An alabaster calling

Trench Town artisan supplies Sandals, Beaches resorts with stone pieces

Sunday, May 27, 2018

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When Egbert Hamilton stumbled upon the alabaster stone in the hills of Bull Bay, St Thomas, in 1969, it sparked a fire in the then 19-year-old. He felt compelled to find out what beautiful trinkets could be created from the smooth, fine-grained rock.

At the time, he was working with an older gentleman making costume jewellery from coconut shells and seeds and had gone in search of those raw materials when he discovered the alabaster.

“I stumble upon the stones and I took back a piece to the factory where I was working and made a cup and saucer with it. My boss' wife bought it at a reasonable price. After that I went out in the Bull Bay gully and start searching for the stone and made a table out there, and started working to see what else I can make,” Hamilton said.

Almost 50 years later, from his small workshop on the corner of Collie Smith Drive in Kingston, Hamilton told the Jamaica Observer that there is no doubt he has heeded his calling.

He manipulates the stone to create beautiful, handcrafted items like trinket boxes, figurines, and souvenir pieces. While he still does most of the work himself, Hamilton said he gets assistance from a few young men in the area, noting that this also helps to keep them out of trouble.

“I have two people here on and off. I have two 'schoolers' who help me sand-paper down the things when they are home from school. I have a guy who help me to cut the stones and one actually training to do different types of art forms right now,” Hamilton said.

But his journey in the industry has not been without its challenges.

“The greatest challenge for me was to create the items, because I didn't really have the tools and space to create. I was working on some samples some time ago and the little machine that I had gave way so it was hard to produce the best-quality items.”

The damage to his tools significantly impacted his work Hamilton said, and he contemplated giving up on the craft.

That was until the Sandals Foundation stepped in with The Sandals Foundation Caribbean Artisan's Collection Programme, an initiative in partnership with the Sandals and Beaches resort shops. The programme is aimed at building the capacity of local artisans through funding for equipment, training and improved infrastructure.

The Caribbean Artisan's Collection also gives artisans the avenue to sell their products to tourists through the Sandals and Beaches resort shops, a percentage of each sale being placed back into funding the programme.

“Before I started selling to Sandals, I didn't have a consistent buyer and I wasn't able to produce as good a quality,” Hamilton said. “Now that I have the tools to work with, I have been able to increase my production and produce a more diverse range of products such as toys and miniature turtles that the hotels sells to their guests.”

Hamilton received a grant from the programme to purchase a cutting machine and drill to help boost his production.

Executive director of the Sandals Foundation Heidi Clarke said the initiative is rooted in the foundation's mission of creating opportunities for talented individuals across the Caribbean.

“In Jamaica and throughout the Caribbean region there are many untapped resources, and we have the talent here to harness these resources and make them into beautiful finished products that showcase our rich culture and capabilities. Through this programme, we are prepared to provide our craftsmen and women with the support needed to bolster their businesses,” she said.

“Not only are we securing a market for the products, [but] artisans in the programme will also have access to these funds to purchase machinery and invest in the expansion of their businesses and product output. We want to invest in local artisans to improve product designs, increase production, and raise quality standards — a win-win for both retail and the artisans,” added Clarke.

Within emerging economies, craft is a US$32-billion industry, and research has shown that for every one artisan employed, 20 more people are impacted, including family members and others in the supply chain.

Hamilton said he hopes the support from the programme will help him to build his business to the point where he can properly train youngsters from his Trench Town community to work with the salt-based stone.

“I want to build up my shop, get some more space and work benches so I can teach some youths the trade. It would be nice because there are a lot of people here that are not working,” he told Career & Education.

Among the criteria for consideration for the programme is that artisans must demonstrate that at least 70 per cent of raw material and labour used in the production of their pieces are from Jamaica or their respective island. The programme is expected to be replicated across the Caribbean region where Sandals and Beaches Resorts operate.

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