Putting South Africa’s mark on the luxury jewellery sector

Claire Wiese is the founder of Paka Paka (Picture: Supplied)
Claire Wiese is the founder of Paka Paka (Picture: Supplied)

Abandoning a burgeoning career in litigation, Clare Wiese – daughter of South African retail magnate Christo Wiese – has turned her energy to developing and growing her fledgling contemporary fine jewellery brand Paka Paka in international markets.

Launched online nine months ago, the jewellery line aims to celebrate the romance and beauty of Africa, its rich mineral resources and its pool of creative talent.

Placing the competitive US market firmly within the company’s crosshairs, Wiese aims to establish Paka Paka, which means “cat” in Swahili, as an A-list brand among the Hollywood elite.

Prior to starting your own business you studied law and journalism. Why did you enter these fields and what made you decide to leave law?

I studied journalism in London at the University of Westminster straight after finishing matric, as I wanted to spend some time abroad and I have always had a love for writing and the creative expression it allows me. After having obtained my journalism degree and working in magazine journalism in Cape Town for a while at House & Leisure and Marie Claire, I felt the time was right for the academic challenge of obtaining my postgraduate LLB. 

My father started his career as an advocate at the Cape Bar, so I guess there was always a subliminal familial influence there.

I absolutely loved the three years I spent practising as an attorney and had the privilege of working in litigation, more specifically in the field of medical negligence. However, in my late 20s I guess the creative inside me wanted to cut loose from the corporate world and to start my own business doing something in the design world. 

Where did the idea for Paka Paka originate?

My first business was Sloane & Madison, a Cape Town-based fine jewellery company specialising in personalised fine jewellery items, such as gold and diamond necklaces and bracelets. When I realised that people were responding very favourably to my design ideas, I felt compelled to launch a more international contemporary fine jewellery brand in the United States – the biggest jewellery market in the world.

South Africa has so much design talent and we have access to some of the world’s best diamonds and gemstones, so I wanted to create a brand that celebrated Africa and South Africa, but in a timeless, global and contemporary way.

How does Paka Paka benefit from your family’s large stake in gemstone miner Gemfields and other diamond mining operations?

We are planning to use some Gemfields emeralds in our next collections, which will be launching next year, and – yes – being connected to the company via the family’s shareholding definitely has its advantages. We are very excited about using Gemfields stones, as nobody does coloured gemstones better than they do!

How long have you been operating and how did you make your first sale?

We opened about nine months ago online and we are currently in talks with two large online retailers and two very elite brick-and-mortar stores based in New York. It’s all still very new and very exciting. The response has been extremely positive State-side, so of course this is a very rewarding and humbling experience.

One of our first sales – and one I remember most vividly – was actually to Chrissy Teigen – wife of singer John Legend. Her stylist brought her a few of our rings to wear to a red carpet event and she fell in love with one of them and purchased it on the spot in Los Angeles.

How did you find your head designer?

For our first few collections, I worked with Ida Elsje and Kim Boezaart, two of South Africa’s top jewellery talents and both very established and respected in their own right. They both also know a lot about the technical side of manufacturing jewellery, which is not always easy, especially if you are as perfectionistic as I am about craftsmanship and quality. Ida and I have been on quite the journey together and although she is a world-class talent, she is so open to my ideas and my vision and always allows me to have the final creative say. 

How did you get funding to get started? To what extent did your father put up the initial funds?

I put in some of my own money and my father of course did lend a helping hand! 

How do you defend yourself from possible criticism that it is easy to start and sustain a business when funding is not an issue?

To be honest, I don’t really feel the need to defend myself as I live by the maxim “live and let live”. But, to anyone who believes that, all I can say is that it is one thing to have start-up money be made available, but it’s a whole different kettle of fish taking that money and multiplying it by successful business practices. There is a reason why the majority of new businesses fail, regardless of where the cash comes from. 

What have been the biggest difficulties you’ve had to overcome in your business?

Some of our first designs were incredibly complicated to manufacture and, given our high expectations when it comes to luxury-level craftsmanship, we have had to go back to the drawing board a few times.

It has also not always been easy launching a South African brand in the US, without being physically present in the US for most of the time. Sending emails and making phone calls will never compare to meeting people face-to-face in New York City, where things can happen very quickly. I therefore try to visit New York at least once or twice a year. 

Biggest lesson learnt?

Learning how to work with people and how to get the most out of them is an invaluable part of building any business. People skills are what I learn most from my father, much more so than specific business lessons. 

How tough is competition in your sector, and what differentiates your product from others?

The jewellery market is incredibly competitive and cut-throat. What has been a saving grace for us, and helped to land us in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour US and Marie Claire US (and on the likes of Uma Thurman, Kerry Washington and Amy Adams at red carpet events) is that our product offering is unique and distinct, yet has a strong commercial appeal. It’s very important to do something different and not simply imitate what everyone else is doing. Otherwise, you will just fade into the mix. 

Where is the jewellery currently manufactured?

In Cape Town and Los Angeles. We have tried and tested a few workshops and I am very happy with the level of craftsmanship and service we are getting from these two workshops. I prefer having everything made right here under my nose, for simple quality control purposes.

How many people do you currently employ?

I have a PR team in the US, a sales team in the US, an operations manager in Cape Town and a workshop based in Cape Town that I contract with. In addition to that, I work with Ida on an ad-hoc basis (when new designs are being created and set up). Because we are still a new and young business, I like to stay very involved and I am not too keen on delegating too much. 

What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?

My father always has a chuckle when people ask him what is the secret to success. He says there is no one secret, but without a certain four-letter word (WORK) you can forget about it. People often want shortcuts or hope to make a quick buck. That doesn’t exist.

How do you stay motivated?

My husband is quite good at keeping me sane when it all gets too much. Being an entrepreneur without a business partner can get lonely and overwhelming at times. Luckily, I married someone with a lot of patience and a solid business brain, so he is always there to listen and dispense advice. I have one or two very close girlfriends whom I also lean on a lot for support when I need it. I am very lucky that way!

What are your non-work habits that help you with your work/life balance?

I have recently fallen in love with transcendental meditation, a very simple but very powerful and effective relaxation technique that has been receiving a huge amount of press. It requires a bit of discipline (sitting still for 20 minutes twice a day), but I find it makes a tremendous difference to my day and how I deal with the stresses of daily life. I try to exercise three times a week with my personal trainer and I am quite mindful about what I eat.

What is your three-year goal for your company?

We would love to be stocked by some of the world’s most influential and iconic stores like Bergdorf Goodman, Net-a-Porter and Harrods, and – of course – continue to see our jewellery grace the pages of international glossies and accessorise the Hollywood A-listers. I would love to see Paka Paka become an international icon of South African contemporary luxury. 

This article originally appeared in the 15 December edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.

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