could put the rent money back into the program for maintenance of the equipment.” He would also like to hire jewelers he knows that teach master classes and take them down on a regular basis to give the students the skills to work faster and better.
To help Matthew with his short- and long-term philanthropic goals, contact him at mhgjewelry.com/mexico-fundraiser, firstname.lastname@example.org, 248-830-9506 or visit the Project Joya GoFundMe page. Donations of jewelry making tools and equipment are also welcome.