Ceciwa Khonje struck gold when she started her jewellery design business

Zweli Mokgata

Zweli Mokgata

Starting a business can be daunting for anyone, especially for a woman working on her own in one of the most competitive industries in the country - jewellery making.

Ceciwa Khonje worked as a diplomat for the South African Diplomatic Corps before starting her business in 1999 selling African curios from a small shop in Pretoria.

"I initially wanted to raise money for a school in Soweto called Pace College," she says. "But when I started to canvas for funds, I discovered that people would only donate if a famous personality was involved, so I went into business."

After building her curio business into a profit-making company, she realised that it was not the direction that she wanted to take. In 2005 she drew her first design -one of her most popular pieces - and the design sparked the initial idea to develop a line of jewellery unique to Africa.

"I initially wanted to design something for my own personal use, but when I showed it to friends they were very impressed and suggested that I make it available in my business," Khonje says.

The product range that sprang from that drawing clarified which path of business she should pursue.

"I wanted to make original jewellery. I wanted to make exotic high-quality jewellery that would represent the uniqueness of the African continent," she says.

Khonje has only recently completed the product line, which is made up of about 30 individually styled pieces made from gold, silver, diamonds and ostrich leather.

"I think the fact that I use ostrich leather sets my pieces apart from conventional jewelry," she says.

"The material bonds very well to the metals and reacts very nicely to dyeing. Through this I can make any shade that can match with all types of clothing from African styles to European fashion. I've just had some interest from Japanese buyers who want me to develop pieces that would match kimonos."

Khonje's jewellery has appeared in numerous publications in Europe, the UK, the US and some Asian countries.

"I think they like the pieces because of the distinct African feel. All the materials are sourced here in South Africa."

Khonje does all the work on her own, which means she spends many long nights speaking to international clients in different time zones. She also regularly works on weekends, especially at these early stages of marketing her line.

"I used to have an assistant, but she was asked to go off somewhere else and didn't return. I don't mind because I have passion," Khonje says.

"I even pay for all my expenses out of my own pocket, and though it means a slower process, it's very sure."

The only thing that Khonje does not do is manufacture the jewellery.

"I design all the pieces, buy the material, do the marketing and manage the business, but I outsource the manufacturing. At this stage the most difficult part is over. I've finished making my first line, and all I'm doing now is soliciting for buyers."