He’s a diamond in the rough
A random TV advert led to an incredible change of fortune for this young man
From the dusty streets of Dube, Soweto, a youth is rising who is set to lighten up the South African landscape with his one-of-a-kind jewellery designs. Although Nqobile Nkosi found himself shaping, chiselling and sculpting precious metals into valuable creations almost by default, he is making the most of the golden opportunity that has come his way.
Using platinum, silver, gold, diamonds, cubic zirconia and precious stones, Nkosi’s unique creations caught the eye of acclaimed international designer Paul Spurgeon, who partnered with him in 2009 to form Cornerstone.
“The product is doing well, especially in the UK,” he says of the African inspired, European influencedjewellery his company produces. Several affiliates to the British Jewellers’ Association deal with distribution. In particular a deal with the retailer Beaverbrooks – which will be distributing Cornerstone products in five of its 64 chain stores – helped to establish the brand in the overseas market.
Nkosi was not always the innovative young entrepreneur he is today.
“I was sitting at home watching TV when I saw an ad about a learnership,” he says about the event that set him on the path to creating history as one of the pioneering black jewellery makers in the country.
In 2004, the course became the catalyst to his change of fortune. He joined the jewellery-making trade and has not looked back since. “I don’t see myself doing anything but jewellery. To master something you must stick to it,” he said. And he has done so for the past eight years.
Cornerstone employs four people full-time and four part-time who design and manufacture jewellery, restore and repair.
Nkosi has a soft spot for the community he operates in, saying of his employees: “They were unemployed, sitting at home. I trained them over two years … that’s me giving back.”
He has also been involved with a local primary school andMofolo Clinic, teaching pupils and occupational therapy patients to create jewellery from recycled material. “I like to keep things simple. I train people so they can make a living,” he says.
The bright spark has racked up numerous awards locally, including the SAB KickStart,Gauteng Business Leader and Jet Community Awards.
In South Africa his jewellery is offered for sale by Robyn Gibson ofVive Jewellery, who has mentored him since 2009.
Nkosi is acutely aware of the scarcity of black businesspeople in the industry and laments the lack of support for upcoming entrepreneurs.
“The industry is not welcoming of new business, especially those from the township,” he says, referring to the difficulty he experiences in getting his ranges accepted by large chains.
“South Africa should be more supportive. It’s sad to see so much support coming from England but not my own country.”
Nkosi received advanced training in the UK and last year made an agreement to send two people for advanced training every year for five years.
Proof that the industry is not welcoming is evident in the fact that some of those who trained with him now drive taxis or work at Shoprite.
“The vast majority is sitting at home and doing nothing. None could open businesses because it’s a very expensive industry,” he says.
Although he claims he was lucky to be able to set up his business – it costs about R150 000 to establish a workshop – the fact that he sold biscuits and cakes to his schoolmates and did jewellery repairs and polishing after school went some way towards raising the cash he needed for basic tools.
It was the profits from the polishing and repairs that he used to gradually move into manufacturing and designing his own jewellery. Growing the business despite the challenges has been a labour of love.
“What helped our business grow was investing in equipment – we’ve just imported a vacuum casting machine from England,” he says.
The instrument will speed up production, mass producing a hundred rings in just three hours, compared with the many more hours it would take without it – sometimes up to 10 hours for just one ring. As he describes the machine he has also just bought to seal packets, it’s like watching a kid with a new and shiny toy, and he keeps touching it.
What excites him most about these additions is that they mean the company can take on more functions internally, which creates more jobs.
“If I could see hundreds and hundreds of black brothers and sisters using the minerals we have, creating our own jewellery culture, I’d be proud of that,” he says of the legacy he wants to leave.
“We are creating history every day. We’ve made history locally and internationally … nowmy name is out there”.
That said, there is no choice for him but to succeed.
“I know what it’s like to be unemployed and broke. I know what it’s like to sit on the corner with nothing to do. That’s what motivates me to wake up – I don’t want to go back to the poverty I once knew,” he says.