It’s been a week since Rollin Vintage opened its shop at 8 Morrison Street and things are going well.
Just inside the eclectic mall that’s taking shape in the popular arty precinct behind the ICC, it goes by the name FORGE. The name was chosen both because it alludes to the forging hammers used in a jewellery studio and forging a partnership with Mandara Handbags whose leather goods are displayed alongside his jewellery.
Ryan Rollin has certainly come a long way since he was making quirky jewellery from antique cutlery in his Glenwood garage in 2012.
The business started out as a husband and wife team with pendants, bracelets and rings made from vintage silver cutlery pieces such as teaspoons, butter knives, forks and sugar tongs.
He set up his own studio eight months ago, employing jewellery graduate Mzisi Magwaza, who he says shared both his design and business vision.
Until recently, he only sold from markets, boutiques, design shops and online and while he still does all of those, he has now set up his own additional retail space.
The business now employs three people.
“It’s nice to have a team. You need to let go and let others take charge,” he says smiling.
About six years ago, his wife Liesa wanted a fork bracelet. These were extremely popular at the time but she wanted a bracelet with a difference using one of the pieces that she had inherited from her grandmother.
“Anyone can make a bracelet out of a fork, but can you make a really awesome piece that you can sell?” was the next question they asked themselves.
Although not a trained jewellery maker, Rollin has honed his skills and developed a fascination for jewellery making since those early days of experimenting with tableware.
He acknowledges that each piece involves a “huge amount of work” and requires a complex process of heating, twisting, hammering and finishing. If he heats an implement too much, it may break.
Although some of the items he works with are silver, most include harder metals that are less malleable and are the sorts of materials with which conventional jewellers would not ordinarily work.
When they set out, the couple sourced each piece of cutlery themselves from vintage and antique shops countrywide. They selected individual items that did not form part of valuable sets and that would be sold to scrap dealers by many antique dealers. They paid higher prices than those scrap dealers and loved the thought of preserving vintage items.
Back then, the couple was living in the Midlands.
Rollin, who initially studied music, had returned from England where he had worked for Topshop for six months. He was looking for a job and studying towards becoming a financial advisor for a large insurance company.
He and then girlfriend Liesa, who had studied art, not only shared a love for design and creating beautiful things but an entrepreneurial spirit that made owning their own business and appealing prospect.
Their first sales were at a car boot market in Hilton. “People bought from us and we made R1, 000. We were really shocked,” he remembers.
They then started selling at every market they heard about, including the Essenwood and Shongweni markets. Rollin put his studies on hold to run with the evolving business, something that he admits was “a huge step”.
By the time they set up Rollin Vintage as a formal business in 2011, they were selling via a large number of different markets as well as to various shops. They soon realised that they were spreading themselves too thin and narrowed their focus. Now, they sell at just three markets – the I Heart Market in Durban, the Wonder Market and Market on the Square in Umhlanga.
Rollin Vintage also wholesales to shops across the country – from Pretoria to Clarens to Ballito and even the Transkei – and has a strong online sales platform that has seen Rollin sell his creations worldwide.
Yet, Rollin’s first experience of retailing was in Howick. Because, at the time, he felt that most shops didn’t provide a good platform for designers, he opened one himself and charged a fee or rental for the space used to display their goods rather than adding a mark up or claiming a percentage of sales.
He sold it in 2011 when the couple moved to Durban using a different model to the shop at 8 Morrison street, solely selling their jewellery range alongside Madeleine Zietsman’s Mandara Handbags.
With the growth in his business, Rollin has also added to his offering. In addition to his perennially popular vintage cutlery pieces, he has introduced more contemporary lines that include brass jewellery. He now also makes silver cuff links, tie pins, men’s and ladies’ rings and earrings.
“We didn’t want to box ourselves in with vintage cutlery,” he explains. He is also doing themed ranges such as the “coffee bean” collection that he is busy completing in his studio in Glenwood. He and Mzisi Magwaza are busy casting coffee beans in silver. He is also working on a cut out of the Coffee Tree café logo.
He says future ranges will include combining leather, wood and even precious stones with silver and other metals.
When Rollin began making vintage jewellery, he enjoyed also making bespoke pieces for customers who want to make jewellery out of items such as christening spoons and engraved pieces of cutlery that have sentimental value.
An example is one of his most popular products – men’s wedding bands. His own is an example and is made from an antique fish knife that has been heated and wrapped into a band. He intends making this a bigger part of his business through more contemporary one-off designs.
What has and will continue making Rollin Vintage as popular as it is his attention to detail. This stretches from the individual pieces that Rollin and Mzisi Magwaza create in their studio to their packaging – wooden boxes made by the community of Mpophomeni near Howick.
“It’s not enough to put a bracelet in a paper packet. People want the whole experience – not just the bracelet,” he says.