The premier jewel in Stellenbosch’s crown is a diamond, thanks to Daneel Diamond Manufacturers. For 30 years, founder of the company John Daneel has watched his business grow, provide employment and add value to South Africa’s precious raw materials.
Stellenbosch is famous for many things: the iconic Winelands surrounding the town, the historic oak-lined streets and an acclaimed university. If you were to ask a visitor about the jewel in the Eikestad’s crown, they’d probably praise its scenic beauty and remarkable natural setting. But 30 years ago John Daneel had a dream. He saw a different jewel making its home in Stellenbosch. This gem was a long way from its original home, far from the dark caverns where it had been chopped out of the kimberlite rock, hundreds of kilometres from where it had been sifted out of the rich alluvial sands washed downriver and out to sea by a thousand years of winter rains.
Daneel Diamond Manufacturers opened its doors in Johannesburg in 1985 and relocated to Stellenbosch a decade later. The company has grown to become one of the most important players in the South African diamond industry, exporting polished gems across the globe. Born and bred in Stellenbosch and the son of two journalists, John attended Paul Roos Gymnasium before moving on to Stellenbosch University where he graduated with a master’s degree. A master’s in business administration in the United States was to follow, providing an excellent grounding for corporate life within the successful Rembrandt Group. There he was mentored by Gys Steyn and the late Dr Anton Rupert as he moved between offices in Windhoek, Johannesburg, New York and Belgium.
“Those were good days, but from the age of 10 I’d had the burning desire to run my own business one day,” says John. “I wanted to get into a position where the buck stopped with me. It has been a challenging journey, starting 35 years ago, to gather the necessary knowledge, expertise and capital to stand on my own feet and to compete against the best from Israel, India, China and the rest of the world.” And John has most certainly turned his dream into a successful reality. The products of Daneel Diamond Manufacturers are certified by the respected Gemological Institute of America and the European Gemo- logical Laboratory in South Africa and are conflict-free, sourced in strict adherence of the so-called Kimberley Process. In partnership with Belgian company AMC, the company is also the only De Beers ‘sightholder’ in the Western Cape.
“This means that we were invited to join the small group of exclusive clients to whom De Beers sells a large volume of rough diamonds on a monthly basis,” explains John. “These diamonds we polish to perfection and distribute all over the world.” With factories in China, Belgium and Stellenbosch, cutting and poishing rough diamonds is a cornerstone of the business and the company invests heavily in the training of local workers. “We recruited youngsters from the townships and had them trained at our expense by Belgian master cutters,” says John.
“A decade later more than 200 youngsters have undergone our advanced training and are employed by us or by other factories all over the world. They are now empowered with skills that they can apply anywhere in the world.” Yet while the crucial cutting and polishing takes place behind the scenes in a state-of-the-art diamond-cutting factory on the outskirts of Stellenbosch, it’s seeing the finished product – in the form of cut diamonds and award-winning hand-crafted jewellery – in the glamorous boutiques in Dorp Street and Kerk Street that makes coming to work a pleasure, says John. “I probably could have become a doctor or a lawyer, in which case my clients would have been sick or in trouble. Our clients are all in a good mood and celebrating life. I find it very uplifting to work with creative and beautiful products, and to bring joy and pleasure to our clients.”
The company has won a clutch of international awards for its jewellery design, with locals and tourists benefiting from diamonds cut and polished locally to make the ‘girl’s best friend’ more accessible. “We create beauty, love, pride and celebration through the process of ‘from the mine to the finger’,” says John, who is evidently proud of his company’s role in growing the local diamond industry. “South Africa’s raw materials are polished to perfection, stunning jewellery pieces are designed and manufactured by hand, and the public is served with no middlemen or agents involved.”
It’s been a long road for this home-grown Stellenbosch business, but for John there’s no shortage of highlights from three decades in the sparkling world of diamonds. Seeing unemployed local youngsters acquire a skill that will equip them to work in the highest levels of the industry worldwide is one of John’s proudest moments, but “making a business stand on its own feet and compete successfully in the international arena is no mean feat,” he adds.
“We bring huge amounts of foreign currency into Stellenbosch, add value to South Africa’s raw materials, serve and entertain foreign visitors, and create employment. We have served royalty, statesmen, the public, celebrities and poor students with love in their eyes.” The father of three children, John believes passing the baton to the next generation is crucial if the family business is to keep growing, and his son Xander is now intimately involved in the company. “At present I see my role as passing on my knowledge to the next generation of staff, the public and my children,” says John.
“I hope they will all be able to let the dream continue.”