By Lisa Barron
(Reuters) - A social entrepreneur is accusing a Connecticut designer who worked with Newark, New Jersey police to melt illegal guns into jewelry of stealing his idea and business model, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court.
Peter Thum, a co-founder of an organization called Fonderie 47, claims he shared his idea with Jessica Mindich of Greenwich, Connecticut and her company, Jewelry for a Cause, who implemented it in Newark without his permission.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Connecticut last week, asks the court to prevent Mindich and her company from advertising themselves as the originators of the concept. It also seeks an undetermined amount of punitive damages.
Mindich told Reuters the lawsuit is without merit.
"Melting down guns and turning them into symbols of hope is something that has been practiced for many years," she said in an email on Monday.
In his lawsuit, Thum said he designed and implemented a program to buy AK-47 assault rifles from governments in Africa, make them into jewelry for sale and use part of the proceeds to fund more weapon buy-back programs.
Thum claims he shared his concept and business structure in detail with Mindich at a conference for social entrepreneurs in December 2011.
He said the conference, whose location was not disclosed in the lawsuit, was covered by written and implied confidentiality provisions.
The online registration portion of the invitation-only conference, called "The Weekend to be Named Later," says: "Poaching ideas isn't cool anywhere, but at the Weekend it's grounds for death by stoning."
In what his lawsuit referred to as the "social purpose business," success is linked to being the first to implement a program designed to solve a social problem, it said.
Mindich told Thum she wanted to do something similar in New Jersey but he said no, said Thum's attorney, Judd Burstein.
Mindich promised in writing to abandon her project but nevertheless used the idea in the gun buy-back program in Newark in January, according to the lawsuit.
The Newark program dubbed "Caliber Collection" featured steel bangles and cuffs made from illegal guns and brass pieces made from casings swept from city crime scenes.
The cuffs and bracelets, available with or without diamonds, ranged in price from $150 for a steel cuff to $375 for a brass bangle with diamonds, Jewelry for a Cause said on its website.
A portion of the proceeds was earmarked to fund gun buy-back amnesty programs in Newark, New Jersey's largest city which is plagued by gun violence.
So far, $60,000 in proceeds have gone back to Newark to fund the purchase of more illegal guns, said Mindich, who said the program grew out of a discussion she had with Newark Mayor Cory Booker in December 2011.
"Fonderie 47 chose not to participate in this effort," she said.
Mindich noted that in the 1980s, San Francisco Mayor Diane Feinstein had her own handgun and others melted down and made into a cross which was presented to Pope John Paul II.
In 2003, guns seized in Orange County, California were melted down into rebar, steel rods used in construction, while Britain's Guns to Goods melts weapons into an array of products and California-based Bullets 4 Peace makes jewelry out of bullet casings, she said.
"All of these approaches have their routes in the ancient biblical reference of turning swords into ploughshares," she said in her email.
Thum's lawsuit said the weapons were re-purposed as "Caliber Collection" jewelry to be promoted at the MTV Movie Awards on television.
"Mindich cynically rode the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy into a nationally publicized and, for her, lucrative partnership with MTV," it said.
"In order to accomplish this task, Mindich has brazenly lied about the source of her business, instead telling the media no less than four different stories about the supposed inspiration for a concept that, in reality, she simply pilfered," it said.
Last December, a gunman shot and killed 26 people at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, spurring demands nationwide for tougher gun control laws.
If he wins the case, Thum will donate all damages awarded, aside from court costs, to charities working to reduce gun violence, his attorney said.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Eric Walsh)