This story was originally published Feb. 5, 2017.
Six months ago Hallie Eban, 27, was a pre-med student seeking solace at a Buddhist monastery in Hawaii after her mother passed away. Today she is a pre-med student and founder of piet jac designs, a company that makes necklaces out of reclaimed American leather and seeds.
Born in Vietnam, Eban is a member of the Montagnard community, people from the highlands of Vietnam. Her father, she says, was a physician with the MIKE Force, part of the U.S. Army Special Forces in the Vietnam War. In 1996, through the International Organization of Migration, Eban and her family immigrated - via Brussels, New York, and San Diego - to Charlotte. They were not allowed to take financial assets out of the country they were leaving, she says, so left behind the family’s coffee plantations.
Eban earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from UNC Charlotte, and spent a year in Ecuador and Peru working with the Quechua people, but “realized I couldn’t save the world without any funds in my pocket, “ she says. In 2012 she went to work for Wells Fargo.
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When Eban’s mother died she sought solace at a monastery on the island of Kauai. One day, after meditating, she saw monks gathering blue rudraksha seeds. “They peeled the seeds, and dried them in the sun, and they poked a hole through them to make mala.”
A mala is a necklace that Oxford Reference defines “as auspicious and protective.” Traditionally composed of 108 beads, mala are often used while chanting a mantra. Many beliefs surround that number. One is that there are 108 energy lines connected to the heart. Another is that many choose to recite mantras in Sanskrit, which has an alphabet of 54 letters, each with a feminine and masculine version, which totals 108.
Eban bought about 400 seeds to support the monastery’s mission. Making necklaces proved a welcome relief to pre-med studies. “I love the arts and literature, and you have to unscrew your brain and rescrew it back in after reading so many elements of the periodic table. I needed a creative element.”
She played around with designs and settled on one for the leather necklace, and different designs for the patterns of beads.
Her first sale came when a fellow diner at Pisces Sushi one night noted her necklace and asked the hostess to find out where Eban got it: “I made one for her, and she told a friend.” She began to reach out to stylists in Charlotte, Nashville, Tenn., and Charleston through Instagram, and procured more customers. She sold them through a boutique briefly last fall; recently, she sold every piece she brought to a pop-up home sale in Charlotte.
The necklaces run $225-$295 and are named after Montagnard tribes, such as Bahnar and De Gar. Bahnar is in the coastal area, and the bright colors of this piece reflect the hand-woven tribal clothing they wear. Eban belongs to the De Gar, who live closer to the jungle, and says their colors tend to the darker blue, brownish red, green and black.
Her company name, piet jac, means “sleep well” in the language of the Rade tribe. “I lost my mother last year and my sister and father years ago, and I wanted to pay homage to them, “ she says. “You say it when someone has passed, as a farewell.”
Eban is growing piet jac slowly, but has one clear goal. “I want to get to a point in the business where a percentage of profit can go to charity.”