NOMPU SIZIBA: It’s our SME special feature. Today we speak to an entrepreneur who’s into jewellery making. The source of the jewellery she makes is very interesting – using and recycling materials from old circuit boards to make gold jewellery.
Well, to tell us more about her entrepreneurial journey, I’m joined on the line by Ashley Heather. She’s the founder of Ashley Heather Jewellery. Thanks very much for joining us, Ashley. Now tell us about how you got into jewellery-making, as well as when you came up with the idea of using old circuit-board material to create something beautiful. And what’s the process there?
ASHLEY HEATHER: Well, the jewellery-making was kind of accidental, to be honest. I studied fine arts and, looking back, I think I kind of knew in my second year that being a professional artist wasn’t really for me. I loved the degree, and I finished it, but then had no clue what my next move was in the world of fine arts degrees.
So I was just really looking for something to do while I thought about it. I signed up for a part-time jewellery class on Saturday mornings. I attended 20 minutes of that lesson, and the next thing I knew I was filling out paperwork for a full-time course. I loved it so much. There was just something about the medium of working in gold and silver that I connected with immediately.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Wow. So, what was it about it? Just tell us about that process and why you enjoyed it so much.
ASHLEY HEATHER: I don’t know. I can’t put my finger on it. Something just clicked. I remember the very first ring I made – I cut my finger while I was making it, and I just carried on working and I kept sort of pushing the blood aside so I could see what I was doing. I realised then and there that I was prepared to just carry on working after bleeding all over this piece, pushing the blood aside. This was the craft for me, and this was what I wanted to spend the rest of my career focusing on.
NOMPU SIZIBA: And the old circuit board story?
ASHLEY HEATHER: I come from a family of sustainability advocates. Sustainability has always been a big thing in my life. After school I worked for some amazing NGOs and so I found myself falling in love with this medium that has historically been tied to everything that is difficult and challenging in the mining industry, both socially and environmentally. And so I kind of knew that if I wanted to make this craft my career, I had to find a way to do it in a way that I was comfortable with. I kind of knew that the only way to do that was to do it on my own. So I just jumped in with both feet, didn’t think it through.
We started off working in silver recycled from photographic chemicals. Darkroom photography is a bit of a dying art, and it was getting harder and harder to source those chemicals.
And so, lots of research later, and some very serendipitous connections, we ended up working with e-waste, which contains both gold and silver, which makes it a jeweller’s dreams. But it’s also the fastest-growing municipal waste stream in the world and desperately needs addressing.
So it just kind of made sense once again. Just like the joy – something clicked. It just made sense.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Yes. And is it easily accessible – to get your ingredients, your raw material?
ASHLEY HEATHER: Not particularly. It’s been a long process. There are still challenges every day. We’re very, very lucky with our partner refinery; they are as passionate about this project as we are, but there are challenges. Sourcing it is not the challenge, but processing definitely has all sorts of challenges. It’s a very technical and involved process, and to be done safely needs very specialised equipment, which is why we’re so grateful to be working with the refinery as we are.
NOMPU SIZIBA: How has your business evolved since your humble beginnings? I understand that you started making jewellery in your garage. What kind of demand have you had over time?
ASHLEY HEATHER: We have grown very organically, which has been amazing. We’ve built a community around us who are as excited by what we do as we are, and we’ve just kind of scaled up day by day. It’s been amazing to see people get so excited about the process, and to have people buying into this idea that jewellery can be both luxurious and sustainable. So it’s been a slow process of organic growth.
NOMPU SIZIBA: In that middle way of being luxurious and sustainable at the same time, what has that meant in terms of your price point?
ASHLEY HEATHER: It’s difficult to say. The South African jewellery market is all over the place in terms of price points. So we’re sort of somewhere in the middle. We make very easy-wearing pieces. We want our pieces to be enjoyed day in and day out, not to just be a special piece that stays in the safe and is never really engaged with. So we do try and keep our price points sort of in that middle range.
But obviously, it’s a very involved process to get the gold and silver out of the e-waste. And then we’re fastidious about our manufacturing. Craftsmanship really is something we’re incredibly passionate about. So yes, we are a luxury brand, but we try and keep it as reasonable as we possibly can.
NOMPU SIZIBA: I hear you. You market and sell your offering via an online platform. I do know that you have a physical store as well, but it’s not yet open because of the Covid-19 situation. How did you find operating conditions during the Covid-19 pandemic from the time the online transactions could resume again? Have you found that you’ve managed to be resilient, or otherwise?
ASHLEY HEATHER: We have survived so far through this pandemic, and we are incredibly grateful for that. It’s been a challenge. This pandemic hit small businesses particularly hard, hit everybody, but I think small businesses have felt the brunt of it. And so we’re just incredibly grateful that we are still around.
But also that time during hard lockdown Level 4 and Level 5, that was the longest, I think – since starting this business 10 years ago – that I’ve ever sat still and thought about things. And so that time to re-strategise and reflect, and assess what was working and what wasn’t, was actually quite a powerful time for us. We used that time to ramp up our online presence and build an online community. We’ve always been community-driven. But it’s very different from trying to nurture a community online than in person.
But it also means now we’re talking to a worldwide audience. We’ve always had the online store, but that sort of downtime really gave us time to focus on it, and it’s now really where we hang out.
NOMPU SIZIBA: That’s very good. So basically that time gave you an opportunity to refocus, re-strategise.
So just tell us about your journey generally. What sort of challenges have you experienced along your entrepreneurial journey, and what kind of mindset do you approach your challenges with such that you’ve been able to run your company for at least the past 10 years?
ASHLEY HEATHER: I think it’s taking it day by day, trying to build a sustainable business, sustainable in all of the senses. But “it’s often used” means that things are often a bit slower. We don’t scale up very fast. Everything is considered; decisions need to be considered from all angles. And so that slowness and that sustainability I think in some ways has actually been quite a blessing, because it’s meant that we could adjust our course as we needed to. We’re not the kind of business that has a five-year business plan. I mean we have them, but they’re very general and kind of “we’ll see how it goes”. Sustainability is really the key thing we focus on, and I think in that way it’s actually been quite a blessing to grow so organically, because it meant that our lessons were not quite as expensive as they would have been were we scaling up at a rate of knots.
NOMPU SIZIBA: I hear you. Globally sustainability is sexy, it’s topical, and people want to do it for obvious reasons. You did talk about sitting on a worldwide platform because you have an online channel. So are there any ambitions on your side to start exporting to other countries, maybe on the African continent, beyond the African continent?
ASHLEY HEATHER: We do stock a few international shops, but we also have customers all over the world, and it’s exciting as that grows. We are sending to more and more countries every month.
We do really prefer the direct sales; we really like to get to know our customers. We do sell wholesale. Our preference has always been for really getting to know our customers and chatting to them directly, and packaging up their pieces specially for them. It is exciting that sustainability is such a big topic and I think in some ways can seem like a bit of a trend, but I don’t believe it is a trend. I really do believe it is here to stay. And I think that’s really exciting
NOMPU SIZIBA: It’s one thing to sell to the community, and then through word of mouth and through observation you get customers that way. But, if you are exporting to other parts of the world, I suppose your communication via online is very important. So how are you managing that strategy? Is it lots pictures and lots of descriptive words, maybe testimonials about the jewellery? How are you managing that process?
ASHLEY HEATHER: Social media is huge for us. It’s how we connect with everybody and it’s how we drive most of our sales. We don’t really have such a direct sort of pushy sales approach. It’s more just sharing what we do because we’re passionate about it, and somehow that attracts other people who are passionate about it. It has just kind of taken off. We do social media advertising. But mainly it’s just about sharing the process, sharing day-to-day, sharing what we’re loving, and connecting with people via the internet.
NOMPU SIZIBA: You mentioned the word “passion”. Often when I speak to entrepreneurs, I do ask them what keeps them going each time, what makes them not give up on their endeavour. So the same question to you.
ASHLEY HEATHER: Can very strong coffee be the answer? I really do love what we do. I’m excited about the e-waste. I love making jewellery. I love the craft of metalwork. I’m talking to you with my fingers still stained with black polish. I’ve just finished up a ring with a beautiful little lab-grown diamond. Those kinds of little moments really do just make it for us as well.
NOMPU SIZIBA: That was Ashley Heather, the founder of Heather Jewellery.