Winchester woman brings Armenian treasures to area

Burlington Union

Winchester woman brings Armenian treasures to area

By Christopher Rocchio/ Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2005

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

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 business.”

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

“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