The name Songezo Baleni may not ring a bell to most people; he is not a new artist whose music is currently dominating the airwaves or replaying on our cellphones. But the same name is likely to invoke admiration in those who are familiar with it.
Baleni is three things: a jeweller, a maverick and a DUT alumnus. Back in 2004, when he had just enrolled in the DUT Jewellery Design course, he was just a chap from a village called eNtsikeni in Umzimkulu, KwaZulu Natal. But he had a dream, and that was to succeed as a jeweller, manufacturing jewellery just like the one he would see in jewellery stores’ catalogues. Baleni was also prepared to work hard to make his mark in the jewellery industry.
Sure enough, he is slowly fulfilling his dream as a goldsmith, only the events are slightly different from what he had initially imagined. He is not only known for being a talented and hardworking goldsmith, but also for his staple design element: weaving. This is a skill he acquired while growing up in his hometown. Baleni admits that weaving jewellery was not his intention. “I did weaving once for a project while I was still studying for my diploma. I decided to explore it once more when I had just started out as an independent jeweller. I’ve never looked back ever since,” he said.
His passion coupled with his current experience as an independent jeweller and former experience as a manufacturer for jewellery stores has honed his craft, seeing him progressively earning his stripes in the jewellery industry.
With such a good profile, one may wonder how this 27-year-old keeps such a low profile. The truth is that Baleni is quite content with his mediocre status. “Just blend in”: that’s his mantra. But if talent is anything to go by, remaining inconspicuous might just prove futile for him.
Just last year (2012) December, Baleni broke a new record for the DUT Department of Jewellery Design obtaining 100 percent for the portfolio component of his Bachelor of Technology (BTech) degree. This outstanding performance also saw him winning R40 000 just recently (February 2013), as part of the sought after Emma Smith Art Scholarship Award which is awarded annually to an exceptional student in the Faculty of Arts and Design.
Although Baleni is not yet calling it the ultimate success, he is excited about these accomplishments. He is also careful not to take too much credit as many individuals have played an instrumental role in getting him thus far. One such individual is his former third year lecturer, Marlene De Beer.
Soon after he had completed his third year in 2006, Baleni was hired by Durban jewellery store Sinesh Jewellers in February 2007. A year later, Baleni found employment at Steiner Schwartz Jewellery in Pietermaritzburg where he also worked for a year before returning to work as a manufacturer at Brettlands Jewellers, Durban in March 2009. Sadly, due to the economic meltdown in that era, Baleni was retrenched from Brettlands Jewellers in February 2010.
“After I was retrenched, I decided to go back to Tech (DUT City Campus). I was hoping to find some kind of direction,” Baleni said. It was at this low point when De Beer, who knew Baleni’s potential, advised him to pursue his BTech qualification. Baleni relented amid slight hesitation and studied his BTech part-time over two years, 2011 and 2012. In retrospect, he feels indebted to his former lecturer.
But for De Beer, advising Baleni came naturally as he is more than just a former student but a friend for which she has the utmost “respect”. She said he has a wonderful sense of humour. He is also helpful, optimistic and authentic. In addition, De Beer said “Songezo is hardworking and conscientious.” As a student, he showed initiative by always endeavouring to learn more than what was required, a trait De Beer believes many students can emulate. “(He) is a very competent goldsmith that can hold his own in any environment,” she attested.
Wishing to propel him in his career, De Beer also introduced Baleni to Veronica Anderson, the owner of Johannesburg jewellery gallery Veronica Anderson Jewellery, in 2010. Seeing some of Baleni’s work, Anderson jumped at the chance to forge a relationship with this jeweller. Their bond has been strong ever since.
Baleni admits that although he supplies other galleries, his business relationship with Anderson has been of immense benefit. The gallery specialises in one-offs, which means that all items sold are unique in design, colour, etc. Baleni said this is challenging but it stimulates his creativity. The promotional work done by the gallery has not only given Baleni recognition but it has also aided him in accumulating a clientele, discovering his target market as well as in acquiring some business acumen.
“I used to think just sending my jewellery to Veronica’s gallery and leaving everything else to work itself out was enough. But one day, Veronica asked me to be present at one of the gallery’s exhibitions; she told me clients would be more interested in my jewellery if they could see the face behind the jewellery. It actually worked,” Baleni thought back.
It also amused him how inaccurate he used to be when he thought his target market was young females. An advertisement in the September 2011 issue of Destiny magazine gave him perspective. As part of a promotional advert for a famous car brand, Destiny approached three women, showing which of the advertising brand’s cars were suitable for each of the women’s lifestyles and fashion preferences. Seeing that his jewellery was listed among a 40-year-old woman’s fashion preferences, Baleni discovered his actual target market.
Now as he forges ahead in his career, Baleni looks to no one but his mother for motivation. Being raised by this single parent was an awe-inspiring experience. “She raised me and my two siblings as well as my cousins,” he said. Her unwavering support is simply sufficient for Baleni. Although he does not say it, the warm expression on his face when he speaks about his mother shows how close Baleni is to his mother. His referral to his mother as Kayise, a word commonly used in the Umzimkulu area to indicate a kindred spirit or friendship among people, is another giveaway.
So what’s in the pipeline for this goldsmith? Well, launching an official business, strengthening ties with local galleries and supplying galleries abroad. He would also love to collaborate with fashion designers and dress celebrities. – Naledi Hlefane