The Women's Shelter Jewelry Project collects old earrings, necklaces, bracelets, rings and other pieces, and donates them to local charities.

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Around a long dining-room table in the Capitol Hill home of Micki Lippe sits a group of women, surrounded by jewelry. Lots and lots of jewelry.

Small mounds of beads, bangles, baubles and brooches litter nearly every inch of the space. What could be better?

But these women — many of them jewelry makers and members of the Seattle Metals Guild — are not picking out their favorite gems at a sample sale. Instead they have carved out several hours on a Sunday morning to sift through bags of donated jewelry that will soon adorn women who are homeless or victims of domestic violence.

The women gathered here are volunteering for the Women’s Shelter Jewelry Project, a program Lippe, herself a jewelry artist, started 10 years ago.

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“When I was trying to decide how I could give back to the community it occurred to me that I should think of a project that used my skills as a jeweler, ” Lippe said. “I’ve had friends who have been abused. This is something I’ve always had empathy for.”

The project distributes jewelry to homeless and domestic- violence shelters and organizations in the Puget Sound region. Jewelry donations are collected from various drop-off points and then, every two or three months, are sorted, cleaned and repaired, if needed, before they are distributed.

Shelters and agencies that receive pieces include Compass Center, Eastside Domestic Violence Program and the Snohomish County Center for Battered Women. Donations also benefit YWCA Dress for Success, which provides professional clothing and career counseling to disadvantaged women. Each organization decides how it wants to dole out the jewelry, which is generally given to the women to mark personal milestones, such as landing a job interview, or on a birthday, Christmas or Mother’s Day.

Something as simple as a pair of earrings or a brooch can brighten a mood or make a woman feel special, Lippe said.

“Who doesn’t love a little piece of jewelry,” Lippe said. “I have been putting jewelry on women for 36 years.”

Reviving pieces

During these sorting sessions — which can last up to five hours — the ladies meticulously and purposefully pore over hundreds of pieces of jewelry. There are wood and chunky metal bangles; button, chandelier, hoop, pierced and clip-on earrings; ornate and mixed stone pendants; beads in shades of purple and fluorescent yellow; and chain rope necklaces spread wide across the ad hoc sorting table.

The atmosphere is light, especially when one of the sorters comes up with a particularly eccentric or quirky piece, such as a pair of earrings in the shape of sunglasses or a brooch-watch draped with rhinestones, faux pearls and the face of a clown.

“I may not wear this but someone else would love those,” Lippe said of the unusual finds.

As they sift they envision the possibilities. A single earring, common among the donations, may seem useless without its other half; but the ladies see it reworked as a pendant. With a good cleaning an oxidized silver and stone bracelet will shine again.

Before any jewelry is sent out, the pieces are separated by type and condition, each placed into small, zip-top plastic bags and placed in boxes labeled “earrings,” “rings,” “brooches,” “broken and needs cleaning,” and so on. Members of the Seattle Metals Guild take care of the cleaning and repair. “Every woman has jewelry that for whatever reason she’s not wearing,” Lippe said. “We don’t want people to say, ‘This might not be good enough.’ This is the best recycling you could ever do.”

Religious or holiday pieces, and rings that resemble wedding or engagement bands are generally passed on to Goodwill. Other pieces that cannot be cleaned or fixed are donated to the Pratt Fine Arts Center in Seattle for use in art classes.

One beneficiary

One of the shelters that benefits from Lippe’s work is Catherine Booth House, an emergency domestic-violence shelter for women and children operated by the Salvation Army. Last summer the shelter received a bag of about 50 pieces, said Ciara Murphy, director of the Salvation Army domestic-violence programs. “Jewelry is a luxury item. Our clients don’t have anything, so to get something personal for them is lovely,” Murphy said. “There are so many people in domestic-violence situations. By the time you leave you really feel that you are worth nothing. The last thing you would do for yourself is to buy jewelry and makeup.”

Donating old or rarely worn jewelry “gives you a chance to take stock in what you have and help others who have less,” said Fran Reichert, who got involved with the project last summer. “A silver bracelet that sits in your jewelry box may not mean much to you but may mean something to another.”

Tina Potterf is a freelance writer based in Seattle.

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