Jewellery designers Collens Mohlaba & Thapelo Tebele turn trash into treasure

A good eye and need to make a living spark upcycled earring line

17 March 2019 - 00:00 By JEFF WICKS

When it comes to earrings, best you forget precious metals or diamonds because now trash trumps all.
This is especially true for aspirant jewellery designers Collens Mohlaba, 24 and Thapelo Tebele, 28, who - down and out and facing destitution - turned to the rubbish tip for their off-the-wall line of earrings. Electronic waste, plastic, wire, pins and buttons have been transformed into something to be treasured.
The pair, longtime friends from Langaville in Johannesburg, said they have become masters at making something out of nothing, selling their wares on donated "Collins + Thapelo" display boards.
Mohlaba said two teaspoons from his mother's kitchen drawer sparked his creativity: "I remember that I was sitting on the train coming into the city to look for work and times were bad for us and I was hungry. That hunger made me think of the spoons and I stole them from my mother. I cut them up and they were the first pair of earrings that I made and the only pair I will never sell," he said.
Now the pair walk the streets of Johannesburg and comb through scrapyards, dumps and skips in search of new material.
"Car parts are my favourite thing so we always make sure we go to the autoyards. It's nice to find small car parts like spark plugs," said Mohlaba.
The jewellery, he said, can be traced back to a passion for fashion and design that was an obstacle in his formative years.
He had lost interest in school and dropped out in grade 10, and also out of an electrical engineering certificate course at a local college.
"I knew that I wanted to follow fashion and Thapelo was the same. We decided this was something we wanted to follow through with. It was only natural that we did it together," he said.
Tebele said he and his friend had a discerning eye. "I see a bottle cap and I can see an earring, even before it is hung in a display," he said.
Describing himself as a professional dropout after two failed attempts at tertiary education, Tebele said their creative process was underscored by desperation.
"At the beginning this was about making money from what we do. But we realised that people weren't buying as often as we expected. There were days we sold a set for R5 because we were so desperate."
Design mentor Liz Croeser said she spotted their talent early on when they drifted into a free photography class at a studio in Maboneng last year.
"Our courses and classes are free and open to everybody and we often get people blown in looking for work. They're both extremely creative and interested in fashion and accessories and I think because of not having prospects they fell into this," she said.
Their unique jewellery can now be found at the I Was Shot in Joburg gallery in the Maboneng Precinct.
Croeser said any start-up capital was a pipe dream, so they went out and found things to make jewellery with.
"Industrious is an understatement," she added.
"The first time they showed us their earrings we saw great potential in that and we gave them some guidance. We decided then that we wanted to facilitate a process so they could discover their signature style.
"They have produced an exciting collection of work. Upcycling is not new, but these guys have done something I have never seen before. It's about an ability to take something as banal as a paperclip and turn it into something beautiful," said Croeser.
Their earrings, she said, speak to the city and its culture.
"It's vibrant and it's bold and out there. No two pairs are ever the same. Everybody else would walk past things lying on the pavement, but they see these things."

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day, Financial Mail or Rand Daily Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.