Torchbearers: Sustainable Jewelry Keeping Jobs Alive in the Florida Panhandle

A tribute to the hard-working oysterman, hand-forged in the Big Easy

A fisherman heading out to work on Apalachicola Bay

The Torchbearers Collection is a tribute to the Gulf Coast oyster and the hard-working men and women who bring it from the ocean to our plates. Each piece is assembled in New Orleans’ French Quarter by designer Ashley Porter, of Porter Lyons jewelry, using materials hand-forged by traditional Apalachicola blacksmith Rodney Richards. The result is a combination of elegant, contemporary design and rugged, timeless craftsmanship. The Torchbearer’s Collection embodies the grit and resolve of the Gulf Coast’s traditional fishing communities and imagines a future in which tradition and progress coexist and support one another.

Preserving an Endangered Way of Life

The Apalachicola River Basin is among the most ecologically diverse natural systems in the Southeast — sustaining a staggering array of rare and endemic species and supporting a $7 billion seafood industry in the Gulf of Mexico.

Perhaps nowhere along the Gulf Coast is the tradition of oystering so ingrained with the culture as in Apalachicola, a tiny fishing village perched on Florida’s Panhandle. The town has traditionally produced about 10 percent of the oysters consumed in the United States and 90 percent of those consumed in Florida.

Rodney Richards holding a set of oyster tongs outside his workshop in Apalachicola, Florida

Generations of oystermen have hauled their living from the bottom of the town’s namesake bay, using specialized tools called “tongs.” The task of making these tools has traditionally been the purview of craftsmen like Rodney, who learned the trade from his father — a legendary tong-maker named “Corky.”

Rodney’s ancestral trade — and the way of life it supports — is in peril. Apalachicola’s oyster industry has all but collapsed over the last several years — brought to its knees by drought, the 2010 oil spill and a tri-state water war that is now before the Supreme Court.

How We’re Helping

We want to do our part to save one of the South’s great cultural and natural resources and plan to do so in several ways:

  • Awareness — Each piece in the Torchbearers Collection is meant to start a conversation. By getting more people talking about oystering, we hope to raise the profile of the Gulf Coast’s traditional fishing communities and the people whose livelihoods depend on them.
  • Cultural Preservation — With the industry’s collapse, traditional craftsmen like Rodney have all but stopped making oyster tongs. By restyling their product into fashion accessories, we can give them a reason to continue plying their trade, so that they can hopefully pass it on to the next generation.
  • Direct Support — We source our raw materials directly from traditional craftsmen like Rodney, providing economic support while preserving a traditional craft that is fast slipping away.
  • Environmental Conservation — Five percent of all proceeds raised through the Torchbearers Collection after our launch will go to support the work of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, an organization with a long and proven track record of advocating for the environment. No funds raised on Kickstarter can go toward the charity. (For more on that, read Kickstarter’s rules.) However, by supporting our campaign, you are helping us bring this collection to market and realize our long-term mission to help conserve one of America’s last great natural resources.

The Jewelry

Women's horizontal tong tooth pendant
Women’s horizontal tong tooth pendant

 

Women's horizontal tong tooth pendant
Women’s horizontal tong tooth pendant

 

Women's long pendant necklace
Women’s long pendant necklace

 

Women's long pendant necklace
Women’s long pendant necklace

 

Men's long pendant necklace
Men’s long pendant necklace

 

Men's long pendant necklace
Men’s long pendant necklace

Who We Are

The Artist: Ashley Porter

Ashley hails from New Orleans — an oyster town if ever there was one — and is passionate about preserving the working waterfronts of the Gulf Coast. She has been recognized nationally for her unique designs inspired by the places and cultural traditions of the Deep South. Her flagship store is located in New Orleans’ French Quarter.

The Craftsman: Rodney Richards

Rodney is a second-generation oyster tong-maker, carpenter and fisherman. Each oyster tong tooth in the Torchbearers Collection was forged by Rodney in his Apalachicola workshop using hand-made tools and the same hammer used by his father. Rodney has a deep love for Apalachicola Bay and the way of life it has afforded him and his family.

Risks and challenges

Rodney is one of the last working oyster tong makers along the Gulf Coast. As such, he is our most valuable partner — and a scarce one at that. We don’t foresee any production difficulties or setbacks. That said, if any challenges do arise that could set back our production timelines or affect reward fulfillment, we promise to let you know immediately and keep you informed right up until the time your jewelry arrives at your door.

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