“I call myself a ‘bush jeweller’ - I have no formal training. When I want to know how to do something, I google it - there is always someone offering a free lesson. It’s amazing. You can teach yourself anything using the internet. I’ll never retire - I’ll never be able to. But anyway, I’d go mad without my work. I always wanted to make jewellery.
“When I was growing up in Zimbabwe, I used to spend hours in my father’s workshop making rings and earrings to sell to my friends. But in those days, the jewellery trade was a male domain, so I became a bank clerk. Then I married a jeweller, but he decided he wanted to farm, and in those days you did what your husband wanted to do, so I became a reluctant pig farmer. Jewellery was the last thing on my mind.
“We had two daughters, and when our eldest needed to go to high school, we decided it was time to move to South Africa. We had to almost give our farm away, and we moved to Shelly Beach on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast with next to nothing. We bought a cafe, and I started doing woodcarving and leathercraft to fill time in the shop.
“The cafe didn’t work out, and we lost a lot of money. My husband did some odd jobs, and I started selling my leather goods at the local markets. They sold quite well, but I still wanted to make jewellery - unusual things that would fulfil my creative needs. One of my customers wore a really beautiful ring. When I discovered it was made from a teaspoon, my path was set. I started teaching myself how to create bracelets, rings and pendants from recyclable metal objects.
“By then my hands were suffering from the repetitive stress of working with leather. Jewellery-making is quite physical too - I’m often wielding a hammer and cutting metals - but now I can afford more of the tools that make it easier, so my hands are holding up. For now!
“I was 53 and my daughters had left home when my husband met someone else. That was when I realised I had to do my own thing, and it had to support me. Seven years later, I am still waiting for some money that is owed to me in terms of the divorce settlement.
“In 2015, I moved to Cape Town to be near my elder daughter and grandson, and I have been ‘marketing’ here ever since. Since I am recycling things like old teaspoons and coins to make my jewellery, it’s not expensive, but you do need the tools. I find the materials in junk shops and antique markets, and you’d be amazed how often people give me the coins they have lying around.
“I live alone and work in my garage. It is solitary, but it has to be - you have to concentrate. Then at weekends you have to pack everything into the car and drive to the market - early, because it takes a long time to set up. The markets are very sociable - the marketers support each other and you meet such interesting people from all over the world and all walks of life.
“You do have bad days, so having a supportive family is important. Touch wood, I’ve never done a market without selling something, even if it was just a small thing for R20. But some days you don’t cover your costs, so on those days you come a bit unstuck. But I treat that time as advertising. You never know when someone is going to come back. They don’t always buy immediately, but they remember you’re there.
“Financially, things are tougher than they used to be. Ten years ago, you could make good money. Now there are so many markets; you have to find the right ones for your products and then you have to be persistent to get in.
“When I do try a new market, I’ll give it a good go. You can’t give up just because sales were bad; it takes quite a while for people to get to know you’re there and come back.
“In the last year-and-a-half, I’ve noticed that people definitely don’t have as much money. They don’t buy as much, or they question the prices more. You have to be prepared for some bargaining - it’s better to sell than not sell - but it’s a worry.
“There are no days off. If you’re booked for a market and you can’t be there, you still have to pay - anything from R150 to R800 a day. Some take a percentage of your takings as well. But I don’t mind paying if there are a lot of feet through the market.
“When you do outdoor markets and the weather doesn’t play its part, you have weeks when you have no income whatsoever. I’ve always been a bit of a saver, fortunately, so I put away as much as I can to make sure I always have something to fall back on. I can’t afford to buy a house, so I have to make absolutely sure I’ve got my rent and can pay my medical aid - that’s the last thing I would give up.
“Of course, I try to build up my savings for the long term too, but in winter you have to use the money you have tried so hard to save all summer. It’s stressful, but I’m a bit of an ostrich - inclined to bury my head in the sand. You can’t worry about what you can’t change. You’ve got to have faith that you can make products people want. I know my daughters will help me if I need it, but I don’t want them to; I’m very independent.
“Right now I am just grateful that taking something that can be recycled and making it into unusual jewellery is a daily treat for me. I feel life has turned full circle and taught me a valuable lesson: I should have been more assertive when I was younger and followed my heart.”
BE SURE you look after a few key money matters when you have an opportunity to live your creative dream,” says Craig Torr, who has the Certified Financial Planner accreditation and director of financial planning company Crue Invest.
“Lesley’s steely determination and belief in her product are admirable. These are must-have attributes for any entrepreneur. Another one is a commitment to saving and she ticks that box too.
“When you don’t have long-term savings, disability cover is critical to protect yourself against loss of income. Lesley has the support of her daughters in an emergency, but is not depending on it, which is great.
“Medical aid comes a close second to rent for Lesley, but she should have gap cover too, since medical specialists can charge up to six times the medical aid rate. Gap cover is still inexpensive compared to comprehensive medical aid plans.
“She could consider a second source of income - preferably one that does not put more pressure on her hands. Giving lessons in jewellery-making, taking visitors on tours to the local markets, house-sitting and au pairing are some possibilities. She might also consider taking her product online so that she is not totally dependent on craft-market customers.”