Jabebo Earrings: Inspired by pets and wildlife

by Tara Caimi for Pawsitively Pets magazine ~

It’s been almost twenty years since Kevin Abbott made his first pair of mismatched earrings—a sun and a moon—as a present for his future wife. Back then, neither predicted the gesture would grow into the full-time business they now own and run, Jabebo Earrings, specializing in nature-inspired designs.

With a bachelor’s degree in biology, Kevin started his career in Florida collecting data on manatees. After several years, he entered the Peace Corps and taught science in Kenya. There, he met his future wife, Mary, who was teaching for an international schools organization.

One Valentine’s day, Kevin presented Mary with a wooden carving of a manatee. This gave Mary the idea for a pair of earrings featuring complementary images. “I thought he’d carve them out of wood,” she said, tilting her head to reveal a miniature calico cat dangling from her right ear.

Instead of wood, Kevin crafted those first earrings out of paper. “I shrunk the drawing down on a black and white copying machine,” he said, smiling at how far the process has come since then. Rather than painting miniature black and white copies with a tiny brush or even, Mary recalls, a toothpick, Kevin now draws his designs on the computer using a stylus that allows him to further fine-tune details.

The earrings are made from post-consumer cereal boxes and water-based latex paint. Each design features differing but complementary left and right images. “Together,” Kevin said, “they illustrate narrative ideas about our world.”

Kevin and Mary began selling their earrings to students, volunteers, and friends while they were living in Kenya. They formalized the business in 1995, settling on the name Jabebo, which is a combination of Kevin’s last name and Mary’s maiden name. Since that first set of mismatched earrings was conceived, their business has evolved organically and in ways neither had anticipated.

“First it was like an idea that moved into a hobby that evolved into making a little money on the side by doing craft shows,” Kevin said. “As we figured out more efficient ways to make them, we were able to wholesale them.”

Today, Jabebo Earrings can be found in almost every state across the country with more than 200 designs now available.

According to Mary, owning a business is not what they had in mind upon returning from Africa. “I was going to get my master’s degree, and Kevin was going to get his teaching certification,” she said. “Then we were going to go back overseas.”

After learning she was pregnant and subsequently having twins, those plans changed. For a time, the couple lived in Washington, D.C., where Kevin worked at the Smithsonian. After several years, they moved to central Pennsylvania, where Mary had grown up.

They settled in Bellefonte, and Kevin focused on the earring business, which he ran out of their home. “It quickly became my primary creative outlet as I learned to customize the earrings to appeal to specialized tastes,” he said.

With his background in biology, it made sense for Kevin to merge science and education through nature-inspired designs. This explains why most of his designs feature animals. “I don’t go to trade shows,” Kevin said. “I go to wildlife refuges, nature centers, museums, preserves, and parks. I visit their visitor centers and see species that don’t happen anywhere else.”

The nature preserves and wildlife refuges that carry Jabebo Earrings have a particular focus on the animals and wildlife that are native to their locations. Kevin takes special care to accurately depict this wildlife because he wants his clientele to benefit from having his work in their respective stores.

He finds the educational component to be a fun source of inspiration for new ideas. A case in point is his Chemistry Mole design. One earring features a mole holding a test tube and the other is a mole sitting snugly inside of a beaker. Playing on the double meaning of the word mole, which is also a measurement used in chemistry, this design is a favorite product of the National Mole Day Foundation. “Science teachers love to have this kind of thing to wear in the classroom,” Kevin said.

Pets are another source of inspiration for Kevin’s designs, as apparent by Mary’s calico cat earrings. He is currently working on a new pet design for an upcoming trip to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, UT.

For several weeks out of each year, Kevin travels to visit locations that sell his earrings, make new contacts, and find inspiration for new designs. “I’m going out on the trails hiking—I’ll spend days volunteering in their shops if they let me,” he said.

As demand for the earrings grew, so did the business. Last year, the couple moved Jabebo Earrings out of their home and into a retail location in Bellefonte. “Already,” said Mary, “Kevin is talking about expanding.”

Kevin admits he’d like to more completely merge his passion for science with the business. “I’ve been to nature centers that actually have a business on the side,” he said. “I would love to make this as much of a museum experience as anything else. That would kind of complete the circle and get me back to where I started.”

Mary counts the unexpected growth of the business as a happy surprise. In April, she resigned from her job to focus full time on Jabebo Earrings.

“It’s pretty amazing that this small idea has grown into something so huge—that now is officially supporting our whole family,” she said. “If you’d have told me that Kevin would make a full-time career making earrings out of cereal boxes, I would have said, ‘no way.’”

Jabebo Earrings can be found at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, Wiscoy for Animals, Tate Farm Foods, and Victorian House Antiques. The retail store and production facility is located at 224 W. High Street in Bellefonte. More information is available at http://www.jabebo.com/.

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