Nqobile Nkosi is not a typical top-floor executive who speaks in jargon that is punctuated with tales of business deals worth billions, but he is definitely a quintessential entrepreneur in his own right.
The qualified jeweller and owner of NQ Jewellery creates exquisite customised jewellery and has cultivated a clientele that includes some of the richest people in the country.
In his workshop in the East Rand, we witnessed the passionate entrepreneur’s healthy obsession with excellence, which has made him the go-to business for jewellery.
Born and bred in Dube, Soweto, 36-year-old Nkosi – raised by his mother, a church administrator, and grandmother, a versatile businesswoman who did tailoring – ran a shebeen and was a vendor at local sports events.
Even before he matriculated in 2001, Nkosi says he was already a handyman of sorts.
“I went to Orange Grove Primary School, then Edith Hinds High School in Jeppestown. After matriculating, I studied electrical engineering at Highveld Technical College in Langlaagte,” he says.
Electrical engineering, Nkosi says, was a natural choice. He was curious and spent a lot of time tinkering with broken electrical appliances. At school, he excelled in mathematics and science.
“I was the guy neighbours called when they needed to get their TV or other appliances fixed, but I was never interested in business.”
His time at Highveld was short-lived as funds ran dry after his grandmother fell ill and his mother had to take care of her.
“I had to return home and do odd jobs. I would be a spanner boy at the mechanic around the corner, an assistant to the local welder and anything else where I could learn. Most of the people there are skilled and qualified, so I learnt from them,” he says.
After more than a year doing odd jobs, Nkosi approached the George Tabor College (now called the South West Gauteng Further Education and Training College) to try to enrol for the qualification he had been pursuing earlier.
The class was full and he was instead offered an opportunity to join a two-year learnership programme in jewellery design and manufacturing.
“They asked me to draw something and to make it. I made a pendant and necklace, and they were impressed. It was on that day that I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.
“After a month, I was losing my mind because I loved it so much and realised that I was one of the few who were good at both designing and manufacturing – most of my peers were good at one of the two, not both.”
The college allowed him to use its equipment after completing his learnership, so he started building a private client base: “I was doing jewellery restorations and repairs, but still had to do odd jobs such as selling vetkoek and washing cars to make cash.
“Around 2009, I had my big breakthrough,” he recalls.
That year, he won R150 000 in the Jet Community Awards competition. He used the money to renovate his back room into a mini workshop and to buy equipment.
“I used all the money as business capital. I was still young and could have used the money on other things. That award came with a lot of exposure.
“At the time, I was the only self-funded township jewellery designer, manufacturer and retailer in the country.”
As his business grew, various partnerships were offered.
“I tried to partner with a number of people, but it didn’t work out until I met my current partner, lawyer Jerry Nkeli. He helped me turn the art into a business, and that transition was not easy.”
Nkosi praises Nkeli for unleashing his potential as a businessperson.
“I’ve done a number of courses – from business courses to diamond grading to costing. I have about five diplomas, some are about various disciplines in the business that I did online,” he says.
Such self-empowering studies attracted bigger clients and opened even bigger opportunities. In 2016, Nkosi won the Tsogo Sun entrepreneur of the year award and, two years later, opened a workshop at the Rand Refinery in Germiston, and he is still based there.
NQ Jewellery offers end-to-end services that cover the entire value chain – from design and manufacturing to the distribution and sale of the final product.
“We are also growing our presence in hotels, casinos and private boutiques, but plan to have a walk-in store in a mall.”
The business currently employs three people full time, but when it receives bigger orders, Nkosi employs up to 15 people.
While access to the market remains the biggest challenge, Nkosi says his competitive edge is in sticking to the basics of his standard of excellence.
“I keep it simple; less is more. That’s one of the biggest lessons my business partner taught me, even on customer relations and designing sophisticated products for clients.
“The industry in South Africa is not in good shape. More than 80% of the jewellery sold in the country is not made here. I’ve been fortunate to spend time overseas where jewellery is made locally,” he says.
In addition to running his business, Nkosi has for the past six years offered free classes on Saturdays for young people who are interested in the industry.