06 February 2013 by Julienne du Toit

The real gems of Jagersfontein

Once famous for its blue-white diamonds, the town of Jagersfontein is now better known for being home to a distinctive French-African style of beaded wirework.

French-inspired African wirework from Glaasstudio in the Free State town of Jagersfontein. Picture Chris Marais

The dusty little southern Free State town of Jagersfontein has the distinction of being the oldest diamond-mining town in the world.

The town of Jagersfontein, with the diamond tailings in the background. Picture Chris Marais

The first diamond was discovered there in 1870, a year before the more famous Kimberley stones were found less than two hours’ drive north-west.

Another remarkable fact: the diamonds here originate far deeper than others – 400km below the Earth’s surface, in the heart of the planet’s upper mantle.

As recently as 1999, gardener Oom Piet Oerson found a 12-carat diamond in his employer’s flower bed.

And did you know that American gangster Al Capone used to prefer wearing Jagersfontein’s blue-white diamonds above all other jewels?

Diamond giant De Beers closed its Jagers mine quite abruptly in 1971 – something of a tragedy for this delightful little town, which once had five hotels, a church and municipal offices designed by Sir Herbert Baker, croquet lawns, and a public swimming pool.

De Beers might have been a little too hasty. Like many old diamond mining towns, the dumps here are thought to still contain billions of rands in diamonds. As recently as 1999, gardener Oom Piet Oerson found a 12-carat diamond in his employer’s flower bed. After many anxious days, he was given a reward by De Beers – a third of the stone’s value.

Gillian Vermaak and Lawrance Legetla collaborating on a new wire bowl design

Now the dumps are being mined again in earnest by a consortium.

But there are other, arguably more important, gems to be found in Jagersfontein.

In the old De Beers building (appropriately enough), there is a small craft project called Glaasstudio.

Started by Gillian and Naas Vermaak, Glaasstudio is one of the longest-lasting craft projects in the country. It has permanently changed the lives of many employees and has trained dozens of others in the arts of wirework and beads.

Dinah Motshabi has been there for 12 years now, pretty much as long as the craft project has been going.

She had been unemployed when Naas and Gillian hired her, and her only previous experience had been as a domestic worker. Now she handles the beading and is pretty much second in command.

The other longest-serving employee is Frans Wesie, whose only previous job experience was working with stone in government graveyards. Instead of hacking at granite, he now works with stained glass, creating lamps and windows that glow with colour.

Jim Mafata has a real gift for creating little wire creatures. Picture Chris Marais

Lawrance Legetla was jobless 11 years ago and had only had ‘piece work’ (part-time work) from the odd plumbing job. Now he is a genius at creating wirework bowls.

Jim Mafata once worked on a farm with horses. Perhaps it’s because of that time that he has such a gift for making animals out of wire.

The shop has an eccentric range of beaded wirework creatures – lizards, elephants, chickens, dung beetles, warthogs, meerkats, giraffes and rhinos.

They are dotted beneath and around the beautiful bowls, lampshades, serviette holders and a brand new range of Karoo-themed fridge magnets.

If you’re every driving from Bloemfontein or Trompsberg to Kimberley, take the route via Jagersfontein and on to Fauresmith, Koffiefontein and Jacobsdal. Stop at Glaasstudio and take home a real Jagersfontein gem.

Little giraffe angels for the Christmas tree. Picture Chris Marais

Category: Arts & Entertainment

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