Elevating South African jewellery to global recognition

Bheki Ngema’s vision, passion and a little Kim Kardashian inspiration fuel the tailor-made creations of Ben & Co, SA’s first black-owned jewellery manufacturer and retailer.

By Debbie Hathway

Local businessman Bheki Ngema has always had a flair for entrepreneurial ventures. Still, it was a family effort to surprise his grandmother with a ring on her 60th birthday that ignited his love of jewellery. She’d never received a wedding ring from her husband, so they all contributed to gifting her a ring from a high-street jeweller. Experiencing the sheer joy that piece brought her set him on the road to winning a top industry award, meeting Kim Kardashian during a series of jewellery launches through his role as the face of Forevermark, establishing SA’s first black-owned jewellery manufacturer and retailer, Ben & Co, and becoming a board member of the SA Jewellery Council.

Best in SA
His winning entry to the Shining Light Awards jewellery competition, a De Beers Group beneficiation programme to create opportunities for designers in its diamond-producer partner countries, in partnership with Forevermark, drew industry attention. It was 2009, and he was a jewellery design and manufacturing student at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) with his sights set on becoming the best designer in SA. He won the competition with a ring design inspired by a fishing trip he had taken with his father as a child. Ngema’s jewellery designs are also inspired by architecture, another passion, one of which is an incredibly intricate diamond ring created after seeing a spiral staircase.

Naming rights
He launched Ben & Co in 2012, extrapolating the name from the first letters of his own name, Bhekithemba Ernest Ngema, after paying his industry dues working as head of design for an established jewellery business for a few years. He opened his first retail store in the Menlyn Maine centre in Pretoria in 2016.
Success seemed assured until the pandemic hit, and “everything became tough”. It didn’t stop him, though; he moved his store to Menlyn Shopping Centre, where business is booming.

Ngema’s journey was not without its challenges, perhaps the most significant being “breaking into an industry where you are competing with established multigenerational businesses that have factories and stores. It takes time to build credibility and a customer base. You’re selling high-end goods, and people have to get comfortable with your brand and what you are offering,” he says.

Pillar of strength
De Beers has been ever-present throughout his career: as a student, as a young black entrepreneur opening his own store, and then as a judge in the same competition that propelled him into the public eye. Today, his timeless tailor-made jewellery is available internationally, and he also manufactures the students’ designs, which plays a crucial role in their learning process.

That Kim Kardashian moment happened in LA when Ngema was asked to be the face of a collaboration between De Beers and Forevermark at a series of jewellery launches. “It was a beautiful experience. We mingled with people I’d only ever seen on TV before and met a whole lot of Hollywood stars. And I can tell you that Kim Kardashian is as gorgeous in real life as she is on TV!” he says. “It opened my eyes to how the rest of the world understands jewellery. There, it’s part of their life, like wearing perfume. I want to build the same culture in South Africa.

Creating a masterpiece
Speaking on opportunities in the industry, Ngema says, “The exposure from competitions such as Anglo American Platinum’s PlatAfrica and De Beers’ Shining Light Awards really elevate us to higher grounds as jewellers. Without it, I would not be where I am today. Access to precious metals and rough diamonds is not easy, so being afforded the opportunity to work with these really helps to harness the craft. Precious metals such as platinum are very hard to get right for any goldsmith, and using the right diamond that is polished precisely to suit the piece presents interesting challenges to really improve skills. To create a masterpiece, you need to visualize it first before you even start designing it on paper. There are many stages that you need to go through from understanding how it is going to look, how you are going to set any stones, considerations of any sharp corners, [and other elements like technicalities and finishings] for the piece to shine.”

His advice to aspiring jewellers is to “stay consistent in your craft. Always look for opportunities to harness your skills further and keep the passion [for it] alive.”

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