Jewellery Inspired by South Africa
Michelle Liao started her own jewellery company in South Africa a few years ago. Her first collection, My Africa, has been inspired by shapes and patterns worn by South African tribes. Her unique pieces are our favourite statement earrings.
Tell us about how your journey creating MICHL Jewellery began Before I became a jeweller, I had spent ten wonderful years as a events and project manager for an amazing Cape Town-based company. I worked on some extremely high-profile events and life was wonderful. Then, my health took a serious downturn, which made me realize that life is simply too short to push so hard for someone else’s grand vision.
Is that when you decided to start your own brand? Well, while I was working in corporate, I had always enjoyed making jewellery as a part-time student of a local art school. It was my creative outlet and a way to decompress. So, when I eventually took that leap of faith and quit my fabulous job, I decided to dedicate my time to studying at art school. Three years later, I graduated from the school and started my career as a jeweller/metalsmith.
What is it about creating jewellery? The process of handcrafting something is a very spiritual and intimate affair for me. I am a firm believer that if what you create is not a labour of love, then nobody will love it back. Owning and running a jewellery business in South Africa, particularly in Cape Town, is quite a challenging task because the market has become saturated with mass produced imported products. I had to rely on my design aesthetics and use of alternative materials such as telephone wire to offer something different to the market. As if making jewellery isn’t enough to contain my love for getting my hands dirty, my understanding of working with various types of metal, combined with jewellery making techniques, has allowed me to create artworks and accessories for living spaces too.
What do you love most about your brand, MICHL Jewellery? What I love most about my brand is that I am able to add personal touches to everything that I create. For my own collections, I strive to produce body and home adornment that is inspired by my everyday surroundings or by stories from people I have read about or met in my life. When creating something bespoke for a client, apart from listening to their desires of what they wish for me to emulate on their special piece of jewellery, I also get to know them a little and in that process, I am able to go the extra mile for them.
You also teach jewellery making at the school you studied at, how did that come about? Yes, after I graduated the school offered me the opportunity to teach some classes to the full-time and part-time students. I gladly embraced the challenge and five years later, I still teach and I love sharing my skills and knowledge with those who also have a passion for jewellery making.
Who supports you the most? My husband is truly my biggest supporter in life and in all of my undertakings. He is an incredibly talented award-winning graphic designer and he specialises in editorial and packaging design. At the start of my journey as a jeweller, I always felt so insecure about what I did and often felt that I was living in his shadows. However, as time has passed and I came into my own as a designer, that insecurity has subsided. We celebrate each other's strengths as creatives. I find support through my students as well, as my interactions with them challenges my thinking. I am grateful that they are able to share their fears with me because in that moment I am always able to dig up some Miyagi-wisdom for them and in doing so, I realize how much I have matured and learned over the years.
Michelle, founder of MICHL Jewellery shares how she finds inspiration for her designs, what is next for the brand, and what she hopes to see change in the industry in the future. She also shares with us her coveted granola recipe, which she hopes you will all try - as it’s quite delicious.
How do you find inspiration for your collections? Over the years of living in South Africa, I grew to enjoy the visual of bold, both in size and in colour, statement piece jewellery. However, my Asian minimalistic aesthetic is so deeply rooted in me. I felt very strongly that surely there must be a way to create something bold but delicate at the same time. During my final year of studies, I started to develop my skills of working with brass and I also discovered the fun nature of telephone wire. The colours of telephone wire have allowed some South African traditional basket weavers to contemporise their age-old traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation. As I started playing and experimenting with the brass and telephone wire, I searched for inspirations from shapes and patterns seen in some prominent South African ethnic tribes. From there, my first collection, My Africa, was born.
Do you sketch your designs? I am a terrible drawer so I am not really one for doing technical design drawings first and then making the piece. If an idea comes to mind, I would do a very rough sketch first, make a few notes and leave the bulk of the design work during the initial making/prototyping process. When doing a rough sketch, I typically start off with a design that probably has more elements, such as stones, metals, textures, techniques used etc. than necessary. I then start to strip elements off of the design slowly, until when I feel what is left over represents the essence of the piece. It’s so easy to pile everything you have onto one piece of jewellery. Knowing where and when to stop takes a lot of discipline and restraint.
What is next for MICHL Jewellery? After doing shows internationally for the past few years, I found that my work is well received by the international market, but I am still figuring out what the local market likes and dislikes. During the COVID lockdown, I finally found the time to sit down and update my website to include an online store, so the plan is to start running things online more efficiently and also to find more local pop-up events or bespoke shows to establish my local followings.
Have you encountered any significant obstacles along your journey? I have been quite fortunate in that I haven’t had to encounter any bureaucracy or business setup hurdles. I do wish that there were more startup funding or sponsored technical skills training opportunities for single-operator jewellers in South Africa. Due to the high unemployment rate in the country, most funding opportunities are geared only towards business owners who have the grand vision of running a manufacturing workshop/factory that provides work opportunities to as many people as possible. In my opinion, this is a major stumbling block for the jewellery trade in this country. Instead of training people to be self-sufficient designers and manufacturing entrepreneurs, so many pass through the system only trained with foundational bench skills.
Diversity and inclusion should be important in any profession, and I do feel that the jewellery trade in South Africa is very well represented across the board. In many professions, one often finds that competitors would keep trade secrets such as certain techniques or suppliers close to their chest in order to have an “upperhand”. I am really fortunate to have an amazing group of suppliers who are always very willing to teach me new tricks and tips. I guess the more we teach others to understand the trade, the more we can all grow together as an industry.
I strongly believe that passion and desire to learn and succeed should be the number one criteria in any profession, so I will always happily share my time with anyone who is dedicated to advance themselves in the trade.