Terra Natural Designs, a gorgeous new store featuring artisanal housewares, jewelry, and accessories beautifully handcrafted by indigenous people in Ecuador, has opened just in time for holiday shopping. Motivated by their passion for handmade, fair-trade products from native communities—and “everything that surrounds that”—Chilean-American owners Jesse Schele and Pamela Soto Krarup have created a family business that supports free trade while providing high-quality, affordable goods.
“Jesse and I never wanted to bring products that were so expensive that nobody could buy them,” Pam says. “I really feel like anybody and everybody should be able to have access to these kind of products.”
The Scheles may be familiar to local shoppers. After moving to Fairfield in 2008, they spent years on the craft fair and farmer’s market scenes, selling South American arts and crafts. Then they shifted their focus to selling through retail clients and boutiques, with their warehouse based in Fairfield.
When prime retail space opened up on the Fairfield square recently, they jumped at the chance. “Actually, having a store has been our dream since we started,” Jesse says. While they have products in thousands of health and lifestyle chains nationwide, this is the first time all their products have been on display in one place.
The Scheles, with help from Pam’s sister Tita, brother-in-law Ivan, and their store manager, Leila Montgomery, have transformed the former Bookhouse location into a colorful oasis. “One thing people really like about our products is our variety of colors and styles,” Jesse says. Handbags, purses, gloves, slippers, ponchos, winter accessories, and gorgeous jewelry are tastefully arranged on shelving and displays that were custom made by local craftspeople. Comfortable chairs are circled near the front window, where patrons can watch videos about the artisans. A children’s nook with a playhouse teepee offers an imaginative shopping experience for the younger set.
One of Terra’s hallmark products is stunning jewelry created from seeds that are sustainably harvested from the rainforest. The most intriguing material is the tagua nut. Called “vegetable ivory” by some, the tagua nut has a gelatinous edible exterior and a seed resembling an avocado pit with an inner ivory core. “What’s amazing is, instead of rotting with time like most fruit, it actually hardens and almost petrifies,” Jesse explains. “It looks like it’s made from elephant tusks. But we’re not killing any beings to use it.” Jesse adds that providing a market for tagua nuts and other rainforest seeds encourages farmers to protect the forest and plant more trees.
Unlike many similar import businesses, the Scheles work directly with their artisans to develop products that will appeal to American consumers. “It’s a collaboration,” Jesse explains. “We learn from each other, essentially. We learn about their culture and how they do things. And then they learn from us, because we have the experience of what an American consumer is looking for.”
When developing products, Pam tries to bring the beauty and meaning of traditional indigenous culture into a modern context, to create something people would wear with their everyday outfits. Jesse says their decades of craft fair experience helped them really get to know what people are interested in.
In 2012, after realizing that their niche market was the health and wellness sector, they focused on accounts with Whole Foods, Wegmans, and other natural grocers and healthy lifestyle outlets. “The people that go to the health food store are looking for something fair trade, that is handmade, that you cannot find at Walmart,” Pam says. “They can see the impact of their choices. So it’s a better match for us.”
After getting frustrated with commercially available display shelving, the Scheles designed their own. The white tower display is basically a tiny gift shop, showcasing pieces from Terra’s latest collection of scarves, hats, and jewelry. “We call it a retail solution,” Jesse says. “It’s a one-stop shop.” Local shoppers may have noticed Terra’s display at Everybody’s Whole Foods.
Three years ago, the Scheles moved to Ecuador to be closer to their Quichua artisans, but their main warehouse remains in Fairfield. “Jess had connections all over South America, but we really had to find a hub, because the import and export was a nightmare when we worked with two to three different countries,” Pam says. “And there is a very, very special place in Ecuador that holds markets with hundreds and hundreds of artisans. They have kept their culture by selling their craft.” When people can stay home and work, they don’t have to leave to find jobs in bigger cities.
“We’ve created a business model that basically takes out the middleman,” Pam continues. “We go from developing the product with the artisan and supervising production to selling directly to the health food store or the supermarket. Our prices are so reasonable compared to any other fair-trade or sustainable brands that we have been very successful.”
Because their artisans and suppliers are home based, the quarantine didn’t negatively affect their business. “All the other factories were closed,” she says. “Since we all worked from home, we didn’t have to stop working. Basically, no one was offering masks because everything was shut down. We were the main supplier for our major clients for face coverings. And we were able to open an enormous amount of accounts. It was a very explosive year for us.”
Jesse credits strong support from both sides of their family as part of their success. “I’m really proud of us,” he says. “I feel like we’re a testament to the idea that if you really want something and persist, you can achieve it—as corny as it sounds. We were ready to give up so many times, because it was hard, but we persisted.”
Terra Naturals is located at 56 E. Burlington in Fairfield. For more information, visit TerraNaturalDesigns.