Housing Gems

April 1998

Gemstones & Pearls:News

Housing Gems

You can help Habitat for Humanity without even lifting a hammer

Thousands of volunteers, including Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, build homes for Habitat for Humanity each year. Vernon Wilson, a Poquoson, VA, jeweler can't join in because of an injury suffered in an accident. But last year he did the next best thing: donating $182,000 in loose fancy-color diamonds, sapphires, rubies, emeralds, aquamarines and other collectible gems – once earmarked to finance his retirement – to the home-building charity. In the process, he involved his community, giving valuable experience to students who will become the marketers and jewelry designers of tomorrow.

Habitat for Humanity, in operation since the 1950s, accepts donations of time, building skills, materials, cash and – now – gems. All donations help to build affordable housing for the working poor – recipients of the houses work right along with the volunteers to build "sweat equity."

Though physically unable to participate, Wilson knew his collection could be parlayed into ready cash to build more housing. Though he hoped for a quiet, anonymous donation, the notion was soon dashed. News of the jeweler's largess made the Associated Press and soon dozens of media outlets, including People magazine, descended on the quiet, soft-spoken man. Wilson, well-known in his community, became an international celebrity.

For Wilson, donating his prized gemstones was not the end of his generosity. Because Habitat for Humanity didn't quite know how to market the stones, they turned to him for help. Soon, the local high school's design class was developing a logo, taking commercial photographs and creating ads and marketing materials for the project.

Prospective consumers turned out to be interested in mounted, not loose gems. So Wilson suggested involving more students. Virginia Commonwealth University's jewelry design department stepped up to the plate, with students making jewelry using the donated stones. The project involved calculating materials and work-time to establish retail values for the finished product. Wilson is delighted the students got the opportunity to experience practical manufacturing and enhance their resumés. Hoover & Strong, the Richmond, VA, metal refiner, heard about the project and chipped in with silver and gold.

"It was a real community outpouring," says Wilson. So far, 400 gems out of the total of 1,600 have been sold. Wilson appeals to other jewelers around the country to donate designs, gold, work or time. "We will easily raise the retail value of the gems, but now we would like to get a better value out of selling mounted goods." He says more than $300,000 could be raised. "Priced at $40,000 each, that's a lot of homes," he says.

Though he had saved the now-donated gems for his retirement, Wilson isn't worried about his future. "We'll be well taken care of," he says with a chuckle. "Realize that God is in control. You never know where the seeds you plant will sprout or how they will grow. Work hard, be honest and help other people."

Jewelers willing to contribute to the momentum are urged to contact Starr Mayer, Habitat for Humanity, P.O. Box 1443, Newport News, VA 23601-0443; (757) 596-5553.

by Robert Weldon, G.G.

This gem, when donated to Habitat for Humanity, ignited a firestorm of publicity and opportunity. Photo by Bill Boxer






Copyright © 1998 by Bond Communications.


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