Marika Tamm, the owner of WildWoman jewelry store and creator of her own jewelry collection, travels often and far to find new authentic silver jewelry makers and rare jewels. Jewelry and traveling are at once a passion and profession for Marika; however, the greatest source of information and motivator, she says, is the woman as a phenomenon – or more precisely, the way femininity is seen and handled in different cultures. 

Interview conducted by Anu Vane
Photography: Marika Tamm’s private collection

What became a part of your life first: traveling or jewelry?

In my Soviet childhood, “traveling” was nothing but an unknown foreign word. But I do remember how my only purpose in life for this one moment as a small girl in the Czech amusement park was to win this ring with a pink stone the likes of which you couldn’t buy anywhere.

But more seriously, in the context of my lifestyle and jewelry business today, traveling came first. It was a dream so big that I undertook two U-turns in the name of that dream in my life. The first happened when I left a safe public sector job to establish my own company so that I could make enough money and travel until I could travel no more. During my second 180, I left that same company and my whole carefully constructed convenient life here in Estonia – all this so I could breathe in the world for real and for an extended period of time. The deeper and more serious connection with the realm of jewelry indeed took shape during my travels.

What happened? Where did the road take you; which countries or cultures caused such passion for the world of jewelry in you?

My extended travels lasted for about 2.5 years and I certainly circled the globe, I did. I’ve been a bling-o-holic all my life and I so love jewelry but I do believe I contracted a more serious case of the bling-bling gradually in India, Laos, and Thailand. It was there that I first discovered the kind of jewelry for sale the likes of which I had never seen in jewelry stores in Estonia. This was lush and robust primal silver jewelry full of countless details.

And all of a sudden I was as if enchanted: with an undoubting hand, while in a state of half-trans, I laid on the jewelry sellers’ desks amounts grabbed out of my well-planned and tight travel budget, not a care in the world for what might come tomorrow. That’s how I acquired the world’s prettiest bracelet from India, the most awesome necklace from Laos, earrings from Thailand, a ring from Vietnam...

At first, I obtained my jewelry one by one - until I got to Bali, that is. Right about then, I lost all common sense, I was overcome by some incomprehensible greed, and without stopping to think for a second, I purchased a humongous boatload of jewelry with semiprecious stones. And at some point, jewelry became the purpose of your travels? Returning home from my trip around the world with my huge pile of silver, I discovered that my girlfriends and acquaintances not only shared my infatuation with the jewelry but all but demanded that I sell them my jewelry pieces. So there was no other remedy - and I say this half-jokingly - but to go after new pieces. I started organizing trips to Bali and Peru and during all this brought more jewelry home to Estonia.

At a certain point, my sister joined me and after that, we took most of the trips together to discover new venues for cool authentic silver jewelry. Next to the opportunity to travel, this business contained another awesome aspect – we could buy (indeed, yes, for sale) all the jewelry our hearts desired.

What are the most special places you’ve visited on your jewelry hunt? These places cannot be the safest, can they; besides, the jewelry business is a rather masculine endeavor in which a small defenseless woman might feel threatened.

Perhaps it is not the places that are special but the people you meet and the situations you find yourself in. Stepping out of your safety zone even a little - and that’s exactly what we have done - your head always takes over. You might even say that a little naivety and scarce information benefits an adventure as, going into it like that, you have no fears.

More than once, we just flew someplace where it seemed we could come about some exciting jewelry, grabbed a taxi or a rental car, and had a driver, for example, take us to a silver spot as they saw fit. That’s how we drove in the Moroccan desert for eight hours, only to discover that the highly praised Moroccan silver is either not silver at all or comes from an Asian country. And then we drove back for another eight hours, feeling defeated…

In Kenya, we embarked upon an insanely dangerous motorcycle ride right through a tribal war and across a steep mountain range to visit different tribes in search of local handmade items. The journey that was supposed to last for two hours actually continued for 14 hours and concluded with us reaching an amazing destination with not a single piece of jewelry in sight.

We sat in an Indian rickshaw, going back and forth for hours in a city block any normal tourist would pay to avoid; we, however, believed the rickshaw driver’s fables about knowing an excellent jeweler there. Halfway through our journey, it became clear the rickshaw driver actually knew exactly zero jewelers and he embarked on a nervous endeavor to call everyone he knew for any useful clue at all, while aimlessly circling the streets of the surrounding slum. Suddenly his research paid off and we began to knock on one door after another until we found our to-this-day best-polished stone supplier.

The purchase process itself proved a true reality series – to buy said stones, these “small defenseless women” had to spend days in a tiny room packed with men intoxicated with the scent of making a big buck. The air was pregnant with the smell of curry and tension – everyone wanted to make a big and expensive sell to the small women. The small women understood not a word of the local language, yet wished to pay as cheap a price as possible. So it was that all of these men one by one demonstrated their stones to us and, mixing Estonian, Hindi, and body language, discussions on quality were held as well as numerous bargaining sessions in the course of which voices were raised in an aggressive manner. At times it felt like someone might lose their cool because you’re not signing up for enough; other times we sensed we were seriously bamboozled in terms of the price. These are perhaps not moments where we felt the safest, yet, looking back, all of it makes for an awesome experience or, indeed, an adventure.

I also had a cool adventure on Lombok, Bali’s neighboring island. I had once purchased premium high-quality pearls there from a trader named Ali. A year later I wanted to visit him again but I didn’t have any of his contact details. So it was that I just headed on to Lombok, got off the boat, and got a hold of the first motorbiker I saw. I asked him whether he knew Ali the pearl trader. He didn’t but he did know someone else that also sold pearls. We saw a number of different people, drove all around the island, found Ali that, alas, was not THAT Ali. The next morning we finally came across a boy whose uncle was THAT Ali and I caught Ali the Pearl Trader at his house. We sat on the floor in his bedroom and began picking out the world’s prettiest and highest quality pearls from these big boxes stored under Ali’s bed...

The procedures, methods, places, and situations related to trading in Asia are at times quite incomprehensible to a westerner. This is why you have to be able to adapt quickly to local conditions and understand that pretty, expensive places are meant for tourists for a touristic price - what you need to do is find the suppliers and resellers for these tourist stores. This, however, calls for quite an adventurer’s soul and a strong set of nerves.

Ali with the pearls...

How many situations have you been in where you felt like “this might not have been the greatest of ideas?

The most unexpected events have so far occurred time and time again in India – it’s just a country where the (business) culture is utterly unexpected, unforeseeable, and different. For example, an indicator of an Indian businessman’s success is oftentimes his ability to have the best of his customers or, the way we see it, cheat his customers out of their money. So it was that we placed an order for jewelry and, naive as we were, paid the whole amount in advance.

The Indians wanted to mail the jewelry to Estonia but an inner voice told me to go there myself to pick up the order. Once there, we looked at the ordered jewelry and all of the pieces seemed weird, “not to our taste”. It took a while before we realized that the designs were the same while all of the jewelry pieces were half their intended size and weight (meaning that less material had been used). But the prices were the same! That’s when things took a bit of a critical turn indeed. After all, we had already paid. Digging deep into the Estonian temperament, we employed our entire emotional arsenal against the Indians: we cried, we yelled, we begged, we spewed out threats... The Indians sat opposite us, scowling at us with their arms folded, and remained silent. After one year, we nevertheless managed to get our money back.

Another incident that comes to mind also took place in India. As it were, I wanted to send my jewelry loot to Estonia while I kept on my travels for some time. That being said, I was in a small town, looking for a transport company. I found one, proudly established in what to us looks like a ramshackle shed, donning a cardboard sign with “DHL” scribbled on it. I left them all of my jewelry and having in return obtained a “receipt” - a piece of paper torn from a notebook - that included the word “Transport”, relevant amount, and my Estonian address, I was assured the package would be there in two weeks. I believed them. I flew away from the town. I waited. Not sleeping at night. Waited. Lost hope. Waited. In my head wrote off the jewelry and relevant large amounts of money. Cursed my stupidity to the bottom of the bottomless pit. Still hoped. Cried. Lost hope. Until... In eight weeks, my package arrived in Estonia. I cursed myself for my lost nerves to the bottom of the bottomless pit.

Marika in Ecuador

What do you think is your craziest endeavor or travel destination?

In no way related to jewelry, the title of the craziest trip ever goes hands down to Papua New Guinea where, regardless of technological advances of the world, the time has stopped and the crudeness of the customs and rituals still in use would leave Estonians dumbfounded. The locals’ world view and beliefs are as if plucked from fairytales or our own centuries-old runic songs with their incredible mystical storylines.

For example, in Papua New Guinea it is completely normal for a woman whose husband or child dies to chop off her pinkie so as to kill emotional pain with physical pain. As part of the manhood ritual, men’s backs are inflicted with countless wounds using a razor blade to give them crocodile skin. We met a man that out of great respect had eaten both his brothers. The locals believe that light-skinned people are from the spirit realm and that objects can transform into people. Papua New Guinea has no developed infrastructure, that is to say, there are no roads and no tourism experience, on account of which locals have a difficult time grasping why you would show up there at all. This means that tourists are not welcomed in a particularly friendly manner. There’s a constant danger of being caught in a feud between two warring tribes and it is not recommended at all to walk the streets of the capital city without a bodyguard. All the same, the entire culture has such a genuine ring to it which one can say stirs certain memories deep in our DNA - each day is a whole new cultural adventure. What has been the greatest experience on your jewelry trek?

The coolest feeling on a jewelry trek and when traveling, in general, is that you begin to feel at home anywhere in the world. The more of the world you visit and the more people you meet, the more friends and business partners you’ll acquire, making the world one big friendly village. Thanks to this network, everything is safer, and doing business in any country on the globe is somehow easy and natural.

Another Aha-Erlebnis I’ve gained is that no matter the nationality, wealth, or civilized origin of a woman, she is still a Woman or, in other words, jewelry is adored everywhere. Having visited more than 70 countries, I can say that jewelry in any and every culture constitutes something that is a part of being a woman. It is something that is a good luck charm or a means of communication or a symbol of status.

So it is that on a deserted Tibetan plateau you’ll pump into women with weathered cheeks whose neck or ears are at all times decorated with coral or turquoise jewelry. In the Amazon jungle, there might not be any food to eat, yet the shaman woman has hung around her person necklaces of dried berries and small beads. I have never laid eyes on an Indian woman without jewelry, no matter if she’s from a royal family or lives on the street. On the outskirts of Kenya where quite possibly there is no electricity and water, the sign of a married woman is necklaces of colorful beads that are sometimes more valuable than a cow or a goat. That is why the greatest crowds at the market always gather around the jewelry stand and the first thing a woman notices on another woman is her jewelry. This is the world of a women’s secret power.

Finally, exotic ethnic jewelry sure is striking but it must be way too much for an Estonian woman’s taste. How has jewelry like that been received?

The greatest shock or discovery in the jewelry business for me was that, when it comes down to it, the jewelry business is a masculine endeavor. This means that most jewelry pieces in all our stores are designed by men, made by men, and sold by men. This in turn means that we wear jewelry that men want to see on us and not jewelry that expresses the particular woman herself. On account of this, I want to make an offer of jewelry that can be described as “by a woman for a woman”. Regardless of any “normality” or “cultural norm” or even tradition, not once in my life have I seen a standard woman.

WildWoman’s jewelry purchased from all around the world is rather meant for a woman that cares less about fashion and more about her own authentic style. Feminine beauty lies, after all, in the uniqueness of each and every woman – we have women that adore large jewelry and women that feel comfortable in a more modest form. Consequently, the jewelry we have brought here does not include items of mass production and certainly does not constitute the latest fashion sensation but, rather, comprises timeless individuality.

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