Aaron and Sino - Ngwenya Jewellers
One of our primary objectives at Harmattan was to establish our own patented African jewellery line. We envisioned an elegant product, with a uniquely African identity, fit for an heirloom, yet entirely distinct from the souvenir and trinket trade that standardises African design.
Moreover, we wanted to create a product that could be sustainably sourced and ensured that our work did not jeopardise the population of indigenous fauna. This concept has become the Ngwenya range, which you see below.
Ngwenya is the common term for crocodiles throughout southern and eastern Africa. We find teeth from our Ngwenyas (specifically Nile crocodiles) and fashion them into our signature collection of precious jewellery.
The following biographies acknowledge Aaron and Sino, both of whom are integral to the production of our signature Ngwenya line.
To everyone in Victoria Falls, he is simply "the man with the teeth". At Harmattan, we view him with much more mystique. To us, he is more like a 'crocodile tooth fairy', who aids our vision of turning teeth into treasure.
Aaron, is a member of the BaTonga ethnic group. His people inhabited these lands long before David Livingstone was able to tell tales of their splendour. He has lived in close proximity to the wildlife in this region all his life. After getting married in the mid 1980s, Aaron decided that it would be expedient to support his family by using the natural resources around him to connect with all the tourists that visited this part of the world.
He trained as a wood carver and stood outside hotels and tourist zones selling carved curios to guests. However, it was in 1994 that he recognised his niche and decided to turn his old hobby into a business. Aaron says: "Growing up, I always collected croc teeth. I used to get them from riverbanks, when we would go to swim and bathe in the Zambezi river."
Indeed, since then, crocodiles have become a major commodity in this part of the world. Nile Crocodiles are now commercially bred on a large scale. These farmed crocodiles are primarily raised for their meat or to supply crocodile leather to luxury fashion houses across the world. Alternatively, they are also raised for adventure tourism activities like crocodile cage diving or trained performances. One of Aaron's children works at one of these venues and as a result he has plenty of opportunities to engage with these trained crocs and even create the odd meme.
Freshly Collected Prepared & Polished
Certainly, the rising number of crocodiles around Victoria Falls gives Aaron and his three children a reason to always be on the lookout for teeth. As Nile crocodiles will lose several thousand teeth in their lifespan, the Muzamba family feel optimistic that whatever the demand is for croc teeth, they can provide a steady supply. Aaron specifically selects teeth that match our jewellery specifications. Once he has gathered a sufficient number, he will boil them in chlorinated water to eliminate any bacteria. His family then help him to polish them before he follows the template required for our goldsmith Sino to create Harmattan's patented line.
One of our founding principles was to identify and support African artisans whose talents are thwarted by a lack of domestic demand for their skills. This is certainly the case with Sino Sebele, a gifted goldsmith of limited means but with unlimited ability.
Sino, lives with his wife (pictured above) in the township of Pumula East, in Bulawayo. He invited me to complete this profile at his home and gave me a guided tour of Pumula, so I could better understand the level of innate enterprise that characterises people in this area.
Sino outside a "Free Enterprise Zone"
Greeting the local barber
Meeting friends outside the local "shebeen" (an informal pub)
Sino began training as a goldsmith in 1978, when Zimbabwe was still called Rhodesia. He graduated from the Institute of Technicians and Artisans and for the next three decades worked for local jewellery companies in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city. Zimbabwe is the second largest platinum producer in the world and beneath its soil lie numerous other precious commodities, including gold and precious gems.
Sino had always been a skilled craftsman and believed that as a goldsmith in a mineral-rich country, his career choice would be as steady as his hands. In recent times however, Sino has found that the country’s economic decision makers were more focussed on exporting these resources rather than developing their potential internally. He adds: “The gold is all there at the Reserve Bank, diamonds, emeralds, it’s all there… but no one makes anything. It is just sold outside the country.”
Despite this lack of state support, up until the early 2000s, the companies Sino worked for had many domestic clients who ordered wedding bands, engagement rings and other bespoke jewellery items.
The two rings pictured below, were made by Sino 15 years ago. Both are set in 18 carat gold, the first one holds a large amethyst and the second comprises a large sandawana emerald, accompanied by six brilliant cut diamonds. Even prior to Harmattan's inception, we were aware that Sino's work is exemplary.
In the late 1990s Zimbabwe fell into full-scale economic crisis and Sino fell into hardship. Zimbabwe's rate of inflation reached historic levels and his wages became worthless. He remembers once being paid hundreds of millions in Zimbabwe dollars, only to go to the supermarket and find that the cost of a loaf of bread had sky-rocketed into the billions. As a result, he realised his labour had become futile and he left for South Africa to try and support his family from there.
However months after Sino arrived in Johannesburg, the area he moved to became a hotbed for xenophobic attacks. Unable to secure a formal work permit, he returned to Zimbabwe where a new unity government had been formed and the US dollar had been adopted as the official currency. While the adoption of the American dollar has ended hyperinflation, Sino says that domestic spending power has never really recovered and most people can barely afford groceries, let alone order jewellery.