Bespoke jewellery designer and founder of Phatsima Jewellery Designs Nontando Molefe shares her secrets to flourishing in a specialised industry that’s all about the bling.
As a naturally artistic person, businesswoman and founder of Phatsima Jewellery Designs Nontando Molefe has always had a keen interest in the process jewellery making. Molefe says that when she found out that jewellery design was offered at tertiary institutions, she jumped at the opportunity to study it. In addition to her academic subjects, Molefe specialised in fine art at the National School of the Arts in Johannesburg. One of the subjects was jewellery designing. She then obtained a national diploma from the University of Johannesburg.
In 2009, she launched Phatsima designs. “When I started out, I did everything on my own – manufacturing, marketing, seeing clients, designing etc,” Molefe says. “Once the business picked up, I hired a team. There are currently four of us. It gets to that point when it’s impossible to do everything yourself.”
Molefe says that Phatsima (which means “bling” and to “shine” in Sesotho) entered the digital space only three years ago, and relied on word of mouth before that. “For me, it’s always been important to make sure that each jewellery piece is perfect, because the person wearing that piece is advertising for me, and because of that I’ve received many referrals.”
What sets Phatsima’s pieces apart is that they aren’t mass-produced. “Most of our pieces are one-offs, giving each client the confidence that they won’t bump into someone with the same piece,” says Molefe. “We specialise in custom-made jewellery, so each piece has a personal touch, especially bridal jewellery.” Usually when couples go for wedding ring fittings, the jewellery has been tried on by every potential buyer. Molefe says her promise is that she will never reproduce a design for another customer, especially if her clients move in the same circles. “It’s about respecting every individual. I’ll offer the client something slightly different – even if it means losing business.”
Although the retail industry has been badly affected by the economy, the jewellery design industry in South Africa is growing, says Molefe, albeit at a slow pace. She recognises that jewellery isn’t a necessity and that people are watching their spending. “At times that can be a challenge,” she says. “I think there’s more room for the industry to grow, because we produce the minerals in South Africa and export to other countries. Many countries, such as India and Italy, don’t have the minerals, but they do much better than we do locally.”
Molefe says she finds inspiration in her clients because each one has something different to offer. She explains her process from idea to finished product. “Clients come with an idea and I’ll provide three or four different quotations. With rings, you can choose between 9 carat, 18 carat, palladium or diamond. Clients then choose the package they’re most happy with. To start the manufacturing process, I will need a 50% deposit. Thereafter, I work with a 3D design programme called Rhino which I use to design the rings.” She then presents the design to the client for approval before manufacturing the final piece, to avoid any nasty surprises. “I’ve never had any returns. So once the design is approved, we proceed with the manufacturing process which takes a maximum of three weeks. The balance is paid on delivery.”
Running a business doesn’t come without challenges. Molefe says that there aren’t many black women in the jewellery industry (that she’s aware of) who are doing exceptionally well and can offer guidance in the male-dominated industry. She also finds the cost of production challenging as well as finding companies within SA to supply jewellery to. She says most established local companies order jewellery from outside the country because it’s cheaper.
Phatsima’s collection consists of Victorian styles, for the fine jewellery line, and an African luxe line, which is traditional Zulu beading made modern. For this line, Molefe and the team have mixed the traditional glass beads with sterling silver, cubic zirconia and precious gemstones to simplify the style.
The most affordable designs from Molefe’s many collections are her sterling-silver pieces that start from about R500. The more precious metals start from about R3 000.
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