Turning the jobless into jewellers

 Isaac Nkwe, founder of the Imfundiso Skills Development Project, with one of his jewellery-making students
Isaac Nkwe, founder of the Imfundiso
Skills Development Project, with one of his
jewellery-making students.
(Image: AngloGold Ashanti

Out of the humble beginnings of a jewellery-making project that started on borrowed space at the De Beers Cullinan mines in Gauteng has grown something of a jewellery school empire for Isaac Nkwe.

Nkwe is the founder of Imfundiso Skills Development, an initiative that has seen hundreds of students from five such schools around South Africa graduate from jewellery-making courses and go on to successful careers.

After graduating from the University of Pretoria, now the Tshwane University of Technology, Nkwe joined Arthur Kaplan Jewellers as a designer. In 2000, he helped establish the Atteridgeville Jewellery School.

A year later in partnership with De Beers, the Department of Minerals and Energy and the then-Pretoria Technikon, he founded the Imfundiso project, operating out of the company’s diamond mine in Cullinan, east of Pretoria.

“There’s an influx of people from rural areas coming to the mines every year, so the initial idea was to train the children of the mineworkers so that they could have a future,” says Nkwe. “Today we have expanded to schools in Gauteng and Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal teaching just about anyone who want to learn about jewellery making.”

Impressed with the initiative, the National Lottery sponsored the opening of another school in Sekhukhune in Limpopo and in 2004 the Soweto Jewellery School in White City Jabavu opened its doors.

Giving value to skills

Two courses accredited by the Mining Qualification Authority are run annually – a six-month course for graduates from jewellery schools around the country and a two-year learnership for those without any previous experience. The latter course is a fast-track method of training unskilled, unemployed and inexperienced youths to produce jewellery and craft of fine, saleable quality within a short period of time.

Working with a combination of precious metals such as gold, silver and bronze, as well as beads, wood and glass has allowed students to blend indigenous jewellery making with more contemporary styles.

Apart from being taught the intricacies of jewellery making, students are also armed with business skills so that the trade learned is marketable.

“Skills only have value if one can market and use them,” says Nkwe. “It is important that we teach the students here both marketing and communication skills so that they can use them to support themselves and their families.”

Many success stories have emerged from this project, the most notable of them being the achievement of one of the students, Nelson Zwane, who created the necklace that Terry Pheto, actress in the South African Oscar-winning movie Tsotsi, wore to the Academy Awards.

So far students have done work for government and companies looking for unique promotional merchandise as well as individuals who can make their own designs.

“Jewellery is a funny business. Although we are one of the biggest producers of gold and diamonds, around 80% percent of it gets exported and turned into saleable items outside this country. Our goal is to make South Africa a jewellery-making hub because we have all the talent and resources we need right here,” says Nkwe.