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Grass routes

How a plant grown from Kenya wound up as jewelry with a story to tell

Philip Leakey and his wife Katy are marketing jewelry made by Kenyan women from grasses in Kenya.
Philip Leakey and his wife Katy are marketing jewelry made by Kenyan women from grasses in Kenya. (Globe photo)

NEW YORK -- For a few days in January, thousands of retailers converge on Manhattan's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center to preview the latest spring fashion items at ''Accessories: The Show." Everywhere you look, there are signs of retail hype: classic bags ''with an oomph." ''Fun and fabulous" belts. ''Hip styles." ''Delicious colors."

But then there's the booth called ''The Leakey Collection" that you right away grasp does not fit the mold. Perhaps it's the photo panels of African women in bright tribal garb. Or maybe it's the tall guy with the English accent who's manning the booth, wearing rumpled khakis and a safari shirt.

''Hello there, are you familiar with Zulugrass?" He hails a passerby who casts a curious glance inside the booth, filled with cascades of vividly colored strands of beads. In an instant, he's fastening a coil of them around her neck, talking color combinations and price points. There seems to be a bit of the politician in him, judging from the simultaneously aggressive and disarming way he works the crowd.

Turns out, there is. Philip Leakey, 56, is a former member of Parliament and cabinet minister in Kenya. As his name suggests, he's also a member of the Leakey dynasty of anthropologists. (Among other legendary accomplishments, his parents, Louis and Mary, proved the existence of early hominids in East Africa.)

So what is he doing here, on the trade show circuit? ''I had at one stage thought I'd become an anthropologist, but then my brother Richard decided to do it, so I decided I'd better change my plans."

This Leakey took a wildly different path. It started out among rhinos and wildebeests in Olduvai Gorge in the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania, where his parents set up camp to search for fossils as part of their lifelong mission to understand the evolution of the human species. (''I didn't have many toys," he says. ''I played with sticks and stones and beetles and plants.") It's taken him into enterprises as disparate as tourism (leading wildlife tours in Africa), nature (exporting medicinal plants), geology (mining gemstones), and politics.

Most recently, Philip and his wife, California artist Katy Leakey, have combined his interest in the natural world and her background in art to design Zulugrass Jewelry -- a line of beaded necklaces and earrings made by women of the nomadic Maasai tribe in Kenya and sold in boutiques and craft shops in 20 countries.

It may seem like a long way from Olduvai Gorge to ''Accessories: The Show." But the three-year-old Leakey Collection is one of a growing number of enterprises working with artisans in underdeveloped countries to provide economic opportunities and, at the same time, bring unusual home and fashion products to American consumers. As philanthropically motivated as these companies may be, they're riding the wave of a new enthusiasm by shoppers for authentic designs that aren't mass-produced and that come from unfamiliar places. (Witness the current ''Global Bazaar" blitz at Target, now marketing ''Authentic Crafted Goods" from around the world.)

''We went through a period where everything needed to be high style, and we've moved through a period of minimalism," says Keith Recker, former executive director of Aid to Artisans, a design and marketing facilitator for artists in developing countries. ''Now we're wanting to feel some increased connection to what a thing is made of, what it means, and who makes it. There is a fascination with natural materials and motifs taken from nature and a willingness to embrace the imperfection of the handmade."

Enter Zulugrass Jewelry. The business came about after Philip and Katy were married in 2001. Both of them had been married before, though they'd known each other for years: Katy's parents cofounded the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation to help support the Leakeys' fieldwork. Katy, 51, had been earning her living in America doing decorative painting and murals for high-end clients, but her real passion was learning about other cultures through what she calls ''anthropological travel," then interpreting them through her art. She once led an expedition through the Amazon rain forest in Peru to locate the Mayoruna Indians and studied the ancient art of medicine under a Jivaro witch doctor. Her resume even notes that she has been the ''hostage of a Peruvian Commandant in the deep reaches of the Amazon."

Given this history, the challenge of developing a stable business with a workforce of nomads seemed fairly manageable. ''We decided to dive in with both feet," Philip says.

At the time they were living in a home office in the Kenyan bush about 1 1/2 hours south of Nairobi; Philip was making his living promoting tourism for Kenya and speaking on issues ranging from wildlife conservation to African politics. ''Suddenly the whole 9/11 thing happened and wiped out 90 percent of my income," he says. ''Overnight. Boom. Gone."

At the same time, a drought in Kenya was killing the cattle and endangering the livelihood of their Maasai neighbors. With the men away in search of better grazing, the Leakeys came up with an idea to create an income source for the women: making jewelry out of tiny beads cut from hollow wetland grasses and colored with commercial textile dyes.

They communicate with the workers through a translator -- the native dialect is called Maa -- or in Swahili, which Philip speaks. Still, the process hasn't always been smooth. The Leakeys employ twice as many women as they need because life events -- preparing for an important celebration, for example -- can keep workers away from work for weeks. They've learned by trial and error that they need to stagger paydays because bandits lurk in the bush to steal wages. They employ everyone who wants to work, including the elderly and the blind.

There are now about 1,000 women making the jewelry, which is sold in more than 1,000 stores in more than 20 countries, including California's Fred Segal boutique, which caters to Hollywood it girls. Katy says the steady income has brought stability to the workers' lives; they earn ''enough in two months to start buying goats . . . in eight months to start buying land."

The Leakeys plan to expand their business idea, using it as a model for self-sustaining rural enterprises that could be applied to other cultures. They want to expand the collection line to include environmentally conscious wooden home goods made from fallen Kenyan hardwood trees, among other products.

Meantime, Philip is still out on the trade show circuit in his Range Rover attire, happy to entertain conversation:

Yes, his parents were those Leakeys.

Yes, he was a member of Parliament in Kenya. ''I got a big kick out of Parliament," he tells another retailer, then transitions into the business at hand. ''Take the silver clasp," he tells her. ''String [the beads] around your neck in whatever color combination you want."

Yes, he grew up in the Serengeti. Extraordinary, isn't it?

Linda Matchan can be reached at l_matchan@globe.com.

Bead buying
For information about Zulugrass Jewelry in the Leakey Collection
Go to www.zulugrass.com or www.leakeycollection.com.
Necklaces cost $8-$12/strand.

Boston-area stores
that sell Zulugrass
Comina, 566 Washington St., Wellesley, 781-431-2180, and 12 Atlantic Ave., Marblehead, 781-631-2558.
The Crafty Yankee, 1838 Massachusetts Ave., Lexington, 781-863-1219.
Calista's, 51 Leonard St., Belmont, 617-484-8191.
Websites selling Zulugrass
www.lizmontellodesigns.com
www.vivaterra.com
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