After graduating from the University of Washington, Bruce Schindler moved to Skagway, Alaska, to drive a tour bus over the summer of 1993. He discovered ivory carving that summer, turned the hobby into his livelihood and hasn't left the town since.
"I established a little studio in a buddy of mine's garage and I decided to charge enough for these [ivory] pieces to make a living wage," Schindler says on CNBC's "Blue Collar Millionaires."
"Everything sold. I realized, This is it. I've found my calling."
However, his material costs started adding up quickly. "I'd been buying my ivory from a middleman," he says, which was costing him up to $100 a pound. "That wasn't going to do it for me. I needed to change this model."
He realized the materials he needed were right up the road in the Canadian Yukon, where miners dig for gold. There's more than gold buried beneath the ice — there are also ancient ivory mammoth tusks.
"Mammoths have been extinct for 35,000 years," Schindler explains. "These pieces have been lost to the frozen tundra and by sheer luck, they got discovered, primarily from gold miners."
It took some time, but he eventually struck a deal with the miners who own the land. "Befriending the miners for the first time was an incredible struggle ... but I kept coming around," he says. "Over the next decade, I developed a fantastic relationship with these gold miners and that relationship has led from me buying 80 pounds of ivory to as much as 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of mammoth tusks in one single year."
Most modern ivory is banned, so Schindler's excavations provide legitimate ivory for artists, carvers, collectors and museums. Occasionally he restores tusks and sells them to galleries.
"Ninety-five percent of the mammoth tusks that I sell are pieces and fragments from rotten and broken tusks," the "Mammoth Hunter" says. "Just that special five percent can be restored and made into something beautiful and bring the mammoth back to life."
Schindler, who grew up on food stamps and in government housing in Seattle, can make anywhere from $5,000 to $65,000 selling tusks. His first year in business, Schindler Carvings made $10,000. Last year, his company made over $600,000 and his net worth reached $1.5 million.
"Don't be afraid to make a profit," Schindler tells CNBC. "So often I see people who are starting out, selling the things they make, and they don't value what they made because they made it with their own hand. But that thing they made with their own hand is more valuable than any label that's out there."
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