Life & Business: Karin Matthee of Dear Rae Jewellery

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Growing up, Karin Matthee‘s idea of fun was starting fake businesses. While most kids were playing hide-and-seek, Karin was working in the shop with her dad, learning how to make jewelry and inventing companies — so it was no surprise when she launched her own in 2010. After attending Stellenbosch University where she received her BFA in jewelry and metal techniques, Karin completed a semester at the Pforzheim Hochschule in Germany. When she graduated, she was full of drive and an even greater passion for her diverse South African and German familial heritage, all of which inspired her to launch Dear Rae in 2010.

As someone who thrives on wearing many hats and bringing up those around her, Karin’s passion for empowering and employing local South Africans has been a driving force in the business. With help from her talented staff of South African manufacturers, all skilled in the ancient art of jewelry-making, each Dear Rae piece is designed and made by Karin in her Cape Town studio workshop. Using ethically sourced and recycled materials, every ring, necklace and bracelet is crafted from solid sterling silver and gold with a focus on simplicity and quality.

Her path to being a business owner may have been an obvious one, but today, Karin is joining us to share all of the things about life and business that she didn’t see coming, offering her wisdom on everything from gaining confidence to why trust and courage are business necessities. –Sabrina

Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?

To be honest, I have never worked for someone else, so it probably is not a fair comparison. I have, however, always been naturally drawn to starting my own business. I started various small business throughout my childhood for fun. The idea of starting something from nothing and growing it into a sustainable business has always excited me, as it has a limitless sense about it. Running a business is challenging on various fronts, but I find the variation very stimulating.

Entrepreneurship is encouraged in South Africa, due to the lack of employment in our country. A strong driving force to starting my business was to educate, employ and empower people.

Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was, and how did you know it was what you wanted to do?

My dad designed jewelry as a hobby, he had a small workshop next to our garage at home. When I was about 10 years old he started teaching me how to work with silver, I took to it well and loved working with metal as a medium to build 3D shapes. When it came to choosing a course at university I decided to study BA.Jewellery Design at Stellenbosch University.

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What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

Just start somewhere; it will grow organically and lead you into a direction that’s right for you.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

Gaining confidence in my designs and ideas. It felt quite intimidating putting my designs out there for the first time. It also took me a while [to] establish my whole brand identity.

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Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

I have learned the importance of employing the right people; people who are really strong in the areas where I am weak. I think it takes courage to give people the freedom to blossom and grow in your own company. Learning to not micro-manage my employees and watching them develop has been a very fulfilling part of running my own business.

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Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?

At one stage in my business, I felt very frustrated with [the] amount of copying of designs and lack of originality in my industry. I really struggled to come up with fresh designs that were not so trend-focused, so I decided to cut off all social media and stopped browsing Pinterest for a season. This allowed me to reconnect with my inner-child creativity. I slowly started creating out of a true place that was real to me and far more original. Lately, I have been designing ranges around a theme or story that resonate with me. I find that this helps me to keep my designs fresh and interesting.

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If you were magically given three more hours per day, what would you do with them?

I would go for a long, late-afternoon surf.

What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?

Giving up a lot of personal time and energy. As a business owner I feel that I always carry quite a lot of responsibility. In one sense, I feel that I have had to sacrifice the feelings of security.

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Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?

I am very proud of setting up my own shop and studio in Woodstock, Cape Town. Our retail shop has a big window overlooking the workshop where we manufacture all our products. It allows the customer to watch the full process of how the jewelry is made; it also reassures them that everything is locally made. It is a light and lovely space that inspires people to create.

What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?

I did a short part-time business course in the first year that I started Dear Rae. It was very helpful as it covered all the basics of business and gave me a sense of understanding around all the various aspects of running a business. It also created a platform where I could engage and share with other creative people who were also starting their own businesses. I must say that I have found having a community of entrepreneurs around me has been the most powerful resource. Books and podcasts have been helpful here and there, but nothing beats chatting and sharing with a friend who also owns a business. It can get lonely, so it is important to have that support and friendship along the way.

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Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.

When I first started Dear Rae, I was wholesaling my jewelry to various shops in Cape Town as an outlet to sell from. After two years of doing wholesale to boutiques, I realized that it was a better model for me to only sell my products in my own shop, so that I could make a healthy profit and control the customer experience around my brand. I made the risky decision to pull out of all my wholesale stockists and direct all the customers to my own retail shop and online store. It was super scary at first, but it slowly started to pay off. Our own retail shop is very busy now and our customers have a much stronger brand experience, they can see where the products are made, enjoy our beautiful shop display, packaging, and can engage directly with us.

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

1. Do they enjoy managing people?

2. Are they courageous and determined?

3. What do they love doing in their spare time?

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What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?

I would say the loneliness of always being responsible for oneself and others. You often have to learn a new skill on the job and act like you know what you are doing when you really don’t. You just have to trust yourself and jump in the deep end. It is a constant, steep learning curve.

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  1. Summer says:

    What a beautifully written and photographed interview. I love the idea of tapping into your own creative self for inspiration rather than searching externally.

  2. Jax says:

    What an inspiring interview and super thrilled to see Dear Rae on Design Sponge. We have been inspired by you for a long time and your jewellery is one of a kind. Thank you for sharing. It gives us a lot of engouragement to carry on with our – still very young – business in Cape Town too.

  3. Erin says:

    I really like the idea Karin mentions of unplugging from social media. I’m in the interior design business and it too feels like a lot of copying. I think we become over saturated with beautiful images now instead of relying on our imaginations.

  4. Lar says:

    enjoyed that… well written, enlightening and inspiring. well done on an amazing brand and thanks for sharing.

    1. lucy says:

      totally agreed:)

  5. Samantha says:

    Is there any way to find out what part-time business course she attended? Would love to know.
    I’m definitely in need of something like this.

  6. lucy says:

    This is really amazing work you’ve been doing and keep going on. It will change the world with love and inspiring, even just start with a little bit. Thanks for sharing.

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