Johannesburg - Skim through the brochure and you'd think Ben & Co. was an exclusive jewellery boutique in Paris or New York, not a young Pretoria jewellery designer working from home.
And it doesn't stop at the brochure. Bheki Ngema has had his rings, bracelets and earrings manufactured for countless clients, and he recently won the PlatAfrica 2015 Jewellery Design Awards, hosted by Anglo American Platinum in partnership with Metal Concentrators.
His winning design is an ornate ring made from platinum and colourful gems, his interpretation of the competition theme “India”, which challenged both professional and student designers to create platinum jewellery for a bridal couple.
Ngema chose a teardrop shape for its centrepiece, a reference to the poverty of India, but underpinned it with a band with dangling gems, signifying hope and aspiration.
The annual PlatAfrica competition has become synonymous with excellence in platinum jewellery design.
Ngema has cracked the nod before in the industry, as overall winner of the 2008 De Beers Diamond Trading Company Shining Light Awards. At 30, he has a bank of experience behind him, having worked at Pretoria's Diamond Corporation for five years before going out on his own.
“My skill is in digital jewellery design. After I won the De Beers competition, I was taken to Hollywood to the pre-Oscars party. Meeting the jewellery designers and seeing the jewellery was a real eye-opener. Everything is digitally designed. I decided then and there that was the route I needed to take. I invested my prize money (about R40 000) in a computer-aided design (CAD) program, which cost about R80 000. It was worth every cent,” says Ngema.
After buying the program, Ngema had to learn to use it.
“I was fortunate enough to have an older jeweller show me some of the ropes but I'm 80 percent self-taught. It took months and many sleepless nights,” he says.
Back in the day, jewellers would have had to manufacture the piece they had designed in order to photograph it, or showcase it in their shops to potential clients. Today, the CAD program allows the client to collaborate with the designer and create something unique and bespoke. The item is digitally produced and looks as real as a photograph. When the design is signed off, only then is it sent off to be manufactured.
“With digital design you can present a piece of jewellery in a pamphlet or online and only have it made when it is ordered,” says Ngema. “My clients usually have a good idea of what they want and I will show them what can and can't work. They give me a budget and I do my best to produce a piece that suits that budget.”
The manufacturing process is separate from what Ngema does.
“I can grade a stone but I don't actually make the jewellery.”
Ngema's own designs are elegant and contemporary - “I'm not one for chunky, traditional African styles,” he says - and his clientele are increasingly cosmopolitan, with a sound knowledge of what's available on the market globally.
Remarkably, Ngema, who grew up in Barberton, Mpumalanga, had a good idea he was going to be a jewellery designer by the end of his matric year.
“It's an unusual calling for a black boy growing up where I did, but I was artistic, and technical drawing was my best subject. My friends thought I was mad but my parents were always very supportive of me, so I went on to study jewellery design and manufacture at Tshwane University of Technology. I finished in 2008, the same year I won the Shining Light award,” he says.
Ngema launched his company Ben & Co. in 2012, while he was still working as a designer at Diamond Corporation. He left in 2013, and although the “co” in the name implies he has helpers, he's actually on his own, working from his home in Pretoria East.
“I've realised I have to get out there, so in March I went to Hong Kong and manned my own stand at the International Jewellery and Gem Show. A lot of people approached me, thinking I was an international brand,” he says.
He may not be a global brand yet but he has fixed his eye on getting there. For now, Ngema's marketing is working mainly through word-of-mouth, from family and friends he has designed for, and via his website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“I want to take my brand out there. I want to have boutiques not only in South Africa but in Nigeria and beyond. It's important for us young guys to tap into international platforms. If your brand is good enough, you'll gain recognition globally, not just at home,” he says.
He'll need help, of course. “Yes, from early in the new year, Ben & Co. will hopefully be more than just me,” he says, smiling broadly.