Thumbprint Gallery gift shop is the only business in Detroit that is a member of the Fair Trade Federation.
In 2012, lifelong friends Becky Riess and Kris Engle had come to a crossroads in their careers. Each had worked hard for more than 20 years — Riess taking the corporate route and Engle becoming a South Africa-based entrepreneur and travelling around the world. They had learned a lot and earned enough, but both felt they needed something more. They wanted to put their individual expertise to work in a way that could help others in need.
Inspired by Engle’s adopted home of South Africa, the friends honed in on the idea of supporting fairly traded artisan companies in areas of the world greatly affected by unemployment, and to do so in a way that recognizes the entrepreneurial spirit.
“Even though apartheid is over, the country was left badly scarred,” Riess said. The unemployment rate for South African women ages 18 to 35 is approximately 40 percent.
With Engle managing business in South Africa and Riess handling things in the U.S., the pair launched Thumbprint Artifacts as a wholesaler, offering unique home decor and gift items handcrafted by South African women and sold to the U.S. market. Hand-beaded jewelry, hand-roasted coffee by Himelhoch’s, ceramics, felt baby booties, body butter — and Judaica — are among the items offered.
Buoyed by interest from buyers at the semi-annual NY Now gift show — the largest in the country — the business in 2018 opened a small shop in Detroit’s Eastern Market called Thumbprint Gallery. Now, inspired by the COVID-19 quarantine, the friends have launched a website, thumbprintdetroit.com. “Our goal here at the Thumbprint fulfillment and gallery is to hire women from Detroit who we can train and employ. Now we’re helping women on two continents,” Riess said.
Every year at the gift show, a group of women shopping for items for a North Carolina temple would stop by Riess’ booth and ask if she had any Judaica. “They loved what we offered, and they loved the idea of supporting fair trade, but there wasn’t anything for their specific needs,” Riess said.
So Riess got in touch with a design team to create a collection of Judaica items — Shabbat candles, tapers, pillars and votives, plus hamsas, all found in Thumbprint’s White on White and Hamsa collections. The pieces are assembled and hand-painted by artisans in South Africa and sold at museum and Judaica gift shops throughout the country, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Thumbprint Artifacts also has pieces in about 400 retail shops across the country, including the Smithsonian and Cleveland Museum gift shops.
“We are the only gift shop in Detroit that is a member of the Fair Trade Federation,” Riess said. The North American organization stands for the mark of trust bestowed upon businesses and business leaders who are dedicated to fair trade practices.
“The FTF does a great job of vetting out businesses,” Riess said. “It’s not just about making sure artisans are receiving a fair wage, which it does. But it’s also about the working conditions, respecting the culture the artisans live in, protecting children. Companies are protecting the environment and creating sustainable processes.”
The support that fair trade provides translates into empowerment and self-sufficiency that helps the artisans care for themselves, their families — and contribute to their communities.
“Being part of the Federation is pretty powerful,” Riess added. “It allows us to communicate with like-minded people. Many parts of the country are more attuned to fair trade. Detroit is very Detroit-centric, which is fabulous. But we are a small segment of the fair trade community.
“We hope people will come in and ask about our products, where they are made, and learn about the people who make them, their cultures, their conditions. Every object is not only beautiful, but meaningful. Every object has a story behind it.”
When Thumbprint Artifacts was launched, the entrepreneurs worked with about 60 artisans. Today, that number has increased to 500 — about 90 percent of whom are women, primarily single mothers who support an extended family.
“We purchase each piece outright, so we know everything is fair,” Riess said. “It can take up to 12 people to hand-paint a single candle. So, for every candle we purchase for sale in the U.S. — we have no idea how many people we are helping. But it’s a lot. It makes it very easy for me to get up in the morning and sell some candles.”