Diamonds may forever be a girl’s best friend, but there is no love lost in the world of jewellery designing and manufacturing.
This is the reality the once starry-eyed Nontando Molefe has come to appreciate on her journey to become the first top black woman jewellery designer and manufacturer in South Africa.
The 30-something lass, who hails from Lamontville in Durban, has always had a designing streak. Her father was a musician and her mother Busi Molefe was a part of the first Ipi Tombi cast in the late 50s to early 60s. Sadly, her parents divorced when she was still a teenager.
After completing her matric Molefe came to Johannesburg in 1998 and decided to enrol with the National School of the Arts to study jewellery designing. Not content with her qualifications, she decided to go a step further and enrolled at the University of Johannesburg to study for a degree in Jewellery Designing and Manufacturing. She completed her degree in the record time of three years and thought she had what it takes to set the industry on fire.
“But how wrong I was. There was still much to learn,” she says matter-of-factly. She started her own business Phatsima Jewellery Design in 2009 from a garage at her home in Randburg. Phatsima is the Sesotho word for “bling” or “shine”.
In 2013 that Molefe learned from a friend about [email protected], which is part of the Jewellery Manufacturing Precinct (JMP) situated near OR Tambo International Airport.
The JMP is a subsidiary company of the Gauteng Growth and Development Agency. It’s a multi-purpose precinct development centred around the beneficiation of jewellery, precious and semi-precious minerals mined in South Africa, designed to contribute to the export of beneficiated mineral products.
The [email protected] Academy accepts only those with some jewellery work experience and those who have graduated with a bachelor’s degree, which meant another full year of study for Molefe.
As she explains: “The programme helped to make my work to be of international standard. It has helped me to work faster and even improved my presentation to my clients. It taught me the tricks of the trade.”
With 10 years in the industry and armed with a postgraduate course from [email protected] Academy, Molefe says she is more mature and ready to pursue her dream. And she is not just looking at the local market: she wants her Phatsima Jewellery Design company to have an international footprint. Two months ago she was in Hong Kong, where she exhibited her wares at the Hong Kong Gem and Jewellery Fair, where she met other jewellery manufacturers from all over the world. “I learnt a lot just by interacting with other designers and manufacturers. I would really like to do more of these overseas exhibitions.”
While she praised the work done by [email protected], she feels they could do a lot more, for instance, to help students gain stronger market access. She says support for local jewellery manufacturers is limited and at the same time, pieces are expensive. She thinks [email protected] should create projects where its students work with established jewellery companies to help them establish contacts.
Molefe’s advice to budding jewellery manufacturers is that they need to ensure that every single piece they do is perfect. But more importantly, she adds: “Be fearless, be bold, and do not allow yourself to be intimidated. Be your own cheerleader.”
With role models such as Basetsana Khumalo and Khanyi Dlhlomo, Molefe says her skies have no limits. Judging by her enthusiasm, it won’t be long before Phatsima Jewellery Design is up there with the best in the industry. You go, girl!
Vying for a piece of the shine
South Africa’s gems and precious metals exports reached a whopping US$14.6-billion last year alone. This was a total of 17.9% and highest of all export products in the country, followed by vehicles at $9.2-billion (11.3%), and ores, slag and ash at $8.6-billion (10.5%).
Yet, the country remains a small player when it comes to the lucrative game of polishing and cutting of these materials is concerned. The big guns in the game are Israel, India and Belgium.
In fact South Africa even lags behind smaller neighbour Botswana, which has a thriving diamond cutting and polishing market, driven by a partnership with mining giant De Beers.
“It is unfair that we are such a small player in our industries,” says Seipati Mangadi, chief executive of the Gauteng Growth and Development Agency’s [GGDA] Gauteng Industrial Development Zone [GIDZ].
The GIDZ’s mission is to “identify, design and enable focused manufacturing and beneficiation programmes that will increase industrialisation and manufacturing capability in targeted, export-driven sectors in the region, whilst stimulating skills development, promoting job creation and investment opportunities through public and private partnerships and diversifying the province’s economy”.
One of the GIDZ’s flagship projects is the R267-million Jewellery Manufacturing Precinct (JMP) located strategically at the OR Tambo International Airport in Kempton Park, Johannesburg. Mangadi says the precinct will also perform supporting services that include trading, testing and certification and banking services.
She says that the GIDZ’s mandate is to develop and drive the provincial government’s re-industrialisation programme: “We are not in the business of running industries.” The GIDZ framework seeks to target local and foreign direct investment, drive group strategy in industries such as mining and diversify the export of goods. They also have the demanding task of attracting local and foreign direct investment.
According to the business website Insider Monkey: “130 000 000 carats of diamonds are mined annually, with a total value of nearly US$9-billion. After they are mined, they can be used for industrial or gemstone purposes.”
Many of the diamonds headed to Botswana for polishing are actually flown from the OR Tambo Airport, right on the doorstep of the JMP.
Mangadi says they are working on strategies to change the status quo and move from being observers to players. She says they are looking at engaging countries in the SADC region and elsewhere on the continent, Europe and even India to see how Gauteng can become a serious player in the industry.
The JMP’s focus is on jewellery manufacturing. This includes the cutting, polishing and finishing of precious stones and support services, including logistics, insurance, finance and licensing.
Mangadi says the JMP’s programmes will help drive the GIDZ to drive inclusive, export-driven economic growth. She says although the first phase of the project is aimed at the jewellery manufacturing sector, the GGDA plans to rope in other industries to help create jobs and produce entrepreneurs.
Initially, there was concern that very few students from the sector were making it into the JMP project. “There are many institutions that offer courses in jewellery studies. Now we were wondering, where do they [graduates] go after qualifying?” asks Mangadi.
Many still find it hard to make it in this rather exclusive sector, which for many years was the sole preserve of the rich, meaning entry into the market and becoming a serious role player required the financial backing that many previously disadvantaged players did not have.
Efforts were made to find and recruit prospective students for training in the JMP. Some had given up on every following a career in the world of precious stones and had been working in hair salons and other small business sectors just to survive.
But Mangadi is happy with the progress made by the JMP. Some of its students have already produced impressive works, which are now being sold on the market, and another intake is already undergoing the rigorous training regime. The JMP takes up to 15 students a year but is looking to increase the number. Mangadi says the good news is that despite the tough global economic times, the jewellery sector “has not only weathered the storm, but it has thrived”. This in turn, means the sector could well become the shining jewel required to brighten up Gauteng and in turn, the South African economy.
But it’s not been all plain sailing in luring investors to embrace the GIDZ. Mangadi says the uncertainty created by global economic issues such as include Brexit and Donald Trump’s shock victory in the US elections results in very slow processes by prospective investors. Mangadi says they become more hesitant and tend to hold back, adopting a wait-and-see attitude. — Lucas Ledwaba