Nigerian entrepreneur grows trendsetting jewellery business from scratch

Gbenga Ayo-Dada

If you ask Gbenga Ayo-Dada, the founder and creative head at Artsmith Collections, how he started his business, he will tell you “I started with nothing”.

Ayo-Dada got his start-up capital while he was still training to be a jewellery designer. He would take some of the items off his trainer’s shelf and sell them at the bank branch where his sister was working.

“For instance, if my boss gave me a set of jewellery at a retail price of N1,500, I could sell it for N2,500 or N3,000. I saved some of the profits and that was how I was able to get the capital to start my own business,” he recalls.

Ayo-Dada picked up jewellery making in 2005. On discovering he had a passion for it, he enrolled for professional training in 2007 and started Artsmith Collections the year after.

Nine years on, and Ayo-Dada has grown Artsmith Collections into a leading jewellery brand in Nigeria. His designs have become a trendsetter in the local market, with some pieces featuring in popular movies and television series such as Tinsel and The Wedding Party. He has also styled prominent Nigerians who are now on his growing list of clients.

“Growing Artsmith Collections has been through consistency, constant improvement and honing my creative skill. It has been through networking and meeting the right kind of people that changed my disposition about my work. Before now, I didn’t take it seriously. But now, it is what I am going to retire to.”

New level, new difficulties

“The beginning was actually jolly,” says Ayo-Dada, who also works as a wedding consultant and bridal stylist. “It wasn’t tough like how other entrepreneurs will say their journey started off – maybe because I didn’t think it was going to grow this big. I wasn’t unnecessarily anxious over anything. I wasn’t anxious to make sales, meet deadlines or get clients.”

However, with new heights came new challenges. The first major hurdle Ayo-Dada faced in his business was client management. While jewellery making wasn’t his first foray into business, he soon discovered that each business is unique.

“There was also financial challenges and having the right connections. For instance, when I [decided to specialise in] making bridal jewellery, I discovered that I couldn’t stick to my present [all-purpose jewellery] clients because most of them are married with kids, and those who are not couldn’t afford the kind of product I was putting up for sale. So I needed people to connect me with the kind of client my products were meant for.”

Quality vs price

Materials used by most jewellery makers in Nigeria are largely imported from China, except for corals which are locally sourced from Benin and eastern parts of the country. The cost of importing these materials, especially if they are of high quality, inflates the price of the finished jewellery product.

Ayo-Dada says he is not bothered when people say his products are expensive.

“I consider that they are not my client. First of all, I offer a bespoke service. Secondly, my jewellery designs are exclusive, meaning: they are original designs by me. So I am selling exclusivity, quality and good craftsmanship. Now, these other people that are doing it cheaper are not selling their original ideas. But if you know the worth of your sweat and creativity, you will never sell yourself short.”

On the latest jewellery trends, Ayo-Dada says: “The premium clients are moving from wearing precious stones and diamond and sapphire jewellery, to mixing coral and gold together or just coral pieces because they are universal. For mid-range clients, many of them are going for multi-purpose jewellery designs that they can wear for all occasion.”

Financing growth without bank support

Getting access to finance is still a major challenge for businesses in Nigeria. As a jewellery designer, Ayo-Dada has tried to apply for loans but has never been successful.

“Financing your business in Nigeria is not always easy, except if you get a private investor that believes in you. Many financial institutions in Nigeria claim to be SME-friendly, but they are not.”

To grow his business without a loan, Ayo-Dada had to look inward. “I told myself, ‘you are going to save, you are going to invest and you are going to grow your own money’. Now, I am at a point where if I want get a major project done, I start small. It’s a longer process but that’s just the best option.”

“Before, jewellery designers were considered unskilled artisans, but now, we are seen as professionals because we are actually earning good money for our craft,” says Ayo-Dada. “It has taken consistency, upping our game and… ensuring that we are also offering value and showing why we should be recognised.”

One of the important lessons Ayo-Dada has learnt in his business is not to envy others. “Mind your own business and cultivate it to become bigger and better. When you do, in no time you will get to that level you aspire to and even surpass it. Rather than envy another person, learn how to get those things from the other person and turn your envy into desire and collaboration.”

In the future, Artsmith Collections is looking to partner with companies outside Nigeria to cater for foreigners who are fans of anything African that is contemporary and beautiful.

“We hope to do business on a bigger scale, whereby we can cater for a different class of customers.”