Artist Spotlight: Mary-Jean Treloar

Mary Jean Webb (née Treloar) is the creative and talented mind (and hands) behind Mary Jean jewellery: a line of fine hand-crafted jewellery with distinctly African aesthetics. This edition of the Artist spotlight constitutes meany firsts.

Not only is she the first homegrown artist featured, she’s my very first interview and also happens to be a Woman I have met who moves me. I hope you walk away from this with some gems. Tracking this artists path from my high school prefect and trained design architect to CEO and designer who’s goods are now stocked in shops across South Africa (and even in New York!) was a delightful and warm experience. We get into ‘plant’ management, pancake making and surviving January.

The aim is always to a) spotlight b) celebrate and c) track the story and realistic process of each individual, reminding us that everyone has a unique journey in the hopes that d) you are inspired and (hopefully) believe its possible for anyone (you).

Ntoetse: Hi, it’s so good that we’ve finally been able to do this. You already know I’m a huge fan. Everyone I know has at least considered being a customer and I’m really proud of that. I’m that person when someone asks what I’m wearing and I’m like “oh it’s Mary Jean”.

Mary Jean: Thanks for asking me! You’re the best, every time I see your name come up on an order I’m like aaaaaw. I can’t believe you have time to blog and stuff.

N: I know that there are 10-12 standard questions that I sent you but this’ll be more conversation less Q&A and we’ll shuffle around the order a bit. If I’m doing this right, you’ll forget that it’s an interview. Thanks for asking to see the questions beforehand btw, it never even occurred to me that it would help. I’m learning on the job.

MJ: I did something similar before and I think the interview didn’t flow as well because I kept taking long pauses [laughs].

N: Do you plan to stay as personal as you’ve been? The handwritten notes that go with the handmaid jewellery, when your brand expands?

MJ: Absolutely. I think that’s the crux of my business and brand. I want to stay as personal as possible. I can’t write notes for the pieces in stores but yes, the personal touch is a big big big deal to me. I even get panicked when we run out of the little note papers; then we improvise because I’ll be like ‘no we can’t send it without a note!’ [laughs]

N: So how did you get here? Walk us through your journey from high school to self-employed jewellery making business owner.

MJ: [laughs] well it was a bit of path. So I matriculated from Potch Girls where I met you. After school I took a gap year where I worked as a camp counsellor at a camp in Magaliesburg because I thought I knew what I wanted to do (but I didn’t) I first thought I wanted to be a pilot then I thought something in hospitality so thankfully I took the year and decided on interior architecture which I studied at TUKS [The University of Pretoria] which I loved because it was nice and creative but also quite structured.

Once I finished my degree I actually worked at a game lodge in Sabie Sands (another gap year in essence) where I initially volunteered then worked my way up to assistant manager before moving on to work for architecture firms: first in Melrose Arch then another firm in Pretoria. While I was working I did a jewellery course because my dad’s a geologist and we’ve always collected gem stones and rocks and we always cut them so I did a silversmith-ing course so I could set the stones because I now had these stones around the house and accidentally fell in love with it. I couldn’t believe how much I loved it. So I signed up for a 5-day beginers jewellery-making course and it became a full-blown hobby after that. I made a whole jewellery bench at home and made stuff in the evenings and over the weekends. Then I actually started making jewellery for some [game] lodges, little Africa’s and game and touristy things like that and then it started to take off. So now I was working 2 jobs.

It was at that time I decided to leap and give jewellery a chance as a career. I expanded to a few more game lodges (I still have that brand called the Lucky Bean Range which supplies the tourism industry) but Mary Jean Jewellery (est. 2016) was my own personal jewellery design and expression.

N: So where does Gin and Tee factor in [Editor’s note: Gin & Tee was her first online jewellery store]? See, I’ve beeeen.

MJ: [laughs] Oh yes! Gin and Tee was my first attempt at branching out after the game lodge stuff before starting Mary Jean Jewellery. It was a lot more wooden and painted jewellery with some brass pieces but I [laughs] got a bit bored and decided I wanted to step it up a bit with more fine and luxurious pieces so I sort of started over instead of rebranding Gin and Tee. I do a few bridal themed things and corporate branding and coasters through that still.

N: So, no offence to Gin and Tee because its still quite pretty but it was basically your first pancake. You had the skills and the batter ready and you just needed to get the pan hot and ready to go [laughs].

MJ: Absolutely [laughs]. So Mary Jean was basically the 3rd or 4th pancake. Gin and Tee gave me good start on website design and e-commerce and that business model. Now there’s a company that helps with all the technical and secure stuff.

N: I think that’s how you know you’ve made it, that you can outsource that kind of stuff [laughs] which leads me to: do you know or think that you’ve made it or do you need some convincing?

MJ: [laughs] Well, that’s weird because I definitely feel like I’ve come a long way in some things but the question of whether you’ve ‘made it’ comes down to your definition of success and once you’ve figured that out ‘making it’ falls away. For me success is being my own boss and having the freedom to do and create what I love. If you view it through finance/money then maybe I’m not as successful [laughs] but luckily that’s not my view of success. Some days are more successful than others but if you’re hustling for the moment of ‘making it’ then your whole journey becomes unsuccessful and a bit empty and unfun and you can’t enjoy anything until you’re “successful”. I felt really successful when I got into a shop in New York and then I didn’t get any online orders for five days [laughs]. I’m happy and I have different levels of success every day.

N: Couldn’t have said it myself! That’s a wonderful way of looking at it because you get to really enjoy the highs when you’re constantly celebrating as you go along.

MJ: Exactly. Because I don’t even know what my “I’ve made it” looks like. I’m sure if I asked my young self she’d have something positive to say.

N: While we’re on success, can you name your top 5 highlights or big moments on this journey?

MJ: 1) having my website launch and having that first person order. That was huge. 2) Getting to New York was a biggie, I got into a store over there and got to go over and have a bit of launch. 3) getting to showcase my stuff at SA Fashion week last year through my awesome friend who owns a fashion label. She used my stuff and asked me to make some custom pieces for her show. 4) Doing my first engagement ring! That was really cool moving away from my typical metals (silver and brass) and diving into diamonds and gold and realising that I could! 5) Getting asked to do a telephone interview [laughs] so I’ve “made it” today.

N: [laughs] I’m honoured to make the top 5 but just to manage expectations it’s just my little corner of the internet with my 10-20 lovely and dedicated readers. My 12 readers will be super chuffed. That being said I think it’s worthwhile mapping the realistic journey for future creatives and Mary Jeans who think they want to try but aren’t certain its feasible or possible. It’s so nice to read how someone got there. I also enjoy putting some much-deserved spotlight on artists. Full disclosure you’re also my first interview.

MJ: Well it’s lovely to be considered worth spotlighting. And I’m honoured to be your first. When I was starting it was so nice to know that I wasn’t alone. There was a lot of blog reading and podcasts that kept me going. When you’re trying to come with something like packaging for your product and think “what am I doing?” then the podcast lady says the same thing and you’re less alone with those spots of contact with other designers.

N: What would you have wanted to know then?

MJ: I probably would’ve wanted to know how hard it would be but at the same time it’s good because if I’d known beforehand instead of during, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I’m also happy with what I did hear which was a lot of encouragement and “what have you got to lose” and that was best thing because I thought ‘what do I have to lose’ and is there a plan b? Which was reassuring because I got to give it fair shot. It helped to think about the fall back because I was free dive headfirst. Just start. It’s cliché but you have to just back yourself. I look back on the stuff I made and I cringe but at the time it was the best stuff. You have to just start. And then make it better.

N: [laughs] There has to be a first pancake is what you’re saying.

MJ: I love this metaphor, it’s really working out [Laughs]. Best thing ever.

N: You’ve already alluded to it but who were the people behind you championing you at that time?

MJ: Family and friends, fiancée [Editor’s note: at time of publishing: husband] and my dad said: if you’re going to do it, do it properly and commit and you’ll decide if it’s right for you. Go for it. My friends were helpful because I’d made them so much jewellery when it was still my hobby and they asked me the tough questions as well. They were also my first customers. Until that first person who you don’t know orders. That was massive. I cried.

N: We can add that the to the highlight reel if you want. Six it is. Who was a peer or someone who didn’t have to who supported you?

MJ: It was Melanie Hawkins who works for an organisation called Lionesses of Africa. They hosts events with speakers that bring women entrepreneurs together and I’d recommend them to any women entrepreneurs starting out. She was the first person to believe in my brand and she actually got me in contact with the lady from New York. And the stores that stock my stuff. There’s 2 at OR Tambo International, The Linden Co-op.

N: What would you like people to know about you the person or Mary Jean Jewellery?

MJ: I’d like them to know it’s truly handmade and most days we’re just in our aprons and safety goggles and that’s how I go to work and I love it. I only get my nails done once a year (it’s like our year-end function) because I have calloused unpretty hands. I feel bad for my fiancée.

N: Tips for self-employed humans for surviving January?

MJ: Well January is quiet because no one has any money (laughs) but it’s good it always gives me time to plan for the year before the orders and life come in. I learned that in the first two years when I was still freaking out like ‘Oh my goodness what am I doing with my life?’ Then I was like January’s just like that its ok.

N: That’s a great way of looking at January, instead of looking at all the stuff you can’t do and instead using the downtime to your benefit.

N: That leads me to my last personal question which I have to T-up for you a little. There’s a YouTuber (sexologist and author), Shannon Boodram who made this video that likened how we want to be loved with plant care. With this in mind, if you were a plant and could write your own care instructions, what does love feel like for you?

MJ: So love hey. If I were a plant, love feels like lots of sunshine. Sun on my face that I’d bask in. and I’d want to be planted close to other plants because I love sharing love. Love is comfort and security and community.

N: Let the records show that she became very dreamy and wistful at this point. Thank you so much Mary Jane, I think it was very insightful and helpful and fun! Before I let you go, is there anyone or anything that you haven’t mentioned who you’d like to plug? The store in New York for example [it’s called The Narativ, based in Brooklyn]

MJ: Everyone starting something new, do small things every day and it adds up. Celebrate the little things as you go.

*At this point I lost Vodacom cell service but we were pretty much done (I called back)*

You can find Mary Jean Jewellery online (here) and at her store in Melville at 22 Boxes

She is stocked in:

Linden Co-Op in Linden, Johannesburg

The Narativ in Brooklyn, New York

I’m pretty I’ve spotted her stuff in Parkhurst, 4th avenue

OR Tambo International Airport

Female Entrepreneurs, make sure to check out:

Lionesses of Africa

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