Even though it was 18 years ago, Peter Thum vividly remembers the phone call. It was the call telling him that his good friend from college had been shot and killed. She had been recently married and was only 28 years old.
“I can identify with a person who was so bright and whose future was going to be so wonderful,” said Thum. “Most of the time after people grieve, they move on. But this process of doing what we’re doing, this business, reminds me of her quite often.”
That business is Liberty United, which takes guns and bullet casings, melts them down and turns them into rings, bracelets and necklaces. The weapons, both illegal guns and pistols turned in during buyback programs, are sourced from local law enforcement. The company donates 20 percent of its profits to groups working to reduce gun violence.
“To me, [gun violence] is an unacceptable problem,” said Thum. “In the United States, this has to be something that we come up with a solution for. Two groups of people are unwilling to talk to each other and have set up polarizing sides that leave everyone in the middle feeling trapped. That’s not an acceptable way to treat the lives of those people who have been sacrificed.”
Thum is known as a social entrepreneur. He founded Ethos Water, later acquired by Starbucks, to raise awareness and funds to help children get access to clean water. Another venture, Fonderie 47, has removed and melted down more than 30,000 AK-47s and other assault rifles from conflict zones in Africa, transforming them into high-end watches and jewelry.
The sheer number of gun deaths in the United States spurred him to begin a program here -- Liberty United began just months after the horrific killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School -- in addition to his personal experience and that of his wife, actress Cara Buono, who grew up in the Bronx. She was younger than 10 the first time she saw someone shot.
“It helps me to understand why this is so important and how it’s personal,” said Thum. “Unfortunately, as one of the most advanced societies in the world, we found a way to somehow ignore this problem if it doesn’t touch us personally.”
Liberty United partners with well-known designers Pamela Love and Philip Crangi, and Thum says thousands of customers have bought the jewelry. Celebrities, including actors Mark Ruffalo, Lucy Liu and Cynthia Nixon, also wear the company's designs. The pieces have little resemblance to the guns they came from. Except for one thing -- a weapon’s serial number etched onto every piece.
“We started out to make beautiful jewelry, things that were compelling and interesting,” said Thum. “[The serial number] was stamped at its birth and became a gun that was used to threaten or put fear into someone or harm someone. It was removed from circulation and the only thing that’s left of it was this number.”
The process of transforming a gun into a piece of jewelry is actually quite difficult. Thum says that since so many manufacturing jobs have left the U.S., it was tough to find skilled workers, especially those who specialize in steel. The guns themselves pose a big challenge. Each one of them “is individual, like a snowflake in a way,” Thum says, yielding different kinds of metals. Once the guns are melted, the resulting necklaces or bracelets are fashioned entirely or partially out of steel. The bullets are melted down and incorporated into brass pieces.
From original idea to a sample takes a month to six weeks. And to produce the jewelry in enough quantities for purchase takes up to four months longer. The company’s Web site features all of its products, ranging in price from $85 to $1,545. There are plans to introduce the jewelry at brick-and-mortar boutiques in the future.
The manufacturing process may be time-consuming, but Liberty United will not soon run out of its raw materials. Right now, the company partners with law enforcement in three cities: Newburgh, N.Y.; Philadelphia; and Syracuse, N.Y. Thum says that Philadelphia alone gets about 5,000 guns every year.
“There’s no shortage of gun material,” said Thum. “But I’d love to be in a position where we have a supply problem.”
ABC News' Brian Fudge contributed to this episode.