Stepping into any jewellery store, you’ll find it difficult not to be transported away from reality and into an aspirational dreamland. Perhaps you think of the day you’ll be purchasing an engagement ring, a red-carpet-worthy set of emerald earrings — or maybe it’s the day that you finally purchase that collector’s timepiece you’ve been dreaming about. Whatever your story, jewellery stores evoke feelings of nostalgia and excitement, anticipation and dreams. What we don’t realise, however, is this rush of emotional charge is produced by so much more than just the magpie effect. The walls of jewellery stores are lined not only with sparkling precious metals and stones, but also with stories of discovery and family heritage, each one as unique as the gems it holds.
As with every other aspect of our heritage, the South African jewellery scene is rich with diverse stories. Some families boast decades of jewellery sales and designs, while others found their way into the jewellery industry almost as accidentally as coming across a hidden treasure map. It’s these anecdotes that contribute to the character of each jewellery store, varying the tastes and treasures for each inspired shopper.
Take Laurence Graff, for instance, who founded Graff Diamonds in London in 1960, at which time a luxury wine estate and jewellery boutique in the heart of Stellenbosch was probably the furthest thing from his mind. Five decades of exquisite jewellery making later — and Graff is still very much involved, from the sourcing of each rough stone, right through to the cutting, polishing, and the final setting — and Delaire Graff Estate now nestles proudly in the majestic mountains overlooking the vineyards of Stellenbosch. “I visited the estate for the first time back in 2003 and felt a strong connection in an instant. It was love at first sight,” Graff explains. A feeling familiar to a jewellery shopper, perhaps?
And then there’s James Edgar Murdock, another jeweller who brought his sparkling influence from across the pond. He travelled to Cape Town from England in 1896 with the vision of setting up a jewellery business here. Within a year, he opened Murdocks Watchmakers and Jewellers in a shop on the corner of Parliament and Longmarket streets in Cape Town.
Over the years, his reputation grew, as did his clientele. Eminent customers included Cecil John Rhodes, King George, and Queen Frederika of Greece. In fact, it was Rhodes who inadvertently created one of Murdock’s most valued services, after he declined to alight from his vehicle and make the short journey into the shop but instead insisted that the shop come to him. While Murdocks is no longer run by the family, but rather owned by Tourvest Jewellery Division, the company continues to deliver prized pieces to its clients, and prides itself on its undivided focus on impeccable service.
As South Africans, we can also take pride in the fact that a large portion of our jewellery industry is homegrown. Through early apprenticeships, jewellery and watchmaking became speciality skills that have been passed on through generations. Alan Carrington of Shemer Jewellers speaks of his father’s unexpected career in watchmaking: “My father left school at Pretoria Boys High in Standard 8. The only reason he left was because the family could no longer support itself on my gran’s war pension. “He applied for an apprenticeship at Shemer Jewellers in Germiston, owned at that stage by Hymie Shemer, and he became an apprentice watchmaker.”
Eighteen years ago, the Carrington family bought Shemer Jewellers, and Alan explains that his mother still works half day in the business from Monday to Friday overseeing the finances — at the age of 78.
Mrs Carrington has been involved in the accounting practices of the business for more than 50 years.
“One of the legacies my father left is that we have a fully-fledged watchmaking workshop, which we operate from the building of our retail store. We’re able to repair and restore most brands of watches, both in the luxury and the fashion space,” Carrington says — undoubtedly it’s this passion transferred through generations that adds the sparkles to their walls.
Of course, one can’t talk about family jewellers without mentioning Charles Greig, an institution now spanning five generations. Watchmaker Charles Greig founded the business in 1899 after he settled in Johannesburg from Scotland. The brand grew from strength to strength: its first major accomplishment was the first boutique in South Africa to import and sell Rolex watches.
In the 1950s, Greig’s son David completed a year’s watchmaking course in Switzerland and returned to join the family business.
Twenty years later, Greig’s grandsons Christopher, Donald, and Richard Greig now run the family business. Both Christopher and Richard are still involved in the jewellery side. Donald Greig took a particular interest in sculpture, and an impressive collection of bronzes of Africa’s abundant wildlife is available for purchase from The Collective, the family’s high-end gift store in Sandton’s Nelson Mandela Square. Here, you’re encouraged to spend time reading books while sipping champagne or fine coffee and immersing yourself in the ambience of what The Collective celebrates as non-clichéd, African-style glamour.
Celebrating an impressive 50th anniversary this year, Elegance Jewellers has proven it’s a generational family business to be reckoned with. “Elegance was established in 1967 and acquired by my parents, who both independently worked there during their summer holidays. They later married and took over the business, and it’s a love affair that has continued to this day, on both the marriage and business side of things,” says Elegance creative head Oresti Mavrodaris.
Fifty years later, and the Mavrodaris golden anniversary is marked, fittingly, with a jewellery line in collaboration with Krugerrand, which also happens to be turning 50 this year. “We’re celebrating our growth, from our roots as a small, family-run jeweller in Johannesburg’s eastern suburbs into a destination jeweller with branches in the city’s top retail centres,” Mavrodaris continues. “But best of all? We’re still a family-run business — I love that I’m assisting the grandchildren of my grandmother’s first clients.”
There’s no denying Elegance Jewellers has made its mark on the industry since opening, with increased global partnerships, and lust-worthy, in-house design work housed in beautiful retail spaces. The Japanese call it kaizen (or continuous improvement), and with Elegance’s track record, the next half-century will certainly be exciting.
VERONICA ANDERSON JEWELLERY
In another vein altogether, Veronica Anderson found herself being led down a much more undefined path into the jewellery industry. Anderson’s career began in advertising, which she soon left for the world of fine arts as a curator for the Little and Maude Street galleries in Sandown, dealing mostly with contemporary South African art. It was only when she joined Read’s Gallery, which specialises in antique jewellery and silver, that she discovered her passion for jewellery and antiques.
“A love of the history of art stood me in perfect stead to extend my interest into the fascinating world of antique jewellery,” she explains. “It’s like unravelling a mystery — every trend and style has a logical economic starting point and reflects what’s happening at the time. I find it fascinating to pick up a piece of antique jewellery and be able to read its story through its design and in the materials used.” Veronica Anderson Jewellery opened in 2005, first as a gallery offering one-off pieces by jewellery artists. Its first offering, the Clasps Collection, offered 80 one-of-a-kind, handmade clasps that were suitable for pearls and gemstones made by 20 different jewellers. Today, Veronica Anderson Jewellery still caters for those people intrigued by antique pieces yet looking for something unique they can call their own.
Unlike Anderson, Arthur Norman Kaplan was exposed to the jewellery industry from an early age. His great-uncle was the personal jeweller of Paul Kruger, and his grandfather Henry Balzham also had an eye for precious metals. He established a jewellery store in Pretoria in 1889, which Kaplan worked in when he turned 18. After 15 years in the family business, Kaplan opened his own jewellery store, known today as Arthur Kaplan.
Over time, the brand expanded into multiple stores across South Africa and gained a reputation as the It Destination for engagement rings. After 50 years in the business that he loved, and with a successful Johannesburg Stock Exchange listing behind him, Kaplan retired and sold the company that bears his name. The business was purchased by the management team in 2001 and continued to build the brand’s reputation for luxury merchandise, only to be acquired by Taste Holdings in 2014. News recently surfaced that Arthur Kaplan will again be sold, no doubt to the next buyer sharing the brand’s vision of personalised service and integrity.
Perhaps this proves that, by its very nature, in the jewellery industry, heritage continues to build, creating more interesting sparkles along the walls of each boutique.
Russian immigrant Isaiah Hirschsohn arrived in Cape Town in 1896 carrying two suitcases — one filled with American watches and the other with Swiss ones. His intention was to make a living from selling them, and after trading from door to door, he started a company called the American Swiss Watch Company with his first store in Caledon Street.
By 1923 the company had outgrown the store space and expanded to Parliament Street. In the same year, the infamous Foster gang held Hirschsohn up and cleaned out his shop. But he was resilient and, with the introduction of credit in the 1930s and a name change, to American Swiss, he left the company in a much stronger position. He passed away in 1942.
In the late 1960s, Foschini acquired the company, along with Markhams, and The Foschini Group was born. From here, American Swiss saw rapid expansion with the launch of its annual 25%-off diamond sale — a tradition that still continues today — and the first international store opening in Windhoek, Namibia in 1981. Today, American Swiss still boasts the title of the contemporary jewellery store of choice, with stores across the country, as well as in seven other African countries.