Shopping for fine jewellery in Kenya can be an intimidating process.
Fine jewellery shops typically have darkened windows and locked grilled doors under heavy guard, with controlled entry into the obviously exclusive world of the wealthy.
But Faisal Joo, 42, founder and creative director of Joo & Co, wants to change the business and art of buying and wearing precious gemstones because he feels that the local market is ready for a jewellery makeover.
Last December, Joo opened a jewellery shop at the Village Market, a mall in Nairobi’s upmarket suburb of Gigiri. “I decided to launch a more approachable jewellery brand to make my shop a real destination for luxury buyers and those buying as gifts for loved ones,” he says.
Born of Indian heritage and raised in Kenya, Joo comes from a family with a long tradition of making and selling jewellery. His family had been trading in gemstones in India since 1842 before moving to Kenya.
He studied economics at the London School of Economics before taking courses in gems and jewellery. “The rest of it I picked up as I went along,” he says.
In 2000 he decided to diversify the family business by going into the retail aspect of luxury jewellery. At first he only received clients on appointment. Then in 2003 his collection was featured at the Fine Jewellery Room of the Harrods luxury department store in London. He developed a reputation for sourcing the finest gems and turning them into exquisite pieces and with time, members of the royal family and celebrities became his clients.
In 2006 he opened his first flagship shop in London’s high-end Mayfair district, followed by another shop in New Delhi, India. He currently has a partnership to supply the Oberoi Hotels of Asia.
The concept of approachability of the Joo & Co shop is evident. The store is open six days a week, maintaining an open-door policy with a clear-glass shop front with Joo regularly present at the establishment to serve clients.
“I’ve worked in the jewellery capitals of the world, so we are really in tune with what the market wants.”
A self-effacing person, he gets animated when talking about jewellery and says his newest venture is inspired by the modern Kenyan woman.
Every item found at his shop is handcrafted by Joo and his team. As he walks me through the various collections, it is clear there is something for every kind of woman.
Among the assortment of cosmopolitan and classic designs are white and yellow diamonds, rubies, emeralds and tanzanite, the highly sought-after gemstone mined only in northern Tanzania.
Some pieces are made of pure yellow and white gold of different karats. For buyer with modest budgets, there is a selection of gold plated and African-style chunky necklaces. Fresh water pearls in white, pink, brown and grey have been fashioned into necklaces and bracelets. More luxurious items are made from South Sea pearls whose lustre is noticeably brilliant.
To the untrained eye, emeralds and tsavorites look the same, and it can be hard to distinguish between silver and platinum. But Joo is keen on educating local buyers.
“We take away all the fuss and grey areas, we make it very simple for them to pick jewellery pieces.”
He recognises that jewellery buying is also an emotional process that involves selecting a keepsake or the perfect gift for a special occasion, and believes that, “the Kenyan demographic is primed for this kind of product and they want to learn, because there is a lot to learn.”
It’s about nurturing the next generation of customers through a welcoming atmosphere and quality jewellery, he says.
Controversy still surrounds gems obtained by unethical methods as epitomised by the “blood diamonds” trade suspected of financing wars in producer countries in Africa.
This gave rise to the Kimberley Process, a treaty that demands that all diamonds be identified according to their source. Joo says he is careful to work with reputable mining companies.
“Our sources are all from mines in Kenya and Tanzania and thankfully there are no conflict gems in this part of the world,” he says.
Joo says he buys his gems from an established network of reliable suppliers who cut and polish the rough stones. The jewellery design and production and retailing are then handled in-house. Designing is the most intensive phase.
“Creating something that you can visualise then making the piece is challenging,” he admits. In early years, Joo designed all the pieces himself but he now works with a full-time creative team.
Joo’s ideas come from different sources. “Nature is a big influence because there is so much beauty in nature. The other inspiration is the gems themselves which are naturally beautiful,” he says.
Since there are no institutions teaching the art of fine jewellery making in East Africa most on his team learned their skills through family apprenticeship.
For official training one would have to go abroad to countries like Italy, the UK or India. Joo believes there is potential for institutions in the region to offer such courses.
“I would like to look into creating a school of jewellery production here.” If this is realised, East Africa can fully exploit its natural riches and earn more from jewellery exports through value addition.
According to 2016 data, Tanzania exported raw tanzanites worth $40m, Kenya exports raw tsavorite, blue garnet, ruby sapphire and other rare gemstones.
Joo continuously revamps his offerings with new designs. He showed me the Flutter Collection, an array of rings and brooches made of jewel-crusted flowers and butterfly designs.
For everyday wear, there is the Skyline Collection of jacket earrings, three-stone chains and open bangles in clean, simple designs. The youthful-looking Arm Candy creations have delicate chain bracelets and zigzag finger rings.
For male clients, he produces wedding bands, cuff links, signet rings and necklaces. They also make unique pieces produced on a one-of-a-kind basis. “Sometimes you don’t want to buy a nice piece of jewellery then walk into a party to see another person wearing the same,” he explains.
Apart from ready-to-wear pieces, they also make bespoke jewellery for the discerning clients in a process that requires careful understanding of client taste.
“We use digital technology to create the design and show them to the customer before making the final product,” explains Joo.
It takes anywhere from one to 10 weeks to craft made-to-order jewellery depending on the item and complexity of the design. “We also help to design and develop family crests which can be laser engraved onto signet rings,” he says.
Joo has discovered that while tastes differ between younger and older clients, there is little differentiation in the customer demographic of his Indian, African or European clients.
The bigger test for him is catering to the sentimental value associated with buying jewellery. “A lot of patience, perseverance and dedication is required,” he says.
As a new retailer in Kenya, Joo is aware that potential clients may already have a preferred jewellery outlet so he is adopting a long-haul strategy. “We would like the client to feel emotionally engaged with the brand first, then we can build a relationship over time and partner with people to build their collection.”
In future, Joo plans to open more stores in the region and the continent. “The vision for our brand is ‘from Kenya to Africa.’”
How it comes together
It’s impossible not to love jewellery; all shiny, and classy.
But have you at any time stopped and thought about how that shiny bracelet on your hand or that silver or gold plated necklace you wear came to be? How about the process it takes to turn those polished tanzanites into the delicate jewellery you wear?
“It’s pretty simple actually, as long as you have the necessary materials, tools and expertise,” says Joo as he puts on display the finished pieces of jewellery.
The jewellery production process involves first heating the parent metal that is gold and silver to high temperatures to make it malleable before shaping it into desired shapes.
While this is happening, craftsmen in another work area cut the raw gemstones and polish them using finer grits of harder substances to make them shiny and beautiful in a process called lapidary before they’re set to the designed shaped metal. This is called stone setting.
Stone setting is done by hand and it involves fixing the polished stones onto the metals, and then the finished piece goes through a final polishing process to smoothen out any remaining rough edges.
“The region is emerging as a good market for jewellery, with demand growing form both the local and travel markets. The products are available for as little as $30 depending on design and the gemstone used,” says Joo.
The art and culture of making and wearing of jewellery is as old as civilisation. Only the raw material changes according to availability.
Initially created to express faith or signify social status, discovery of new and rare stones coupled with the advancement in jewellery craft over the years, have made it possible for virtually anyone who can afford to own some fine jewellery.
As they say, all that glitters is not gold, and as glamorous as the industry looks, it requires massive investment and commitment by investors.
“Product knowledge and awareness of the market remains key. Kenyans and East Africans in general have a discerning taste and would like to be well informed about the products before they can decide to buy a piece, Joo concludes.
- Additional reporting by Victor Kiprop