Along a nondescript road in La Paz is the small, airy workshop of Mary Gyekyebea , an accessories designer with big ambitions. 'I have big plans. I want to own a luxury brand. Jewellery, precious stones, artwork and later on add bags. The whole dream, the whole vision is that I want a one stop shop that any woman can come and have whatever she wants - a bag, shoes, shades, anything in accessories.'
Big plans or not, the journey to attain this small workshop has shown Mary how much dedication it will take to get where she wants. Mary Gyekyebea is the culmination of faith, luck and plain hard work. The eldest in a family of five children with a single mother at the helm, her earliest creative memory was playing by her mother in a sea of fabrics while her mother sewed. Life was hard though, especially as the first born. She was expected to be a breadwinner for the family and as a result left school at 18 and took the time honoured route of trading, or as she puts it, 'menial jobs, selling things.' She smiles when she remembers, 'I always say I do not know what I have not sold except cocaine.' Life was hard but, 'All those experiences helped me, they really toughened me.' Similar lessons in fortitude came from being separated from her mother and living with an aunt that she did into get along with. The setbacks kept coming too. After she won a chance to attend school at IPMC , her sponsor died during the second term. 'I was trying to find my feet, trying to find something else to do when I realised I still had something I could do.' That something was making jewellery.
Describing how her designs had an eye-catching appeal, Mary explained, 'Whenever I would wear something to church people would ask where I got them from and that 's how I started. I would gather small money and go and buy a small amount of beads. It actually started in my bedroom.' Phismag was born. The first piece she ever sold was a yellow necklace spotted by a church goer that she received 2000 cedis for (2GHC in the new conversion) and used as seed money to buy more beads. Any celebration, though, was cut short - 'I went to town to buy more beads and the money was taken from me so I had to walk all the way home. My capital disappeared.'
The first piece Mary sold was a yellow necklace spotted by a church goer. She received 2000 cedis for (2GHC in the new conversion) and used this starter money to buy more beads. Any celebration, though, was cut short. 'I went to town to buy more beads and the money was taken from me so I had to walk all the way home. My capital disappeared.'
Mary Gyekyebea's journey is nothing if not a lesson in picking onself up where one falls. A friend gave her 5000 cedis in new seed money, something she has never forgotten, especially as the memory is tinged in sadness: 'She's called Vera and she is dead now.' Vera's money helped enormously but life was still hand to mouth and she did not see much future in her bead work. A pastor in her church sponsored her to study psychology at university and the pressure from family to get a conventional job such as in banking or in the oil industry was huge, but through it all, she never forgot her beads even though it wasn't looked upon positively by everyone.
Mary had vision however and she saw a gap in the market for quality jewellery. This idea happened to combine with a chance meeting with the late designer, Kofi Ansah, who would become a mentor and marked the true beginning of Phismag jewellery.
Mary remembers going from shop to shop to show her work. 'It was tough. You can get a thousand rejections from people. The Accra mall was just starting and a woman there was selling African products from a shop and when I showed her my stuff, she decided to give me a chance.' This one person would transform her fortunes. 'Within a week my jewellery was sold out and she called to place more orders ... and there were more and more week after week.' One of the patrons of the store was Gifty Anti who was charmed by the pieces and wanted to know more about the maker. As a result, Gifty Anti gave Mary a new platform to show her work that she had previously never imagined: television.
Mary's designs are bold, easily noticed by women who want to stand out. Her unique designs mean most of her advertising comes from word of mouth. And for those a little more shy, a visit to her studio can be an education in how to style and wear her products. She also collaborates with designers to appliqué her beading on clothing.
Working with other creative people is important to Mary. 'I want to do collaborations. I don't want to do everything on my own. I can bring other people, owith ther expertise on board.' Mary takes her inspirations from the world of creativity, with designers in Zanzibar and Rome amongst those she admires, but with distinctly pan African roots. The beads and other precious stones and metals come from Ghana: from Accra, Kofroidua, Axim, brass from Kumasi and glass beads from the North, or further afield such as Mali or Tanzania.
Her pieces can take anywhere from one month (an intricately beaded belt) to a week for a smaller, simpler necklace. Her themes are rooted in strength, and often reflective of the struggle she has encountered, such as the 'fighter' collection inspired by warriors from Winneba. The collection she is working on at the moment comes out in February and focuses and takes inspiration from the Ashanti kingdom and especially Ashantoa, the warrior woman. Strong women are important to her, such as Nana Oye the Ghanaian minister for women and gender. 'She really inspires me a lot in Ghana. She can stand toe to toe with any man.' Another icon is Oprah, 'When I read her biography I saw something of myself in her in where she is coming from and also her ability to affect the whole world.' But overall, her biggest inspiration? Her faith. 'Without Him,' she says, looking up with a small shrug and a smile, 'I am nothing.'