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Award-winning jewellery designer expands to bricks and mortar

‘If you don’t have passion as your backup, I don’t believe you are going to survive’: Bheki Ngema, award-winning jewellery designer and founder of Ben & Co.

NOMPU SIZIBA: It’s our SME special feature, and today we speak to a jewellery designer who hails from Mpumalanga. He’s won multiple awards for his work and adorned celebrities and ordinary folk with his designs. His success story has been one of process, and the journey continues.

Well, to tell us more about his passion, being an entrepreneur and where to next, I’m joined on the line by jewellery designer Bheki Ngema. Thanks very much for joining us, Bheki. Now, you won a De Beers award for young designers in 2009, and that helped to put your jewellery design business and career on a positive footing. Just tell us a bit about that.

BHEKI NGEMA: This is something I always have to share, obviously, and I can tell you I never get tired of sharing it because it has just been an amazing journey. It’s something that opened a whole lot of doors for me. Back in 2008, when I was studying, we had to do exams, and part of our exams was drawing and technical drawing. We had to enter the De Beers Shining Light competition. When I won, it was just unbelievable, and the perks that it came with it put me 10 times ahead of my peers. That was just an amazing experience.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Those perks, what kind of access did they give you?

BHEKI NGEMA: You can imagine young men from a dusty street in Mpumalanga, off to Gauteng, their first time on a plane, and a 23-hour haul to California. And the publicity! As you know, our industry relies a lot on publicity and marketing and advertising. So I had a lot of that.

I think my number-one thing is the money that I won there. So part of the competition is the other perks, the titles and everything, and the money that you win.

In our time we were kind of asked or forced to take a certain percentage and use it on something that was going to set up and develop us. At that time I was very interested in CAD (computer-aided design software). So it really helped me in terms of buying the CAD program and setting up myself for computer-aided design – because it’s very, very expensive software. And then also the training is very expensive. So winning the prize and being able to actually pay for that and then educate myself, was just a bonus for me.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Yes, a huge difference. What sort of jewellery do you make? What materials do you use, and is your work fairly accessible or affordable?

BHEKI NGEMA: I don’t know about affordable, because we customise it. I’ve had people who come into the store, are interested in our brand and say they want something that’s worth a couple of thousand. They will say, my budget is for example, R2 000, R5 000. Then we assist them. And we have clients that come and say they want to spend R200 000 on a ring, or R300 000 or even R800 000. So we customise according to your budget.

One thing that I saw in the industry is that jewellery has been seen as something that is very, very hard to access. So, with the design skills that I have, I saw that it would be best to go the route of customisation, sit down with the client, let them explain exactly what they want, and help them. Whether they’ve got R60 or they’ve got R150, you are just able to assist them.

We use a lot of materials – from platinum, 18-carat white gold,  18-carat yellow gold, palladium, silver, every precious metal that we can get our hands on and work with. We work a lot with 18-carat white gold and platinum, which are the two most important metals that a higher percentage of people are interested in.

Then, in  terms of stones, we work with any stones –from your diamonds, from your sapphires, tanzanite like diamonds, any material that clients would like to have.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Yes. And I suppose the turnaround in terms of your creations will depend very much on what the customer wants.

BHEKI NGEMA: Yes. As a business obviously there are certain structures that we’ve put in place. In my business we have a retail store. If you come in and you see something on the floor and you are interested in that, you simply give us your card. You give us the money and walk away with that jewellery item.

And then the second part is, if you want something customised – which is 60% or 70% of our business – we do a lot of customisation. So you give us a deposit, we do the design for you, we send you back and forth images of exactly how the ring is going to look, or the jewellery item is going to look, before it’s actually being manufactured. And then once you give us the green light to say this is exactly what you want, we manufacture. Our turnaround time is eight working days from fact to finish.

NOMPU SIZIBA: So when did you decide to translate your passion for jewellery design into a full-time entrepreneurship/business, and what have been some of the challenges that you’ve experienced along the way?

BHEKI NGEMA: I’ve experienced challenges, like any other business. I think any other industry obviously has its own challenges, and I can only speak for my industry.

A challenge that was faced along the way was entering into the retail space. It’s a whole different ball game altogether. I always like to put it this way: you all of a sudden are sitting at the same table as your second-generation stores, third-generation stores, and here I am, first generation. I only started the company back in 2012.

And then only in 2016 I opened my first retail store, which gives me about four or five years in the retail space. And it’s not easy. There are a lot of teething stages. The most important part is obviously credibility. People want to part with their money knowing very well that you are going to deliver. And if you don’t have “Since 1980-something” on your shop, it kind of puts you at a disadvantage because you have to work 10 times harder to convince people to spend money with you.

I believe that with all the challenges that I’ve had, one major challenge was exactly that – credibility in making a brand for your name, making a good name for yourself, so that people can just walk in and easily, without thinking twice, see your product, see what you do and spend their money.

NOMPU SIZIBA: So tell us about the Covid pandemic period. Has that been a boom or a bust for you? How has it impacted your business right now?

BHEKI NGEMA: It really affected us. Covid has really affected us tremendously. I always say that guys who were not affected by the pandemic were obviously guys in the pharmaceuticals. But we guys in the luxury goods, you must remember that we sell emotions first – and during the pandemic people are obviously holding onto their funds. We make people happy, and in the pandemic people were looking at spending money on important stuff. It has really affected us, got us in trouble with obviously landlords, with suppliers and everything. But we soldier on, we push on, we make a means of surviving.

NOMPU SIZIBA: You’re still able to tell your tale. The De Beers Group Young Designers Initiative recently launched the Shining Light Awards for 2020/2021. It’s the jewellery-design competition, of course. Presumably this is a competition that’s going to continue going forward. What do you say to young designers about the sort of impact these competitions can have in terms of possible opportunities and career pathways?

BHEKI NGEMA: The design competition? I’ve got a very, very soft spot for it because I think it really elevated me, made me the man that I am today. It really contributed to my career from being a student designing, winning the competition, coming in overall winner, and being exposed to the things that I’ve been exposed to – the connections that I’ve got to connect with, the people I’ve connected with.

The most important thing that makes me want to stay low and be part of the so-called the DBS Group is that after winning I’ve really become part of the family. I’ve really become involved in terms of now charging for judging other students. And I’ve become like the 360, judging other students. I’ve also been appointed, or been consulting for them, a couple of years back as a manufacturer.

So [in the case of] many students who entered the competition – I became a judge and then I was able to take their designs and put them into life, which is exactly what happened to me many years ago. One thing that I can say to up-and-coming students, or students who have entered this competition, is that it is the number one competition that can really launch your careers. You just need to be serious. You just need to give exactly what is required and do your best, because the minute you become an overall winner or the minute you become exposed to the DBS family, there are many, many doors that will open for you.

NOMPU SIZIBA: You’re set to open a store in Pretoria very soon. You do indicate you have a store already. Just tell us a little bit about that. Obviously it will be important for you, I suppose, to run omni-channel retailing, which will include bricks and mortar as well as online.

BHEKI NGEMA: Yes. As scary as that is, it’s very, very exciting because I thought it would be easier doing it the second time around, the second store, which is located in Menlyn Park. But it’s not as easy as I thought it would be. It’s very nerve-wracking. It’s a lot of hard work. It’s a lot of stressful nights and days, where you just have to make things work.

But we are officially launching the store next week – Friday, March 5 – and it’s located on the ground level, shop G69. The name of the store is Ben &  Co, and we are very excited. We’re looking forward to seeing people coming in and spending money.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Good luck with that. So it’s been somewhat of a process for you to get to where you are now. What’s your advice to up-and-coming entrepreneurs, not just necessarily designers, about how to keep going in pursuit of one’s dreams?

BHEKI NGEMA: Passion. You need to have a passion for what you do, a passion for jewellery, because there will be times where you are not making money. And there will be times where clients are just not coming in; there will be times where you just have to work harder. And if you don’t have passion as your backup, I don’t believe that you are going to survive. So my advice is go into this industry with passion, love what you do and be fearless about what you do.

It’s a very, very small industry. Everybody knows everybody. So you really need to be passionate about what you do.

NOMPU SIZIBA: That was Bheki Ngema, a jewellery designer.

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