NAIT student's business finds unexpected beauty and gives back to the community
Carter Buchanan knows that he’s pushing buttons with his high-caliber line of jewelry.
Buchanan’s home-based company, BulletProof Jewelry, fashions earrings, pendants, tie clips and cufflinks from spent shell casings. When you’re in the business of converting bullets into bling, you inevitably draw a mixed reaction.
“I’ve had people come into my booth at the farmers market and say, ‘Oh my God, they’re bullets; that’s so awesome,’” says Buchanan, a 20-year-old who’s now in his second year of business administration in the JR Shaw School of Business.
“And then other people come in, see they’re bullets and turn their nose up immediately and walk away.”
"Our goal is to take something deadly and turn it into something beautiful."
“Bullets will always carry that connotation of what they do. But our goal is to take something deadly and turn it into something beautiful.”
Buchanan has been repurposing shell casings since he was 16. Inspired by a video about an artisan who handcrafted a set of headphones out of bullets, Buchanan decided to do the same. He had his parents drive him to the local shooting range where he asked for a couple of shell casings. The range insisted he buy an entire box. He returned to his St. Albert home that day with 1,500 9-mm bullet casings.
After a few faltering efforts, Buchanan succeeded in making his own set of headphones. Then he began tinkering with small pieces like earrings and studs for family and friends. What started out 4 years ago as little more than a casual, fun enterprise is today an all-consuming passion – and his main source of income.
Taking aim at the market
It took a layoff from the Alberta oil patch to get BulletProof going.
Buchanan entered the trades after finishing high school in June 2015. He worked as an instrumentation technician in the energy sector for 6 months but his hopes for an apprenticeship evaporated with the collapse in oil prices. He was out of a job and uncertain about his future.
Encouraged by a friend, Buchanan set up a booth at a night market in St. Albert, taking along about 40 pairs of his bullet earrings. He sold almost his entire stock.
When he repaired to a restaurant afterwards he found friends, servers and customers clamouring to buy the rest. He realized he was on to something.
On-campus business support
During his studies and while developing his business ventures, NAIT business student Carter Buchanan has often turned to the Mawji Centre for New Venture and Student Entrepreneurship.
Based in the JR Shaw School of Business, the centre provides business-building resources and advice to students from across the polytechnic.
“When I’m at home sure my office is there, my workshop is there, but the distractions are there as well,” Buchanan says. "But to be at NAIT, at the Mawji Centre, you are basically in a boardroom with a whiteboard and it’s such a cool place to brainstorm and actually have the opportunity to focus on work.”
“That’s really how BulletProof was born.”
Buchanan, who still makes his jewelry out of his parents’ garage, has found an eager market in the hunting community and made inroads into the Canadian country music scene. He distributed jewelry samples at the Canadian Country Music Awards in Saskatoon last September and plans to launch a new product line at the 2018 CCMAs in Hamilton next fall. In the meantime, Buchanan’s signature earrings, each inlaid with a Swarovski crystal, remain his most popular item.
As he works to broaden his market, he’s mindful of the ethical complications of working with bullets.
“There’s a stigma around the firearms industry as a whole and BulletProof Jewelry is certainly playing in that space,” says Ray Bilodeau, a NAIT Marketing instructor.
“I think for Carter as an entrepreneur to be experimenting and understanding how to appeal to a niche market, while at the same time not offending the more general community, is a wonderful experience.”
Buchanan says he can live with any consumer pushback because BulletProof’s philosophy aligns with the old ideal of turning swords into plowshares.
“In the future I want to partner with police precincts across Canada and North America and collect their ceased munitions meant for destruction,” he says. “Then we will decommission the ammunition and do what we do best.”
In addition, $1 of every crystal item sold is donated to charity – this year to mental health services for first responders.
Shooting for the stars
Buchanan is specializing in entrepreneurship and innovation at NAIT. He hopes to put that education to work in expanding BulletProof into Europe and the U.S. in the next five years.
At the moment, it’s one of several of Buchanan’s business pursuits. He also operates ProBar Bartending Services and is founder and CEO of Keystone Event Management. He has other ventures in development as well.
But BulletProof is his most successful company and remains special, he says, for being like a “first child.” As much as he wants it to grow, he wants to hold onto that feeling of turning something negative into something positive.
“I’ve always loved working with my hands,” Buchanan says. “Even if I bring this company to the place where I want to, where I have people working for me, guaranteed I’m still going to be in there making some items because it’s something that I love to do.”