It all started when Ashley Heather wanted to make a ring from silver halide – the light-sensitive metal used in photographic film and x-rays. With digital becoming more popular, the film is a rarity these days.
She searched far and wide, badgered family and friends alike, and even begged universities for the film. Sourcing it was a painful process; and even more so, extracting the silver halide from the film. Where others saw junk, Heather saw profits.
Now she is out to prove jewellery can be made from rubbish.
“I started with photographic waste, but then that became incredibly hard to find, so I changed to circuit board waste. It gets sent to a refinery where it gets melted down and then the raw material is extracted in Johannesburg and then delivered to me,” says the young designer from Johannesburg.
Heather is making a name. But it’s a tough job.
The market is saturated and it’s important to set yourself apart from the rest, she says. Heather’s work has certainly turned a few heads, she was part of the Design Indaba’s Emerging Creatives Program four years ago and she won the Most Innovative Product award at the 2013 Decorex Show in Johannesburg.
These days, Heather spends most of her time in a small studio in the backroom of a craft shop, in the trendy Cape Town suburb of Woodstock. She no longer dives in dumpsters for raw materials, now she buys them from refineries.
“I’ve been selling in little boutiques and through word of mouth mostly. I get a lot of enquiries through my website. It’s an organic process and I’m feeling my way [in Cape Town]. I’m a small business. I get a lot of people who call from the stairs, saying they are lost, but they know my shop is in the building. It’s a much slower pace from Johannesburg, I remember the first few weeks the strange looks I got when I wanted to work after 2PM on a Friday, but I’ve learned to adapt and to love the lifestyle here,” she says.
The business is a far cry from her early days in Johannesburg in 2010. This was when she first saw metal being smelted. She was hooked.
“I remember seeing the shiny glow of the metal as it was melting in the crucible and I just knew I wanted to do that too. Two days later, I signed up on a course, and a few months later, I had set up a tinier studio in the backroom of my parents’ house in Johannesburg. When I look back, my new studio here is massive.”
With capital of R20,000 ($1,800), Heather began selling silver pieces at markets and online. Now the silversmith is looking to become a goldsmith.
“I love working with people. My best pieces come from engaging with clients and making something we are both happy with.”
Heather is up for the challenge, although it’s very likely it will be harder to find gold in the bins.