From the silent strength of stone and the lustrous versatility of silver to the decadent comfort of chocolate, three Garden Route entrepreneurs have brought home the skills they’ve learnt abroad and are finding fulfilment as they practice their traditional crafts in this digital age.
WORDS Clare van Rensburg PHOTOGRAPHS Melanie Maré
The Karoo silversmith
Di van der Riet-Steyn, who has been producing and designing handmade silver and gold jewellery for over two decades, calls her workshop in Prince Albert her “happy place”. Her wooden workbench is laden with a jumbled assortment of pliers, hammers, moulds, saws and casts while medieval metalworking tools line the shelves.
Nature provides an inexhaustible source of inspiration – a mood board holds a collection of organic stimuli, from curled seedpods, brittle bark and dried flowers of the Karoo veld to barnacle shells, delicate corals, feathers and the plated shell of a chiton (marine mollusk). “It’s fantastic to put a collection together from pure inspiration,” she says, “I get completely lost in what I’m doing.”
Di’s Karoo Blue collection of sterling silver jewellery is inspired by pottery shards dug up from her garden. The chips of faded blue and green crockery are the remains of teacups, plates and saucers discarded by early Prince Albert settlers.
Sold from her local shop, Prince of Africa, her collection is timeless and each unique item carries a satisfying weight and substance. The fine metal is melted and alloyed down in pewter and cast into an ingot. The alloy is then hand-worked in its cold state. Di bends and stretches the metal as she passes it through a steel rolling mill. “The metal can be carefully shaped, thinned or drawn out into a wire,” she explains. It is hand cut with precise care, sawn, rounded, hammered and burred to a fine polish using traditional techniques.
Di began working with precious metals while completing her Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art at Stellenbosch University. She was awarded the Maggie Laubser scholarship to study enamelling at the John Cass School of Art in the United Kingdom. However, she says she received the peak of her training in fine artisanal jewellery at the Pforzheim Technical University in Germany. “Silversmithing has a strong tradition in Germany since before the Dark Ages,” she says, “and is an integral part of German heritage.”
Di cites her satisfaction at producing unique commissions as a key component of her success. “I love working for clients on a commission basis as one has to employ an instinct about what will suit a person’s tastes.”
The chocolate aficionado
Marita Lamprecht is a zealous chocolatier who wields her tempering tools as she spreads the gospel: “Fine chocolate won’t make you fat, you only need a little to be satisfied. In my job I get to make people smile every day.”
The temperature at La Chocolaterie Rococo in Oudtshoorn is set at a chilly 17°C to ensure the chocolates remain fresh. Delicious aromas of cocoa pervade the air as rows of lavender-infused truffles sit alongside Rococo’s signature lemon meringue pralines. The light lemon cream melts on the tongue and is perfectly balanced by a rich white chocolate shell. Home-cooked Rooibos caramel oozes from the centre of a wafer-thin chocolate disk while the elegant mocha coffee flavour of Diemersfontein Pinotage is expertly incorporated into a velvet ganache surrounded by a shell of bitter dark chocolate.
Inspired by the decadence of 18th Century France, Marita’s creations represent the ultimate in chocolate indulgence. Huge slabs of chocolate are imported from Belgium and meticulously handcrafted into unique delicacies according to traditional Belgian recipes. The chocolates are created in small batches and contain no preservatives.
Tempering white chocolate on a marble slab, Marita expertly runs a pair of stainless steel spatulas through the rapidly cooling chocolate. The viscous liquid is then lovingly piped onto hand-enrobed truffles and finished with a dusting of edible 18- carat gold leaf. “Fine chocolate is absolute sensual decadence. Its high proportion of cocoa and cocoa butter distinguishes ours. We use between 56% and 72% cocoa, and cocoa butter is the only fat,” she says.
Ten years ago Marita left the corporate world to pursue her passion. Marita found a Belgian mentor who helped her cram four years of study into a three-month stay. “It was a baptism of fire. I learned to make pralines like the old Belgian Masters; to temper, set, dip, mould, enrobe, cut and decorate the pralines by hand.”
Since opening in 2007, she has built up a thriving business making elaborately handcrafted pralines and caters to clients from across the country, including functions, weddings, special occasions and turn-down chocolates for boutique hotels.
Marita says her assistant and apprentice, Zelna Julius, plays a major role. “Zelna is my left hand, my right hand and my conscience.” She cites passion, innovation and dedication to quality as the recipe for success. “You can never underestimate the palate of the connoisseur. In the world of chocolate making, you are only ever as good as your last batch.”
A bond set in stone
Matthew and Mark van Rensburg are proud third-generation stonemasons. Following in the footsteps of a great-grandfather, grandfather and two Irish uncles, the George-based brothers learned the family trade in the south of Ireland.
A decade later, they have returned with Irish wives and run a thriving business in brick and stone. They served four-year apprenticeships under heritage stonemasons and today Van Bros Construction employs 13 local masons and has become renowned for distinctive craftsmanship.
Decorative panels of Karoo quartzite are laid in “a random rubble pattern” to impart structural stability. Large blocks of warm sandstone are paired with linear blue-grey slate and framed with red brick corners called “quoins”. “This technique of enclosing a stonework feature with brick corners is borrowed from traditional Irish architecture. It was a time-honoured symbol of the homeowner’s wealth and status,” says Mark. There’s a huge demand for their work as people recognise the beauty and warmth of natural stone, he adds.
Matthew says they were apprenticed to their uncles who have a thriving masonry business in the south of Ireland. “There is no better place to learn the trade of stonemasonry. The history of Ireland is written in her stone walls.” Centuries of Celtic craftsmen built and maintained durable medieval forts and garrisoned towns, decorative archways and distinctive dry-packed farm walls. In fact, explains Matthew, the old masons even had a secret language, Bearlager na Saor, in which they passed on the techniques of their trade.
The brothers are passionate about the integrity of their craft, which is different from tiling and cladding. “We source the best quality Cape sandstone and slate from local quarries,” says Matthew, “we choose each stone by colour and weight, dress and point the individual pieces with chisel and hammer and lay the stone in mortar. These are techniques that have existed for thousands of years, unchanged since the Egyptians built pyramids and the ancient Celts built Stonehenge.”
The process of establishing themselves as traditional stonemasons on the Garden Route wasn’t always easy. Countless hours were spent training and upskilling their team. “Laying stone and brick requires both skill and an artistic eye,” says Mark, “you have got to have a talent for this trade because some stones will just never work in a wall.”
The brothers are united and driven by a sense of pride in their work; “Stone walls are timeless,” says Mark, while Matthew adds: “Working with a material that took 100 million years to form is uniquely fulfilling. There is a deep sense of satisfaction in building a wall that will last for hundreds of years and look even more beautiful as it ages.”