South Africa has a long tradition of beautiful jewellery and accessories craftmanship and beading, and one creative entrepreneur is taking it to a whole new level with her company, Sew Good Handmade. Johanette van Niekerk is a woman with a wonderful creative soul who sees beautiful design possibilities in everything around her and particularly in the materials she uses. Her handcrafted products are literally kaleidoscopes of colour, designed to lift the spirits of anyone wearing or displaying them.
LoA met with Johanette van Niekerk at the wonderful Kamers Handcrafted event in Johannesburg recently, and spoke to her about the interesting entrepreneurial journey she has taken so far, and where she finds her creative inspiration.
"My approach to my jewellery design philosophy reflects how I see the world, as a kaleidoscope of colour. I get inspired every day by colour, particularly in nature and from the seasons, when the colours change in the trees, the flowers, the sky, etc. When I see something in nature that inspires me, then it turns into the inspiration for a piece of jewellery or a particular collection."
Tell us a little about how you got started on your entrepreneurial journey.
I have worked for myself ever since I finished university, so I have been an entrepreneur for a long time. I studied a design course at the University of Pretoria and have always been involved in the design and fashion industry. When my children were small, I stopped working to raise them, and yet I found the need to keep being creative. Raising a family, although rewarding, was not enough to stimulate me creatively. So on one occasion when my boys were small, I was sitting next to the rugby field and got increasingly frustrated with simply being there watching sport and not doing anything that was interesting for me on a personal level. So I started to make my own jewellery whilst I was sat there for hours on a bench, watching my children play sport. Back then, my first jewellery creations used antique silver, zulu beads, and glass and I made them just for myself, but everyone kept asking me to make pieces for them too. That gave me an idea to perhaps turn this recreational activity into a small entrepreneurial venture making handmade jewellery. I hadn’t consciously planned to go into business at that time, it just happened.
So, how did that hobby turn into the business you have today and where does your inspiration come from?
So much of the inspiration for the pieces I make today at Sewgood Handmade comes from the raw materials I use, which come from all over the world - whether that material is wood, glass or a semi-precious stone. I look at a particular type of material or stone and I will get an idea of something I would like to make from it. I start the process by designing, creating and handcrafting a particular piece of jewellery myself, which then becomes a template for a particular design that can then be handcrafted by others in my team to my design and production specification.
"If you are going to be able to achieve success, and sell what you create, you have to believe in yourself and what you are doing. I know and understand what makes people look and feel good when it comes to jewellery and what connects with them emotionally."
Tell us a little about the Sewgood Handmade team
I have a team of eight people, based in Parys in South Africa, including my sister, all of whom handcraft the pieces according to my designs. Actually, we are quite a family oriented woman enterprise, as my mother also helps out in the business. I have a showroom in Pretoria in South Africa which I run, aided by my mother and one of her friends. I also have a craftsman in Johannesburg who assists us with the hand colouring of the many types of stones we use.
Your Sewgood Handmade jewellery is a kaleidoscope of colour - tell us a little about the pieces you produce
My approach to my jewellery design philosophy reflects how I see the world, as a kaleidoscope of colour. I get inspired every day by colour, particularly in nature and from the seasons, when the colours change in the trees, the flowers, the sky, etc. When I see something in nature that inspires me, then it turns into the inspiration for a piece of jewellery or a particular collection. However, I find that I am continually inspired by the creative process of working on pieces and collections, so I will design one particular piece of jewellery and whilst I am making it, I will become inspired to create something else, or a collection based on a shape or colour. When I see a particular stone or material, I will immediately visualise it as an end piece, whether it is a necklace, a bracelet or a pair of earrings.
"When I first started out on my entrepreneurial journey, things were very challenging in my life - I went through a very hard financial time and personally things were difficult ..… Much of my entrepreneurial motivation came as a result of necessity."
You have a wonderful way of displaying all your jewellery collections, tell us a little about your inspiration there.
When we attend events such as the Kamers Handmade Fair in Johannesburg, we like to display our jewellery collections, all individually colour themed in big beautiful baskets that are just so appealing to the eye. In fact, it looks like one big jewellery box, so colourful.
Every piece of jewellery at Sewgood Handmade has been created literally by hand - tell us a little about your handcrafted process.
We have a great team of craftspeople in our company, all of whom have been trained to create every piece of jewellery by hand. My sister has been very instrumental in helping to train up our team members, and one of my craftspeople also has groups of women in Alexandra, one of the townships near Johannesburg, who are employed to do some of the special beading work for many of our pieces. This provides a great work opportunity for women in the townships who are in need of employment and can learn new skills as they work with us.
How do you market the beautiful jewellery you create?
I have a shop in Parys in the Free State in South Africa, but we also go to various events such as the Kamers Handmade Fairs to showcase our designs and products, and to reach new customers and markets wherever we travel to.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced as a woman entrepreneur?
I didn’t originally plan to be in business, and in reality, it has been a real personal and emotional journey for me. It has been such a blessing, the way that my family and my sister got involved with my business journey. When I first started out on my entrepreneurial journey, things were very challenging in my life - I went through a very hard financial time and personally things were difficult when my husband left me. Much of my entrepreneurial motivation came as a result of necessity. Back in those early days, my business venture was very small, it was just me, no shops, no website, no staff, just me making jewellery and going out there and selling it. At the time, I had three young children and times were very challenging, but the entrepreneurial journey I was on was just so rewarding and so positive, during a time that was difficult personally. The reason I opened the shop in Parys was to give me a focal point and a platform from which to market the business, and a place to bring the family together. It gives me something to work towards, and something to focus on positively each day. My sister now lives and works there in the business, ensuring our family connection becomes even stronger with the place. Even though I live and work in Pretoria, I try and go there at least twice a month to connect with my family, my staff and my customers in the Free State.
"I didn’t originally plan to be in business, and in reality, it has been a real personal and emotional journey for me. It has been such a blessing, the way that my family and my sister got involved with my business journey."
What happens next for your business, Sewgood Handmade?
South Africa and Africa are very close to my heart, but I often think that the jewellery and craft pieces you see exported to other countries around the world, especially to places like the UK, are too often very commercial and touristy. My pieces are all handmade and celebrate beautiful raw materials, but they have a sophisticated AfroChic appeal and sensibility. So, I would love to start exporting my jewellery to places like the UK and Europe in the future, but at the moment, I don’t quite know how to go about that process. However, I have a vision of one day marketing my creations overseas. On a more general level, I see the business growing and evolving each day going forward, and I am highly conscious of the speed at which you need to keep creating new things to appeal to new markets and customers, and keeping the design process fresh. I am continually creating new designs and thinking of new ways of crafting things. This is the ethos of Sewgood Handmade. Also going forward, I would like to open a shop in Pretoria because currently my showroom is at my home, and that is proving to be a little constricting at a practical level. So, I see the next phase of growing the business to include a dedicated showroom in Pretoria which makes it easier for me to showcase the work we do, and also to separate my home-life from my work-life. We are still looking for the ideal retail premises for that showroom, a place that speaks to me creatively, not something in a shopping mall but a place with a personality and a heart.
#EntrepreneurAdvice "...you have to believe in yourself and what you are doing."
- Johanette van Niekerk, founder of Sew Good Handmade
What advice would you give to other women entrepreneurs in Africa?
If you are going to be able to achieve success, and sell what you create, you have to believe in yourself and what you are doing. I know and understand what makes people look and feel good when it comes to jewellery and what connects with them emotionally. I love it when someone wears a piece of my jewellery and they get that incredible smile on their face when they put a necklace around their neck, or a bracelet on their wrist. People appreciate creative people who work with their hands to make beautiful things, so if you are a creative entrepreneur you should channel that emotion and that positive feedback into your work and use it as a source of inspiration. The other most important piece of advice relates to money management - as an entrepreneur, you should remember to never overspend. When I buy materials to produce stock, I always make those purchases with cash that I have available, I never borrow money to make those purchases. The money and resources I have at my disposal, I use for my business and this allows me to grow. But I manage my cashflow environment very carefully. I do not believe in spending money that I do not have, and I think this is important as an entrepreneur.
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Why LoA loves it….
Behind every creative woman entrepreneur in Africa, there is a heartfelt passion for the work they do, the materials they use, the craftsmen and women who produce the pieces with them, and the creative design process that sparks everything off. Johanette van Niekerk is one such entrepreneur, and the passion she feels for the jewellery pieces she designs and creates is tangible when you speak to her. She is also a creative entrepreneur who has experienced the ups and downs of both life and business, and yet still emerges as strong, inspirational and dedicated to building a business that she and everyone around her can be proud of. --- Melanie Hawken, founder and editor-in-chief of Lionesses of Africa