Jewellery Design at Stellenbosch University

jewellery design at stellenbosch

Madri’s passion for design led her to the BA in Visual Arts at Stellenbosch University. Read what she has to say about her experience studying Jewellery Design at Stellenbosch and how she started her own jewellery business as a fresh graduate.

As I grew up I never thought I would one day be a jeweller. I did not know any jewellers or that one can study Jewellery Design at a university.

I grew up and went to school in Potchefstroom, which is a university town (home to North-West University). Growing up I always believed that I would study Medicine, like all my friends. I worked exceptionally hard in Grade 11 and Matric to pursue this dream. But when reality struck that my achievements weren’t good enough to get accepted, I started exploring other directions. I always believed that one should have a professional qualification.

I never considered taking a gap year or to start working straight after Matric. No one I knew did this, so I knew I would definitely study at a university straight after I matriculated. The only question until midway into my Matric year was: what do I want to study?

Going for the Jewel

I achieved the same level of marks in all of my subjects – in Physics, Biology, as well as in Design and the languages, which made the decision harder. I knew I enjoyed Art and Design very much and would work late into the night on Design projects, but I found the Sciences to be equally as interesting. It was only after my dad advised me to study something I enjoy doing that I started to research different design fields.

My mom told me about the Jewellery Design at Stellenbosch University, offered as a BA in Visual Arts, which is a four-year Visual Arts degree, Honours included. It sounded cool, but I had the misconception that Art students were all hippies and that I wouldn’t fit in. My mom convinced me to make an appointment with the head of the department to find out what exactly the course entailed. After a short tour through the Arts department and seeing what the studios look like (lots of interesting tools and equipment), I decided to apply by compiling the rather large portfolio which forms part of the admission requirements.

Creating the Portolio

The Visual Arts department consists of three courses: Fine Arts, Visual Communication Design and Jewellery Design. To get accepted to study any one of these fields, you need to complete a portfolio (they give you guidelines and instructions).

For the portfolio I was asked to sketch and paint realistically. Conceptual thoughts are tested as well as thinking in 3D by building something (in my case a hat and shoe) out of a piece paper (without using glue). I was so stressed that I wouldn’t get accepted because I knew my painting and drawing was not up to standard. In the end I think it was my successfully built paper-shoe that got me into the Jewellery Design course, as one must be able to think in three dimensions when designing a jewellery piece.

I believe that Design as a subject in school helped in giving me the self-confidence and ability to think outside of the box, design, and then construct a 3D object.

Apart from the portfolio (submission is on 30 September) there are no compulsory subjects that you should have. To get accepted at the university you must have good grades.

Comprehending the Concepts

My four years, in a nutshell, consisted of the following: Throughout the first three years we worked mainly with copper and metal, and learned all kinds of different techniques to manufacture a jewellery piece (fly-press, hollow construction, wire construction ect.) We also got taught all the different ways of setting stones, both cabochon and facetted stones.

As we entered our fourth and final year, we could decide to work in any other materials, such as plastic, clay, or textiles etc. Our final mark at the end of fourth year consisted of 50% theory (Visual studies thesis) and 50% practical (body of jewellery pieces).

Here is a quick look at what the 4 years of Jewellery Design focus on:

1st Year

  • basic Fine Art classes (draw, paint, think conceptually, learn how to make quick sketches)
  • basic, easy ways to set stones
  • basics of working with metal, soldering, sawing, and melting silver
  • learning to design different interpretations
  • Visual Studies (theory) – this subject goes on until 4th year, including writing a thesis
  • compulsory general BA elective (English, Afrikaans, Psychology or Ancient Cultures)

2nd and 3rd Year

  • setting stones, with more complicated techniques
  • gemmology (identifying different kinds of stones, with different tests)
  • learning about Rhino, a design program (like CAD) used to design jewellery with
  • classes on sketching, painting and rendering jewellery realistically

At the end of the end of third year we knew all the different setting and metal techniques. Thanks to Rhino I was much more confident in using a programme for my own designs.

4th and final Year

  • working with new materials
  • writing the thesis
  • design a whole body of jewellery around a specific theme (you get to pick) – it needs to be crative and contemporary

Jewellery Design is not just about designing but also about manufacturing. Throughout my studies we had to work in the studio from 8 – 5pm , with one hour lunch break. And projects had deadlines… but when it came to manufacturing, there never seemed to be enough time to finish the piece before the deadline.

It took me a while to get used to working with metal. To construct a metal piece, I had to hammer, saw, file and solder. As you can imagine, this is not possible without getting your hands dirty, and without breaking a few nails too! The problem with metal work is that when you do something wrong, like file away too much, you have to start from scratch. What made it more challenging was that with some pieces I had to work on a very small scale, with very precise measurements.

I eventually learned to have a lot of patience and not to get easily discouraged. After going through the whole process, it always turned out to be very rewarding for me to hold and see my own unique designed jewellery piece. Above all, I really enjoyed the design part and would sit for hours and fill entire sketch books with all my ideas.

Madri Jewels 2

Precious Reflections

In retrospect I must admit that I didn’t really fully know what it entails to study Jewellery Design or what a jeweller does. In my first year we started with a class of 15 students, but only 5 of us graduated at the end of the four-year course. I assume that the majority of us didn’t exactly know what the course entailed.

I would definitely recommend for people interested in studying Jewellery Design to job shadow and go on a tour through the jewellery department with one of the lecturers. Ask a lot of questions. I never thought of it as physical hard work, but it definitely is.

Time for Business

After graduation in 2014, I pursued my passion for Design (others become goldsmiths, but that’s not my thing). At first I didn’t know if I should first work for a jeweller to learn more about the industry, or whether to go ahead and start my own business right away. I soon realised that most jewellers (I’m not talking about well-known and established goldsmiths) only have one assistant at most working for them, so finding a job as an assistant wasn’t easy.

I started my own business at the beginning of this year. It hasn’t been easy and is certainly not a quick way of starting to make money. I also have no knowledge of any business related skills, as my courses at SU didn’t cover that aspect.

In Woodstock, I found a very nice studio space where I have set up my business from scratch (getting equipment, etc.). I spent the first few months of the year doing research in branding, and deciding on a look for my jewellery. I only started with production and building up stock in June.

Now  I know exactly what I want, and have also designed a logo and name. The name of my jewellery brand is Iloni, which means ‘my joy’ in Finnish – my style is influenced by Scandinavian design.

Madri Jewel 3

The Jeweler I Am Today

What I enjoy the most about what I do as jeweller today is the creative process of doing research into a specific theme and then designing around it. The best part is that I am making pieces that other people adore and will wear close to their body.

I am currently in my production phase and plan to start selling my jewellery from September 2015 onwards. So, thumbs up that people will love my jewellery!

If you are interested in getting a glimpse of my world and do a few days of job shadowing, you can contact me with a short letter of motivation and some background info about yourself (applications will be considered from September 2015 onwards). You can reach me via Email:


If you want to see photos of Madri van Zyl’s previous work, check out these links:

  •  ‘Knit, Stich, Wool’ – a series motivated by her love for knitting and the handling of wool
  • Madri is currently busy with the design for her Iloni website – watch this space!

SU Jewellery division on Facebook

SU BA in Visual Arts (Jewellery Design Course). Click on Specialised Programmes, then BA in Visual Arts

EduConnect 2cents

Job shadow! If you are considering a degree in Visual Arts or generally enjoy design and crafty work, then job shadowing a jewellery designer or goldsmith can be a fantastic opportunity to see what that career can entail. You can start networking and form good relationships, which might work out in your favour when you want to work as an assistant for someone after you have freshly graduated.

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