The gold cow nestles in the folds of its Nguni-print gift box. This miniature African treasure has been delicately crafted to resemble this cattle breed, which is unique to southern Africa, with its startling hide and trademark horns — and has all the paperwork to prove it.
Nguni Gold 24-karat solid gold cows are the brainchild of Metal Concentrators (Metcon), a business best known for supplying gold and other precious metals to the jewellery industry, as well as selling minted investment bars. With this new design, instead of buying a plain minted gold bar, investors can now look at a more attractive and artistic way of building their portfolio in precious metals, according to Metcon financial director Grant Crosse.
“Typically these bars are sold to investors who are looking to invest in precious metals, and they buy them in sizes from 10g to 100g. We started to look at what would be best suited to the South African market, so we started to look at changing the image of the bars,” Crosse says.
Smanga Shabangu, director at marketing company Bullion Bear, works alongside Crosse. Shabangu is building his own presence in the precious metals industry, with the support of Metcon, and is working towards developing his own South African minted bar products.
“When we started to speak more and more about it, we liked the concept of developing something that was in the line of a representation of wealth for black South Africans, specifically,” Crosse says.
“When you start thinking about wealth, it lends itself towards cattle, which has traditionally been a form of wealth transfer or wealth within black communities. And when you look at the ultimate form of cattle, it is the Nguni cow,” Crosse says.
It was then that the idea to create the precious, life-like cows came to mind. Once the idea was sparked, the pair turned to renowned sculptor and jewellery designer Nic Bladen for the creation of the miniature Nguni cows. Bladen, in turn, recommended Eastern Cape-born artist Lungisa Kala, whom he is training in sculpture.
Kala sculpted the first model of the cow in clay, and it was then transformed into a computer graphic, and, subsequently, into the physical cows. These are cast in either certified 999.9 pure fine gold or certified 99.99 fine silver. Crosse admits that it is early days in terms of knowing how the market will respond to this unusual investment concept. “We don’t really know the full scope of how this product will be received and used,” he says. “Probably the main market we were looking into, was how we could facilitate a form of lobola,” he says, adding that in some cases the families receiving the animals do not necessarily want actual cows.
“What are they going to do if they are living in a home in Sandton?” Crosse says, adding this conundrum has also seen the move towards the exchange of money instead of cows. Crosse hopes that the Nguni cows will offer an alternative. “This product, we think, is going to bring it back to identifying with the heritage,” he says.
Shabangu agrees, adding that an old Zulu adage says a man’s attractiveness is measured by the number of cows he owns. “We have created a local, precious piece that South Africans can identify with, connect with, and relate to. Lobola is one area where we think there is application,” he says.
Shabangu also highlights the opportunity to create a lasting legacy with Nguni Gold. “What’s also great about this is it makes it easier to keep it in the family, unlike when you pay lobola in money or a cheque,” he says. “The gold cows can form part of the inheritance.” Shabangu says fathers can even give their sons a head start by investing in cows for them for use once they are ready to be betrothed.
For those looking to add some Nguni Gold to their investment portfolio, the gold and silver cows and bulls will be available from Shabangu’s business, Bullion Bear, as well as Metcon. Initially, five to 20 cows a month will be produced, with the silver versions retailing at between R9,000 and R20,000, and the gold ones starting at about R110,000 — depending on the underlying price of the metal at the time.
The precious pieces are available as either a cow or a bull, with the males costing more, due to containing more metal than the females. “The cow is a little bit slimmer than the bull around the waist; it’s a much wider stomach area, so it consumes more metal,” Crosse says.
As with real cows, each Nguni Gold beast will be numbered. The fluctuations of precious metal prices will naturally affect prices, with production costs also putting the Nguni Gold at a premium to the gold price.
“Most importantly, since this is physical gold, whoever owns it can always bring it back and we will reimburse them 100% of the value of the metal, so they won’t lose the base metal value. You can’t undo the value of the gold that’s in there,” Crosse says.
Nguni Gold prides itself in being 100% local, with the cows produced in Centurion. “Why do we have to take our gold, which we mine in SA, send it overseas, to return as various jewellery pieces, import it back to the country and then have people buy it? Why can’t we take our gold and make it into products here and invest locally?” Crosse says.
The design on the boxes in which the cows will be packaged is also a reference to the beading and weaving patterns associated with marriage in the Nguni culture, further appealing to local traditions. Crosse, who comes from a family of art collectors, also sees the cows as artworks to adorn the house or office, and says he anticipates investors will be keen to play with the cows. “Just don’t drop it,” he says. Since the cows are made from 24-karat gold, they are not as hard as other jewellery that has been cut with harder metals. “It’s a very soft metal. It does bend; it is subject to bumps and scratches; and if you do drop it, it is going to bend,” he says.
Metcon is considering producing platinum cows too. “If the gold works, and there is enough demand, platinum is certainly something we can do; palladium as well,” Crosse says. “We want to commission Lungisa to do a few more cow designs, with different looks and different stances, but we will start with these two for now.”
The artist behind the creation of the Nguni Gold cows is 35-year-old Lungisa Kala, who hails from Willowvale in the Eastern Cape. Kala says he spent hours observing cows to be able to recreate the life-like golden art pieces.
“I spent some years growing up in rural areas in the Eastern Cape, (and) cows have such a high value and important meaning in my culture,” Kala says. “They have got value and are respected more than money.”
Kala says it took him more than 15 days to review all the dimensions and details to make the first Nguni Gold cow design. He used images from many sources: his own work, reference books, and online searches. He said his biggest challenge was not knowing the beasts’ anatomy and different poses.
“For example, a cow’s face is different from that of a man, because we understand our heart,” he says. Kala also cites scale as a challenge. “It was challenging to work on those dimension scales, but also exciting, because I was doing what I enjoy most.”
Kala, who is also a part-time fettler at a foundry, says the project helped him improve his design skills and gave him confidence in his art, as well as in sharing his skills with others. Kala, who studied his craft at the Northlink College in Cape Town, has undertaken mentorship programmes in the Cape that have allowed him to work with established artists.
“Since working in a foundry with artists on a mentorship programme, I have met a network of other artists. In 2014 I assisted sculptor Tania Lee in creation of statue of Walter and Albertina Sisulu,” Kala says. The 1.86m sculpture formed part of a body of work to commemorate the lives of those who fought in the struggle.
In 2015, Kala was also involved in creating a sculpture of Nelson Mandela, when he carved a 6m statue for the City of Johannesburg, which gave it as a gift to Ramallah in Palestine.
These days Kala lives in Masiphumelele, which means “let us succeed”. And that is exactly what he aims to do. At the moment, however, he is just excited about his involvement in Nguni Gold. “It’s a great opportunity and I’m excited about this project,” he says. “If the project is successful, then there might be more cattle to sculpt in the future.”