Business helps Armenian artisans from afar

Lexington Winchester Star, MA
Feb 24 2005

Business helps Armenian artisans from afar
By Christopher Rocchio/ Staff Writer

Gail O’Reilly, a Winchester resident since 1979, has served the
community in a variety of ways over the years. She is a member, and
former president, of the Winchester League of Women Voters. She was
also a Town Meeting member from 1985 to 2003.

Her memberships, O’Reilly said, are an outlet for her sense of
civic duty and she has enjoyed the experiences and people. But while
she was busy serving the community, her father asked a question that
impacted her life: Why don’t you do something for your own people? he
said to her.

O’Reilly took her father’s advice, and in 2000, began Made in
Armenia Direct, a business that brings authentic treasures made by
Armenia’s most skilled artisans to the U.S. She said the business
idea originated when she made her first trip to Armenia in 1991.
There she took pleasure strolling through a local park. On weekends,
she said many Armenian artisans would gather to peddle their goods,
but appeared to be having a tough time supporting themselves.

“It broke my heart,” said O’Reilly. “There were very few
tourists, so I was concerned the artisans would leave the country,
which in turn would then lose the skill.”

After another trip in 2000, she decided expose the artisans and
their goods to an American market. The operation began as a Web site.
At the time, she said, Armenians who had lived under communism their
whole lives had no idea about accountability and quality control.
O’Reilly said the artisans never thought of being entrepreneurs, and
she was unsure what could be delivered, in what quantity and how
fast. Now she knows, and the system has grown smoother.

“One of my goals is to be in as many retail stores in the U.S.
as possible,” she said.

Made in Armenia Direct currently works with about 50 artisans
and three cooperatives. Goods include handmade jewelry (pendants,
earrings and bracelets), leisure items (toys, games, dolls, musical
instruments, postcards and books), home decor items (wall hangings,
paintings, decorative plates, vases, candleholders and tableware),
apparel and accessories (scarves, ties, bags, hats and capes) and
holiday specialties.

Currently, Made in Armenia Direct goods are sold in 12 retail
stores across the nation, with some as close as Arlington and others
as far as Wisconsin. While she doesn’t mind the Web-based business,
she said the work attracts more attention if sold in retail stores.

“Every artisan is an independent agent,” she said. “They’re not
employed by me.”

O’Reilly said she is very cognizant of child labor laws, and
none of the goods she sells are produced in sweat shops. Also, she
doesn’t negotiate with the artisans, and generally pays them what
they ask. If the product does not sell because the cost is too high,
she believes the craftspeople will understand why she doesn’t order
from them anymore.

“I don’t want to compete with third-world countries for goods,”
said O’Reilly.

When the business first began, she found artisans by walking
through the park that gave her the idea for the business, and
approaching them to ask if she could market for them. She also knows
a few Armenian Americans who have since moved back to Armenia, and
help her identify certain gifted artisans. Mostly, her search for
craftspeople passes from word-of-mouth, and she almost never returns
to the park that sparked the idea.

“Some artisans who used to sell their goods in the park aren’t
there anymore,” said O’Reilly. “It’s because I’m giving them enough

O’Reilly showed off examples of several of the goods that Made
in Armenia Direct sells. She said hand-sewn cards, available only in
retail store locations, were made in an orphanage. O’Reilly said this
may sound like a sweat shop, but explained the children who live in
the orphanage are trained with a skill at 16 years so they will be
prepared to enter the world once they turn 18. The cards are made by
teen-agers preparing to leave the orphanage.

“It fits nicely with one of my goals to keep the artisans in
Armenia, but allow them to work and live with dignity,” she said.

Also, O’Reilly said she worked with college-aged students at a
design school in Armenia to design and create a cape. While the
student’s work was terrific, O’Reilly said the project hit a snag
when she realized the students did not have “American taste” and were
unsure what colors, fabrics and patterns to incorporate in the
design. From now on, O’Reilly brings American catalogs with her
whenever she travels to Armenia to show the artisans the type of
things people in this country have a desire for.

“It was a lot of work designing the cape but we all did it
together,” she said.

While she travels a lot with her husband, O’Reilly said they had
never been to Armenia before 1991 when they accompanied the Armenian
Assembly of America. She said a devastating earthquake hit Armenia in
1988, and the assembly and U.S. government raised a total of $7
million for relief efforts. Specifically, she said the money was used
to build a housing manufacturing plant to help more than 500,000
displaced Armenians.

“Attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the factory is what
brought me to Armenia, and the trip changed my life,” she said.

O’Reilly tells all the Armenian Americans she meets if they
visit their home country – they will not return the same. She saw
many impoverished people, thought of her grandparents and felt how
fortunate she was.

“I felt for those people and thought it was my responsibility to
take care of my homeland,” she said.

Made in Armenia Direct products can be purchased at Artwear or
Crossroads Trade, both located on Massachusetts Avenue in Arlington.
They can also be found via the Web site