Based in Oaxaca, Mexico, Gorilla Glass was established in 2002 to created award winning, had crafted glass jewellery for body piercings. This week, Gemma was lucky enough to sit down the founder Jason and social media manager Atziri via video chat to discuss Oaxaca, where Gorilla Glass started and where it’s heading.
Gemma: How did Gorilla Glass get started?
Jason: Gorilla Glass was started in 2002, and it was actually my second business making glass piercing jewellery. I had a previous company named Liquid Glass, and basically I decided I was going to move to Mexico. I had been invited to work in a glass factory in Mexico City by a very good friend of mine, a glass artist from San Francisco. And so I started going down to Mexico, seeing the possibility of doing production down there. At that time, I was living in Vermont and northeast of the United States and I kind of opened up this opportunity to work with this incredible factory. Actually the thing that allowed Gorilla Glass to get started was Wildcat in England.
Glass are still very new in the piercing world at that time (2002). And I was basically going door to door and selling to shops on the East Coast. But piercers were still very sceptical of glass as a material. So it was really hard to get the foot in the door in the U.S. as far as setting up Gorilla Glass. But I had an opportunity to meet John, who was the owner of Wildcat at that time and I sent him photos of what we were doing and he said, “come to Brighton and show me what you got”. So I took a plane trip out there and being very American, I had a gun case full of all my glass jewellery. I opened up the case and he had never seen glass jewellery like that for piercings before. It was brand new at the time and because he was a real entrepreneur, he was always looking for the next thing. His first order was about $50,000 and that was my opening order. I said, “well, I think I’m going to start a company and move to Mexico!”. It was really thanks to John’s regular orders in those first five years that allowed Gorilla Glass to set up its’ own production line. What was really paying the bills and allowing me to get that project off the ground was the big orders coming in from Europe. So Gorilla Glass was largely thanks to England and that support that that allowed me to get everything up and running down here.
G: That’s awesome. That’s a really interesting connection. So, why the name Gorilla Glass. How did that come to be?
J: When I when I started the company, I wanted to have something that was a little bit funny but tough. I guess it’s something that sounded strong but also had some humour, something people could relate to. But I was also thinking a lot about the idea of evolution and the idea that we share 98% of our DNA with the apes and gorillas. Really, the difference between us and them is very, very small. Then the idea, with piercing body modification, was that you could continue to modify your body. So a kind of a play on all of those things, trying to do something tough and funny and something that would kind of be strong and but also this idea that we could continue to evolve.
G: Is there much of a piercing scene in Oaxaca
Atziri: It’s still a little primitive sometimes and most of the people that have piercings have big earlobes but not all the people know Gorilla Glass. The people prefer titanium. But we have some friends that really love Gorilla Glass, they come for a Gorilla retreat. We had friends visit the factory in 2019 and get involved with the jewellery and they were fascinated! And now they’re one of the best ambassadors for Gorilla Glass. So sometimes when people come to visit Oaxaca, it’s to visit the factory and it’s become quite a touristic place sometimes.
J: We have a lot of international visitors. Piercing is developing in Mexico in a pretty dynamic way. We have the Latin American Body Piercing Association (LBP) and it’s been here for quite a while. They do an annual conference every year and we have people come from all over South America and Europe to go to that conference. I think the level of education is really advancing thanks to a lot of these health and safety organizations. I feel like there’s a whole younger generation of piercers who are coming in, who are very passionate about what they’re doing and really take that health, safety and sterilization very seriously. But I guess as anywhere, you still have a lot of street piercing. You can go on the market and buy unsterilized jewellery for $5. So you have the whole range.
We have our friend Sutra, who’s a local piercer and we recommend everybody to him because he works at a very high level and can do more advanced procedures like microdermals and scarification. We know him through the suspension community because we do a lot of suspension events at Gorilla Glass. He came originally as part of that suspension event.
We’re going to be more involved with LBP this year. We’re going to have a big booth there, and it’s actually a great conference. If anyone wants to get know Mexico a little bit, see what’s really happening in the piercing scene. I think that’s a great place to go and get a little window into what’s happening in Latin America. It’s very dynamic and there’s a lot of changes happening, but it’s small and that starts with a small group of really passionate people.
G: Absolutely. You said there’s a lot of larger ear lobe piercings in Mexico, do people tend to go for a larger gauge as standard?
J: The roots of piercing in Mexico go very, very deep and very, very far back. So there’s certainly a connection that goes beyond what we perceive in the Western world of ‘modern piercing’, because they’re reconnecting. The amount of jewellery that you can see in the stretched labrets, lobes and everything. There’s also a whole neo punk movement. t’s kind of an underground market in Mexico City where everybody has big, spiked haircuts and leather jackets. [
A: Like the punks back in the eighties with the key hole weights and that whole aesthetic. And maybe it’s following Hispanic tradition with the big labrets, big septums, big lobes.
G: Yeah we’re big fans that at Rogue. What what inspires you when it comes to the designs that you use?
J: Well Gorilla Glass had it’s 20th anniversary this year. So we have a long history of following trends and doing design. And Gorilla Glass has built its reputation on being a high design company. A lot of the ideas come from just watching trends in the industry and trying to come up with something innovative within what people want. You can come out with a design and it can be too ahead of its time. And then because we’re in a fashion industry, things come in and out of fashion. The thing that made Gorilla Glass really big in the beginning was glass spirals. No one had seen a glass spiral before, and we had glass spirals in all these different colours. At that time in 2002, it was something incredibly new. Now everybody has glass spirals. It’s nothing that would make you surprised or excited to see a glass spiral because they’re so common.
Designs come in and out. We had a period of years where we were doing very short themed collections and we’d choose a general theme every year. One year we chose the ocean, another year it was movement, we’ve done joy and happiness as well. Sometimes we would be inspired by current events. We did a resist collection when there was a lot of outrage about Black Lives Matter, we did that to raise money to donate to the Black Lives Matter movement. Since the pandemic started and made us kind of rethink what we’re doing as a business and also where we’re going as a planet, I thought “what does Gorilla Glass want to do for the next 20 years? And where are we going? How are we going to adapt?” Because times are changing and we need to be take responsibility for ourselves and as a company. We’re much more focused on basics now. What do studios need to do piercings? We’re really focused on the retainers, simple plugs, single flare plugs, things that help piercers in their studios on a day to day level. And all the extra stuff, which I love doing. like the design work, I’ll get ideas from all over the place. We just kind of sponge and see what we can get from the universe as far as ideas. And we have notebooks of ideas. Ideas are never the problem.
But we really made a deliberate decision to kind of stop bombarding people with new designs all the time because it’s a cost of production to make it. And not just a monetary cost, but there’s also an environmental cost. So what’s really driving our design at this point, and since the pandemic started, is lowering our environmental impact. So we’re really focusing on the Upcycle Project, that gives us a lot of freedom as far as what kind of shapes or forms we make but we’re limited on the material we can use, we’re just using waste material for all of that.
That’s kind of been our main design impulse right now, working within the limits of trying to consume less and how do we stay relevant but actually make the company smaller? Because I think the responsible thing to do at this point.
G: That was one of the things that made me absolutely fall in love with your company The Upcycled Project. You do a lot for for the local community in terms of projects, can you tell us more about that?
J: We have a lot of different projects. For a few years we had an art gallery downtown and we invited different glass artists to be part of that. We also do sponsor different glass artists because I’m part of a glass community that’s very similar to the piercing community. It’s very international and it’s still pretty small. We invite different glass artists to do residencies and try and incorporate that into some of our piercing designs. But some of it is just art projects. And another big project for me personally was working with the prisons down here. We were doing art projects in the prisons, doing print making primarily. We have a print shop here and that was a project I was involved. Since the pandemic, I haven’t really been too involved, but pre-pandemic it was one of my main commitments. I would go to twice a week and we’re doing art making projects, many of which we would realize in the Glass studio with with the basis of designs that they would provide for us. We did a whole series of bottles with self-portraits on them, and so that’s been kind of a big ongoing project.
G: That’s incredible.
J: Yeah, the prison project’s pretty, pretty great, and it’s now grown. We’re still involved. We have friends who are more actively involved. And now that project has grown to five different prisons in Oaxaca including the youth prison, the women’s prison and a high security prison. So it’s really kind of grown and become much bigger than than what it started out as as a small thing. So, you know, a lot of times when you plant seeds and then they kind of grow on their own, that can be really one of the most gratifying things when you do those kind of projects. And we mentioned the suspension events that we do, they involve a lot of international people. But we invite locals in to come and do their first suspensions. Oaxaco is a real art city, we have a lot of print makers and graffiti artists. So almost all our friends are artists in one way or another and we got to suspend a lot of them for the first time in the city.
G: It’s amazing that you can give people that experience.
J: I think that the community, and working with the women here, that’s been a change for me in Mexico City. I mostly had men who I was working with. And then when I moved to Oaxaca , we made a deliberate decision to try and make more space for women. Glass is also typically very male orientated There were a lot of kind of macho glass makers in Mexico City. A woman would walk by and they would whistle at them. And you were belittled for not joining in. And that’s part of the nature here. But for me, I don’t want to be harassing people.
When we came here, I wanted to make something different. And not just a safe place for women to learn and have their own income and control because Oaxaca it is a very male dominated society in general as well. A lot of times women are dependent on the men, they stay at home and they take care of the kids and then have to ask the husband for money. And sometimes the husband maybe wants to go drinking instead of taking care of the family. So being able to give women the right to have their own income is really to empower them on a really deep level because they’re in control when they have their own access to income. Obviously the wage isn’t the same as paying somebody a wage in the U.S. or in England, but certainly the benefits we can offer are much greater. We do profit sharing here, 10% of our profits go to the workers every year. We have a free day-care here and full health insurance for all our workers and their families. Paid vacation every year. Bonuses that are equivalent to one month of salary. I’m very proud of the benefits that we have here and the opportunities that we’ve created. And I think it’s a good environment.
A: It is a good environment here, we have a secure space and a big garden for all the people. And we get our birthday’s off work! And in this part of the of the city, it’s difficult to have great work pay and security. Most of the people here work in labour.
J: It’s a big farming and agricultural area here.
J: Oaxaca has an art reputation. It’s it’s important to us to encourage the people to take value in their work. When we show them the picture of the people wearing the jewellery they feel very proud of their work too.
G: They should be, the work that you guys do is mind blowing. The things that you create are so beautiful. And it’s glass!
J: There is no real glass tradition in Oaxaca. There’s a lot of arts and crafts. Every community that you go to will have a different focus. One does black clay, another one will do weaving basket, making rugs. And so every town is kind of famous for its arts and crafts. There is a tradition of people working with their hands. But a lot of times in Mexico, they don’t value handmade things as much. They would rather get an electronic thing or an iPhone or these kind of things, rather than put value in kind of the tradition that they have. And I think that people have a real sense of pride when they learn to do the glassmaking. I think that’s an important part of both piercing and glass making as it can kind of give you a sense of identity and sense of value. It’s one of the things I love about piercing as well. You know, I think it really gives people a chance to feel better about themselves, which is so important now. And there’s a parallel to that that we see with the people making glass, is a pride of gaining knowledge and being able to work with their hands. So it’s really cool.
G: I love that. So what’s in the future for Gorilla Glass?
J: Well, we’re definitely focused right now on continuing to grow the Upcycle Project. We made a commitment to reduce our use of raw material by 50% over the next ten years. So that means we’re going to start discontinuing some product lines and we’ve been stockpiling waste for 15 years. Right now we’re organizing all of our waste to figure out what materials we can continue to sell and which ones we aren’t. The glass community is really going through a crisis right now. A lot of our glass comes from the raw material because we don’t melt our own glass, we buy raw material and then we convert it into jewellery. The borosilicate glass we get all come from the Czech Republic and a lot of the soda lime glass that we get, a large amount of that comes from Italy. And both of these countries are very heavily affected right now with the situation going on with Russia and Ukraine. So a lot of the future of glass industry for me right now is kind of in doubt. What I’m pretty sure of is that glass making as we see it now isn’t going to exist in 20 years. There’s things that happen politically, you know, like the war, which obviously has a huge toll on not just human life and animal life, but it also has secondary consequences like the energy crisis that’s happening in Europe. And to me, I guess you think that life is good and it’s always going to be good and then we have these surprises, like the pandemic or this war. You got to learn to navigate the terrain. For us, since the pandemic started, we’re trying to become more efficient. A lot of just really taking care of the team, figuring out what do we need to do and what do we not need to do. We had some really big boom years where it was like, let’s grow, let’s get bigger. And now the idea is not to get bigger, the idea is to get smaller and not because we need to economically, but I think everything needs to get smaller as far as our consumption goes. We need to get smarter. We really need to take concrete steps to do that.
J: That’s the plan, to keep stepping up to upcycle more and more. We’ve cut out a lot of side projects we were doing. We had a tourism project here. We were making more mainstream jewellery and doing tours with people coming in and we’ve cancelled all of our extra projects to refocus only on piercing. I feel like the next five years is kind of a transition for me to pass the company on to the next generation and kind of leave it up to them to where it’s going to go.
G: We’re very excited to see how things progress these guys because we’re all very big fans in the studio.
J: Really appreciate that. We’ve really noticed that kind of a lot more interest from England right now and also Scotland and Ireland. There’s a whole wave of new shops getting gorilla glass. It’s exciting for us.
Here’s to 20 more years of Gorilla Glass!
The Rogue team would like to thank Jason and Atziri for their time, their hard work and all the wonderful things they do for international piercing and body modification community.
Special thanks to Poncho the donkey for his vocal contribution to the interview and for bringing endless joy to everyone!