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A Home Away from Home

MJSA Challenge: Responsibly Sourced Designs

By Shawna Kulpa

An immigrant from Mexico and soon-to-be-naturalized U.S. citizen who has spent her life dedicated to the studying and protecting the oceans and ocean life is at the center of our annual MJSA Challenge: Responsibly Sourced Designs.

Every year we present nine designers with a fictional story and a selection of amazing gemstones; from those elements, they agree to render a piece of jewelry. Every month from January through September, we feature the design of one of our participating designers. Then, it’s your turn to vote for the winning design. The winner is announced in the December issue of MJSA Journal. (Click here to read about the 2019 Challenge and see the winning entry from designer Theresa Kwong.)


January: Nanz Aalund
February: Tammy Denmark
March: Sabrina Hoffman
April: Emily Dubinsky
May: Niki Grandics
June: Meredith Young
July: Emily Kuvin

This year’s challenge features a beautiful mabe pearl from Mexico and a collection of responsibly sourced sapphires, all available from the project’s sponsor, Columbia Gem House in Vancouver, Washington. The fictional scenario, presented here, focuses on children who want to give their mother a special custom piece to celebrate her achieving a lifelong goal of becoming a U.S. citizen. Read the full scenario.

MJSA Thanks This Year’s Sponsor, Columbia Gem House

Building a mine-to-market supply chain for ethical gems since 1976, Columbia Gem House works with governments, non-profits, miners, and cutters to ensure safe workplaces, fair wages, ethical sourcing, and environmentally responsible mining. We are the largest supplier of American gems.

Columbia Gem House Logo

The Story

Growing up on the outskirts of Guaymas, Mexico, Maria Galaz had always loved the ocean. As a child, she and her younger siblings would spend entire days playing in the surf of the Sea of Cortez. As she got older, her father, Jorge, who worked as a shrimper, sometimes invited her to join him on his boat during her school breaks. The oldest of five children, Maria had always had an inquisitive mind, and she loved to explore the varied sea life. She had an interest in how everything in the world around her worked. Her parents encouraged this curiosity and urged her to pursue a degree in the United States. They believed it would allow her to make a better life for herself than what their small rural area could offer.

As a young woman, Maria headed off to the University of California, San Diego on a student visa. During her time at the university, she impressed her professors with her quick mind and dedication to her studies. Initially, Maria had planned to return to Mexico after graduating, but one of her professors reached out to a law school colleague, who helped Maria receive a green card after she graduated with bachelor degrees in marine biology and oceanic and atmospheric sciences.

After graduation, she accepted a job in San Diego managing the city’s ocean monitoring program. Always eager to learn, she soon enrolled in the University of San Diego to earn a master’s degree in environmental and ocean sciences. Between work and school, Maria didn’t have much free time, but she spent much of it getting to better know the country she was slowly coming to call home. During this same time, she met and fell in love with a fellow expat: Vicente Flores. Like Maria, Vicente had obtained a student visa that allowed him to get a degree in civil engineering, which helped him earn a green card, allowing him to make his living in the U.S.

ODC gemstone specs pearl and sapphiresMaria and Vicente eventually married and settled down in La Jolla before starting a family. However, after just eight years of marriage, tragedy struck when Vicente was diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer. He passed five months later, leaving Maria a widow at 32 with three young children to care for.

Since earning her master’s degree, Maria had been working as a biological oceanographer. Her job had required a significant amount of travel and time away from home. Now, as a single parent, Maria knew she would have to change her career path, and she accepted a position teaching marine biology at her undergraduate alma mater. She loved teaching and sharing her knowledge with her students, but she missed the hands-on experience of being out in the field and feeling like she was making a difference in protecting the ocean environment. It was a sacrifice that she was willing to make, though, in order to be able to watch her children grow.

Years later, as her 50th birthday approached, Maria was excited about what the next stage of her life would look like. With her children grown and heading off to start their own lives, Maria thought about the things she had never had a chance to do while raising her family. There were exotic places she longed to visit, cultures she wanted to experience, art classes she wanted to take, and research work and a new job opportunity that she was excited about undertaking. But there was one thing on her list above all others: U.S. citizenship. She and Vicente had always talked of their plan to one day apply for citizenship. After Vicente died, citizenship took a backseat to life as a working single mother, but now Maria decided that it was finally time to bring that dream to fruition.

Over the course of the next year, she completed all of the necessary paperwork and interviews for citizenship and passed the naturalization test with flying colors. Now, in just two months Maria was due to take the oath of allegiance, which would formally finalize her citizenship.

Her children were incredibly proud of her and decided to throw her a surprise party on the day she was due to take the oath. They reached out to their extended family in Guaymas and invited many of them to make the trip and join the celebration. Her family was thrilled to participate. And when Maria’s daughter Tomasa mentioned that they were planning to commission a special piece of jewelry to commemorate this big moment in their mom’s life, Maria’s youngest brother mentioned that he had just the thing. Three of his graduate school classmates had launched Perlas de Mar de Cortez, a local pearl farming operation dedicated to revitalizing the pearl industry that was once prominent in the area. He reached out to his old friends to obtain a beautiful 26 mm mabe pearl, which he sent along to Tomasa to include as part of her mother’s gift.

Thrilled with the pearl, Maria’s children decided that the custom piece should have elements of both Maria’s birth country and the one she called home. They wanted stones that were native to the U.S., and a local gem dealer offered them 12 mixed-color sapphire melee from Montana.

This year, our designers will have to create a special piece of jewelry for Maria with the pearl and some or all of the sapphire melee. The cost of additional materials and labor cannot exceed a budget of $6,000.


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