Namibia's unseen gems

Some see stones as useless pebbles lying upon the earth’s surface, whereas some see diamonds from the same stones. Jacobus Meyer, a stone collector, could not let an opportunity pass by in Keetmanshoop when he realised how precious gemstones are and started a business with them.

Today he runs his own project, Southern Gemstones, and gets help from about four men who collect the precious stones.

Meyer got his inspiration from his father who used to collect gemstones and he grasped how to make money out of them. He says, “When I started in 1999, I was just prospecting for stones and then in 2003 and 2004 I got training from the Ministry of Trade and Industry in conjunction with the Common Wealth Secretariat who made it a programme mandate to train people at the Gemstone Centre in Keetmanshoop. After the training, that is when I went to cutting and polishing of the gemstones.”

Meyer sells the stones mostly to tourists has a customer base in South Africa although they buy sporadically and in small quantities. He mentions that he does not want to keep the business within borders so he is trying to prospect business internationally.

“I decided to go beyond borders because business is much better there, and lately I supply an American company, and I sent jewellery out to test the waters. If that goes well and I get a foothold in United States market, then things will get better,” he says.

“Tourists actually are my biggest customers because to them I really sell something worthwhile. There are a lot of tourists who pass through Keetmanshoop and sometimes I link them up and introduce them to a community market and they buy the stones,” he says.

He adds that although locals try to support him, it is very low because it is not as worthwhile as the tourists because pricing has to change. He says prospecting and getting stones is not an easy job, so to make a profit from low prices becomes burdensome.

Meyer notes that the cutting and polishing process is also a costly operation because in Namibia there are no suppliers that have machinery to be able to complete the job. He says, “You have to import everything so that becomes expensive, and then when it comes to selling locally, the profit margin is very low because our people do not see that the stones are precious. Some of them are also are not into these gemstones.”

“My company also does not have the capacity to put jewellery out in huge volumes, and Meyer says the American company might ask for 100 pieces of rings or bracelets every month, but that would be very difficult to meet as the machinery is not so conducive for such demands,” he says.

“Workforce is not a problem; it is just the machinery and equipment because we have to import them. Like now there are almost ten people that I know who can cut and polish stones and make jewellery by hand but they do not have work and that is a big constraint.”

He says he has two permanent employees, and for prospecting operations, he takes more people to work for a week or two. He works with them on a casual basis and they get their stipend accordingly.

Southern Gemstones does not have competition in the town or region, but Meyer trained a friend who worked with him for seven years. He now runs a business of his own in Mariental.

Not only does Meyer collect stones, he also recycles glass bottles. From those he creates flower basins, candleholders and ashtrays.

“I take a bottle, for instance a Savannah bottle, and then I cut it on the same machine that I use to cut stones. The top of the bottle that I cut off, I glue it with a special glue at the bottom it is a very simple process. I take different bottles and make different shapes, for example balloon kind of shapes,” he says.

He makes glass products on demand of the customers, and this is where he receives a lot of support from the Namibian people, which sustains his livelihood.