Designers with precious mettle

A range of local jewellery events and collections on this week draw the wealth of indigenous materials that South African jewellers have at their disposal, from gold, platinum and diamonds to beads and animal hides.

The country’s first jewellery show, dedicated exclusively to bead jewellery, opens on Friday.

Also taking inspiration from our local bounty is Veronica Anderson, who has titled her store’s new collection in gold Sundrenched in Africa.

Targeting a completely different market is the kwaito jewellery collection, which is inspired by local music and is an innovation of the Imfundiso Skills Development Project.

Despite positive developments in the industry, it has yet to meet the government’s expectations of becoming a vibrant, job-creating sector of the economy.

The country’s mineral wealth and the government’s stated commitment to beneficiation should make the country a successful jewellery manufacturer, said Lourens Maré, CEO of the Jewellery Council. But financial obstacles and difficulties in accessing materials present challenges to this vision.


The council is a Section 21 company that acts as the umbrella body for individual manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers associations. It also organises Jewellex—the largest jewellery show in the southern hemisphere and runs the Jewellery Council Collection Award.

Jewellers often have to borrow money at relatively high interest rates to cover metal costs, said Maré. Moreover, retailers tend not to pay on delivery, but only a month or two later when the pieces are likely to have been sold.

Many development initiatives such as the Imfundiso project are unable to give their students extensive experience in using gold and must use less costly materials such as silver and brass.

These costs mean that jewellery designers can rarely afford to develop their own brands. A few well-known retailers such as Jenna Clifford exist, but South Africa still awaits its Sun Goddesses and Stoned Cherries to emerge in the jewellery sector.

‘You tend to end up with retail and not manufacturing brands,” said Maré, who added that this handicaps the industry in its competition with other luxury products.

Foschini is the largest retailer, which owns stores such as American Swiss and Sterns, and other big retailers include Galaxy and Arthur Kaplan. ‘[Branding] is starting to become more apparent in the higher-end stores or linked to development products” Maré said.

The display cases in Veronica Anderson’s gallery reflect the individual designers who produce each piece. One of the designers for the Sundrenched in Africa collection, Carla Frank, said most retailers ‘do not have the guts” to market jewellery in this way, possibly out of fear that the designer’s fame might eclipse its own brand.

To manage the costs of purchasing expensive metals, Frank said she might ask for a 50% deposit from clients when using platinum or large quantities of gold. She recently set up her own workshop with enormous start-up costs going to items such as imported specialist tools. A workshop also has to meet certain safety and security standards before some one can get a permit.

For Veronica Anderson’s collection, Frank used 36g of gold to create a glittering flower. Although this is more gold than she usually uses, she said she tends to use some gold along with silver because South Africans often view pieces that are only in silver as ‘cheap”. She added that the market has been responding favorably to bold pieces employing large semi-precious stones such as jasper or aquamarine.

The pieces in Veronica Anderson’s collections reflect an African spirit without being overtly ethnic. She creates her collections by commissioning several goldsmiths to create six unique pieces around a theme.

Her past two platinum collections were only feasible because Absa Bank helped with financing the metal, she said, adding that the cost of between R50 000 and R150 000 to set up a workbench means that goldsmiths still mostly tend to be white.

The store’s products range from R1 000 to R60 000, with an average price of between R5 000 and R10 000.

Several competitions within the industry help jewellers operate in a high-cost environment.

The De Beers Shining Light Diamond Design Awards is a competition that enables jewellers to overcome the prohibitive price of diamonds by selecting winning sketching and producing the pieces for designers. Last year, they selected 10 sketches from more than 1 000 submissions.

The company then costs the pieces and finds clients. The collection is taken to 15 countries around the world and the overall winner receives a cash prize.

AngloGold Ashanti Auditions is another competition that selects more than 10 designers and promotes the winning designs. This year’s theme is kinetic architecture and the winners will be announced in October.

Imfundiso founder Isaac Nkwe said his students work mostly in brass and silver because gold is too expensive. Nkwe established Imfundiso in 1995, when the department of minerals and energy started the minerals beneficiation project. Since then, with financial support from AngoGold Ashanti, De Beers and other sponsors, he has established six schools across the country that train 75 people a year.

One student, Nelson Zwane, designed the necklace that Tsotsi star Terry Pheto wore to the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles.

In April, the schools sent some of their jewellery to Austria to participate in a show, along with South African fashion and music, at a collaborative exhibition with universities in Austria and Bratislava.

Imfundiso is also working on a ‘kwaito” jewellery collection, which targets the youth in the bling jewellery tradition.

Nkwe said graduates either study further, get jobs in the industry or set up their own jewellery repair stores. Such stores might require a capital injection of about R15 000. Imfundiso is looking into projects to develop the business skills of students and to help them access loans and finance.

Nkwe said that a challenge is for the industry to absorb black jewellers, explaining that some white employers have looked askance at his student’s qualifications.

Encouraging the few dominant large manufactures to shift into export markets could help newcomers get a foothold in the industry for domestic consumption, said Maré. With only about 1% of the international market, he said that the industry had a ‘lot of space to grow into”.

There are about 2 500 to 2 800 South African jewellers, he said, referring to the number of people who have received permits to trade in precious metals, but there are only about 300 to 500 mainstream jewellery companies and the remainder tend to comprise smaller operations that operate less regularly. Only about 20 local companies are involved in the export trade, with one factory in Cape Town responsible for up to 80% of exports.

The entire local jewellery industry could fit into a single manfaucturing company in India, Maré said. Relatively higher labour costs and the size of the industry rules out competition with mass-produced goods from India or China. South Africa has had more success competing in upmarket goods and would tend towards niche markets because of its smaller capacity, Maré said.

Bedazzling beads

Jewellery incorporating materials as diverse as expensive Japanese seed beads to recycled bottle caps will be on show at the Sandton Convention Centre this weekend at Beadex.

Beadex is the country’s first jewellery show dedicated to bead jewellery and runs from this Friday to Sunday.

It will feature a cultural village that exhibits beaders from across South Africa and their work in decor, clothing and furniture.

Bethuel Mapheto said he looks forward to exhibiting his pieces at the show.

When I called him, he was in his studio in the Bus Factory in Newtown working on an order for 250 pieces that he received from a British buyer who saw his wares at the Design Indaba in February this year. He says that he has an export license and has exported his work before.

Mapheto submitted a brooch as an entry in a Beadex design competition and has been selected as a finalist. He usually makes watches, clocks and brooches out of recycled materials, such as bottle caps.

In contrast to Mapheto’s products, which cost less than R50, Arnia van Vuuren’s pieces cost between R250 and R5 000. Mapheto said he takes about 30 minutes to make a brooch, while Van Vuuren said her entry into the Beadex competition took her 100 hours to make.

One reason for the hefty price tag of her pieces is the expensive input materials: Japanese seed beads, Swarkovski crystals and hand-made glass beads. A 24-carat gold-plated glass seed bead can cost about R8 per gram while hand-made glass beads cost between R210 and R315 each.

‘Diamonds and gold are just so boring but beads have colour and a story to them. The possibilities are just endless,” she enthused. Trained as a sociologist, KwaZulu Natal-based Van Vuuren got into beadwork via her hobbyist enthusiasm for lace.

She works primarily with imported beads and says she looks forward to seeing what local beads area available at Beadex.

Van Vuuren was also selected as a finalist in the Beadex competition for a piece incorporating seed beads from Japan and Czechoslovakia and a carnelian stone.

Participants can attend more than 60 workshops offered by teachers from South Africa, Senegal, the United States and Zimbabwe.

Sun Goddess co-founder and creative director Vanya Mangaliso has been chosen as the face of Beadex and Sun Goddess fashion shows will run daily during the exhibition.

The exhibition costs R40 for adults and R20 for scholars and pensioners. Children under the age of seven get free admission.—Tumi Makgetla