The gritty East Rand mining town of Germiston isn’t exactly known as the jewellery capital of South Africa. But an ambitious mother and daughter team are determined to change that, as they look to shake up the previously male-dominated world of jewellery manufacturing, one precious piece at a time.
Isabella Jewellers and Refiners is the brainchild of Isabella Kobela, who trained in goldsmithing and, rough diamond evaluation before deciding to branch out on her own in 2008. While the company started out as a purely jewellery manufacturing operation, it has since diversified after completing a precious metal recycling and refining training in 2012, and today manufactures and sells jewellery to the industry, runs a successful refining and recycling operation, provides wholesalers with raw materials and even makes time to design and sell custom-made pieces to individuals.
Jewellery manufacturing sounds glamorous. In reality, it’s a lot of hard work. And the early days were tough. “Being a female in this world was challenging at first. It was a long, hard process to get the necessary licenses, and the right machines and equipment. So, I started recycling my own materials, like filings, sweepings and offcuts, so I could start reusing the material to manufacture new jewellery pieces,” says Isabella.
In 2012, daughter Meiki Ngcengeni joined the business immediately after completing her degree in Transport and Supply Chain management. It wasn’t her first exposure to the world of jewellery: she’d spent many weekends and vacations at the factory while she was a student, compiling business plans and learning every facet of the industry.
“One of my areas of interest is compliance, which is really important in this industry,” says Meiki. “You need to have specific licences for every aspect of your operations: a refining license for smelting and refining, a precious metal beneficiation license for fabrication, a jeweller’s permit to be able to manufacture jewellery, and archiving the Responsible Jewellery Council certification was one of the greatest milestones for our company. It feels like a full-time job just staying on top of compliance sometimes.”
Isabella and Meiki employ six people, of which three are women. Isabella’s the designer, while Meiki takes care of the financial side of the business. The company joined De Beers Enterprise Develop Programme last October and they were provided with tools and techniques to structure process and systems to generate sustainable growth, by
“The industry was mostly male dominated when I started, but we’ve seen more women entering the industry every day over the past 10 years. There are a lot of opportunities for young women in the beneficiation industry. The problem is, there’s not much awareness out there about the industry and what it offers, and we’d like to change that,” says Meiki.
The pandemic has hit the jewellery manufacturing side of the business hard in the past 18 months, as many customers have postponed weddings and put big-ticket purchases on the back burner. Through the De Beers programme, they were able to set targets and strategies to archive the outcomes of being a sustainable business, especially in today’s volatile market. Thankfully, the company’s business-to-business sales have remained strong, and kept the Isabella Jewellers ship afloat through the Covid-19 storm. “We continue to identify hidden opportunities by utilizing the capacity of resources we have in place to be innovative and develop approaches that will keep us sustainable”, says Meiki
The future is bright, with bold plans to move into the wholesale market in future, but for Isabella, this is more than just a business. “We have learnt the importance of networking with other businesses, which has opened up possibilities to effectively form collaborations in order to reach greater markets. I’m the first generation of jewellers in my family. I want to leave a footprint and a legacy for those generations to come. They must also benefit,” she says. “My message to young women out there? People must not be afraid to start something. Follow your instinct. This business was born out of curiosity. We wanted to share our creativity with the world, and be the company that offers something to all. We want to be conscious and sustainable. We want to inspire the next generation. If we do that, then we’ve been successful.”