Polishing tomorrow's gems

The Ekurhuleni Jewellery Project in Gauteng trains aspiring designers and gives graduates an incubated space to start their own businesses.

The Ekurhuleni Municipality east of Johannesburg, one of the most densely populated areas in South Africa, is sometimes referred to as “Africa’s workshop” because it is home to many factories producing a wide range of goods.

Nestled within South Africa’s largest gold refinery  is a smaller workshop with a more creative focus – the Ekurhuleni Jewellery Project. Here, young entrepreneurs and designers learn traditional jewellery making skills such as the lost-wax casting  process, polishing and basic stone-setting in a the Training for the Trade program which runs for 18 months.

The project is typically open to students from the Ekurhuleni municipality and surrounding areas such as Germiston and Vosloorus. “We also have students coming from as far as Vereeniging,” says Zandi Botman, business and development manager. 

Lincoln Mokoena, who has more than 20 years of industry experience working as a jeweller, is the project’s chief lecturer. He has won two Thutuka Jewellery Awards in 2012 for excellence in jewellery making and 2013 for trainers and alumni.

The project tackles the unemployment and skills-development challenges facing marginalised communities in the municipality and the jewellery industry of South Africa as a whole.

The Rand Refinery and Small Enterprise Development Agency which funds the Ekurhuleni Jewellery project, provides a workspace and gives students access to precious metals. “Students are first trained in brass, before they can then graduate to precious metals like silver,” says Botman.

“The project is growing in leaps and bounds,” he adds. “People are very impressed with it. They want to put their children in the project because [these skills are] lacking in our communities.”

The support students receive extends to funds for lunch and transport. “It’s quite advantageous, it makes sense to people,” Botman says.

Botman estimates that 70% of graduates are employed within the formal jewellery industry, with Brown's jewellers taking many of their graduates. He is confident the project is having an impact:  “The programme makes sense to people around here who love to work with their hands.”

And for designers who have already studied jewellery design and manufacturing at a tertiary level and want to take the next step, the Ekurhuleni Jewellery Project has a three-year business incubation programme that equips them to set up their own jewellery companies. It’s yet another way the project is creating skilled personnel and sustainable jobs within  established jewellery businesses in South Africa.