Meet Anna Richerby of Beloved Beadwork, one of my favorite jewelry artists in the world. Located in Cape Town, South Africa, Anna shares about her colorful contemporary beaded designs in today’s Dream Jobs interview.
I’ve always loved jewelry that’s unconventional, especially if it tells a story. Finding a new piece to love is always a little victory for me. In 2013, I took a trip to South Africa to visit my family.
While I was there, my cousin Margie (who knows my taste!) took me to a gallery complex in Cape Town where I discovered a new jewelry love: Beloved Beadwork.
Each piece is unique, intricate and made by hand from teeny, tiny, colorful beads. It’s true wearable art — a contemporary twist on a traditional African handcraft. I own several Beloved pieces now and I adore them.
I can’t even tell you how excited I am to introduce Beloved Beadwork’s founder, owner and designer Anna Richerby as today’s Dream Job interviewee. (It can be totally worth it to reach out to someone you really look up to. Just sayin’.)
I don’t often write about fashion and jewelry on Feast + West, but I’m not ruling it out as a subject of the Dream Job series, which is all about people in pursuit of their own creative careers.
Anna tells us about her passion for beadwork, her struggles with finding direction in her career and her battle with breast cancer. This Q&A with Anna Richerby is inspiring and thought-provoking, and I hope you enjoy it! // susannah
1. How would you describe Beloved Beadwork?
We’re a small company of 16 people, who hand weave intricate and beautiful pieces of jewellery and art.
We use fine glass seed beads from Japan, sterling silver and gold, and a thread and needle to create our pieces, which sell in our own two shops in Cape Town, as well as in other shops in South Africa and the rest of the world.
Around half of our work is exported, currently to the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and to the United States. Our latest shipment went to the Art Institute of Chicago. In fact, it should be arriving today!
2. What were you doing before Beloved Beadwork? What inspired you to change paths?
I’ve always been fascinated by beads, for as long as I can remember. In fact, I’m not sure ‘fascinated’ is the right word. They have just been a big part of my life since childhood.
In some South African communities that would be seen as a sign of a calling to become a traditional healer, but being British and rather too boring, I decided to take it at face value and get seriously into beading instead.
As a teenager my mum would have to drive me to nearby cities to find beads that I couldn’t find in my own. I didn’t anticipate making it a career though, and went off to Glasgow University to study anthropology and economics.
Before university I came to Cape Town for a ‘gap year,’ and lived above the city’s most famous bead shop. I could scour that place for hours every Saturday morning. I spent my third year of university in Vancouver at University of British Columbia, and the bead shops there were out of this world! That’s when I started to learn to weave with beads properly.
After university I moved to Cape Town to work for the Anglican (Episcopal) church. News spread among community organisations that I could teach beadwork, and there’s a sense in which one thing naturally lead to another.
I was working with an amazing group of women from Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to whom I was trying to teach a hobby, but who had other ideas themselves.
They could see a potential that I could not, and pushed me towards commercialising what we were doing. I think, in truth, they could also see how lost I was at that point in my life, and they were eager to help me find direction.
At the same time, I was becoming frustrated that none of the organisations I was working with were willing or able to invest in really good quality beads, as I could see that there was a cultural need out there for very intricate and high end beadwork that wasn’t being met. So I began designing the kind of beadwork that I would want to buy. That was six years ago now!
3. When ideas are scarce, where do you turn for creative inspiration?
Generally the problem isn’t ideas, the problem is time! For example, recently I had been desperate to make a coral-like necklace using a hyperbolic technique similar to that popularised in crochet by Margaret Wertheim.
Finally, I found some time, twelve hours to be exact, and made one! It was lovely, but after all that we realised that it’s not really a viable product compared to our others.
Anyone who runs a creative business will say the same I think — finding time to actually do the creative work, the cornerstone of your business, is really difficult above the competing concerns of staff care, bookkeeping, materials ordering, et cetera!
And often you make a first sample of something beautiful, but it simply won’t sell for what it’s worth so you have to put it to one side. But I wouldn’t have it any other way, I love my job.
What I would say though is that the key to making beautiful things is to put aside any concern about commercial viability until it’s done, and to keep doing your work for pleasure regardless.
For example, a few months ago, a friend and I were both going through tough times, and he said ‘let’s just go to the beach and watch the sunset and the whales’. It was such a beautiful evening, and when I got home I wanted to make him something to remember it.
So I found some beads in the colours of the evening – deep blues and teals of the sea and sky, golds and coppers of the sun and sand, a a spike shaped black bead to represent the whale fins, and wove him a simple but utterly beautiful object.
When I did that I gave no thought to making them for work, even to making more than one. But we decided to make a few to test them out, and it seems they will be one of our best sellers!
4. Describe your workspace.
We do have a studio, a lovely room on the sixth floor of an industrial building in a suburb next to the city called Woodstock. I’m going to be completely honest now — it’s total chaos!
There are 16 of us in the company, including five of us in management or retail. Right now one of our colleagues is about to have her first baby, and another has taken much needed leave to visit her family, so the three of us are running ourselves a bit raged keeping the studio and our two shops open!
The rest of our team work from home and come in to our studio once a week. That’s always a lovely day — we have a great sense of humour and comradery in our team, and there is always at least one small child in the room making us laugh and playing with the toys my mum has made for them.
If I could sum up the spirit of our studio, that would be it — happy chaos!
5. What have been your biggest successes and challenges for Beloved Beadwork?
For any small business, making it past two years feels like an absolute miracle! It’s a rare thing, and it’s hard work.
But in terms of work we’ve done, the biggest and most amazing piece we ever made was for an artist called Bili Bidjocka, which traveled to France to be exhibited, and which was 27 square metres of 1800 strings of 5mm beads. It took ten people working full time for six weeks to complete.
Another great was receiving an order from the Museum of Modern Art for their online shop and catalogue. When I went to the NY Now trade show, I was preparing myself for it by saying, ‘The worst case scenario is no sales, and the best case is MoMA, and obviously the reality is going to be somewhere between those extremes’. When MoMA came to my stand I could barely believe it.
6. What are your dreams for Beloved Beadwork?
What I want, and what I’ve always wanted, is to make gorgeous, irresistible jewellery that speaks to people, and to get to work with the amazing colleagues I’ve had the privilege of becoming close to over the past six years. Those are the two things that make it worthwhile — beauty and friendship.
What I have always struggled with, however, is how big we should become. On the one hand — small is beautiful. Being a small company means we don’t risk our identity, and it means much simpler finances.
On the other hand, South Africa has a 25% unemployment rate, so it seems a little selfish to keep it small when it is a company with a potential for growth. So I guess the answer is – watch this space!
7. Who do you look up to?
In Cape Town, as a designer, that question is easy to answer. Skinny Laminx, the creative work of Heather Moore, is such an amazing example of how to run a small design business carefully and joyfully.
In retrospect I think I was also very heavily influenced by someone I sat next to on a flight to Delhi when I was 19! I must have smiled nicely at someone, because I had been upgraded to business class, and I sat next to a British woman who lived in India and designed and ran manufacturing for an amazing brand of clothing sold in the UK called East.
She told me all about her work, and not even seven years later I too was working as a designer/maker on the other side of the world. I wish I had written down her name so I could thank her!
8. Where and how do you love to spend your time off?
So I probably live in one of the most beautiful cities on earth. We have it all — mountains, rugged beaches, valleys full of vineyards, gorgeous little towns just outside the city. And culturally it’s an amazing place to be too.
If poetry readings, book launches, alternative cinema, good food and art galleries are your thing, this is the city to be in.
So long walks with my border collie, cooking good meals with friends and poetry nights would probably be my three favourite things.
9. What resources do you recommend to someone whose dream job is your job?
I’m a big fan of the book Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. I think it’s a very realistic look at starting a business. Pinterest, too, is a great way to explore ideas and to get an understanding of what other people are already doing.
The best resource, by far, is your own time. Give yourself many, many hours to develop an individual sense of style. There is no rush, you can start selling your work when it is ready, but first really indulge yourself in your work, it’s worth it!
10. If you weren’t running Beloved Beadwork, what would be your dream job?
That’s easy, I would be an epidemiologist. I was diagnosed with early breast cancer last year, and I researched my diagnosis very thoroughly.
During that process I became aware of two things — that there really isn’t much data out there on which women like me can base our treatment decisions, and that I really really like epidemiology! But for now, I’m happy in my job.
In the U.S., Beloved Beadwork products are available for purchase online at MoMa and in-store at the Phoenix Art Museum shop and the Art Institute of Chicago.