x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

I'm stringing together a decent living

I believe in simple living, sustainability and making instead of buying, and even in Dubai I can build a solid life this way.

Bronwyn Sherman imports most of her materials from India and sells her creations for about Dh180 to Dh380 each.
Bronwyn Sherman imports most of her materials from India and sells her creations for about Dh180 to Dh380 each.

When it comes to earning a living, I have never wanted a conventional job. Just the idea of it makes me feel like I am being strangled. Instead, I've spent the past few years creating an alternative for myself. This lets me travel and earn a living wherever I happen to be. I design and make my own jewellery. Today, I have customers around the world - and that includes Dubai. I've been in the UAE for three years, although I travel regularly to India, South Africa and Europe to buy raw materials for my jewellery.

I live like a gypsy, travelling and making do with what I have around me and solving problems as they pop up. I love that. At the moment, I live with my aunt in Umm Suqeim. I am very lucky not to pay rent, although I do support myself through my business and contribute food for the house. I'm from Johannesburg (in South Africa). My father is an electronic engineer and my mum is a dance teacher. I lived in Cape Town for eight years while studying, and have been travelling for the last four. I am 30 now. Looking back, I'm grateful for the values I learnt growing up. There was abundance, but never excess.

I decided I wanted to travel while I was studying in Cape Town. I had done several degrees over a period of eight years: social science, a Steiner-Waldorf education degree and an arts degree. My parents supported me financially through this, and my studies cost an average of 15,000 South African rand (Dh7,000) a year. When I graduated in 2005, there was naturally pressure to be responsible and get a job. I was extremely blessed because of the financial support, and yet also a little at a disadvantage because of this strong pressure to follow a traditional path.

At 26, I was expected to take the path to financial independence and responsibility. But I had a burning desire to travel, not to look for a job. I was immature when it came to money and didn't have the will or motivation to work. After I graduated, I met a group of travellers who made jewellery using natural materials: bone, crystals, wood and shells. I learnt some knotting patterns and became interested in creating instead of buying. My entrepreneurial side was budding.

The influence around me was about goals and jobs and a fear of alternative ways to live. But you can't pull on a plant to make it grow. Instead of settling down, I decided to go to India. In my last year of study, I started a small business bringing in environmentally sustainable sanitary products for women. It never made much money - around 3,000 to 4,000 rand a month, just enough to fund a plane ticket and four months in India, which is a cheap country to live in.

I spent four months in India in the summer and fall of 2006, using the small profits from my business to pay for my daily expenses. I went to Delhi, and to the foothills of the Himalayas and on to Rajasthan. When I was a child, my parents had invested in a house for myself and my brother and sister. They sold it when I was 19 and the money was split equally between the three of us. My share was around 150,000 rand - an incredible gift.

I had never really touched this savings before, but now I used 20,000 rand to invest in the beginnings of my business. I purchased the raw materials for making jewellery and shipped them back home, while making some pieces there and selling them to fellow travellers in India. I sold my first two pieces of jewellery for 700 rupees (Dh55). When I got back to South Africa, I started to sell my work in earnest. Once, I rented a stall at a trance music festival, with a big red tent that my friends made. Making things is a big part of my saving philosophy: make your own, don't buy, but barter and trade. I was quite nervous about selling my jewellery at the festival, but I happened to invite a guy to share my stall who was selling his jewellery under a nearby tree. He had bags of confidence, hiked up my prices way beyond what I would have dared to sell them for, and they were flying out. It was a good start to my business.

In June 2008, I went to Europe for three months and joined the Organic Caravan, a group of people going to festivals selling their products and living off the proceeds. I would earn up to several hundred euros a festival, use them up over the next few weeks and then earn some more. We went to festivals in Germany, Italy, France, Spain and Portugal. Although I didn't know how much I'd earn week to week, I have a motto that if you're not living on the edge you're taking up too much space.

If money starts to run out, I don't panic. I just trust that it will come back again at the right time. After the caravan, I went to visit my brother in London - a tough city to have no money in. It was a real contrast to travelling. I had to face up to some hard truths about my lifestyle: even though I was living life "my way", like Frank Sinatra, and supporting myself 80 per cent of the time, my dad was still paying for my medical insurance.

I knew I had come very far, but it was time to move on; London was not a good place to sell my work, although I did teach my first workshop there, teaching people how to make the jewellery. I charged around £20 (Dh106) per person. My mum moved to the UAE in 2007 to take a job as a dance teacher and I followed her not long after that. Up to this point, I had been living very cheaply. I was used to camping and making do with what was around me. I like this way of living so it was a leap for me to come to a city like Dubai where everything is about the higher end of life.

However, within a month or so, I started selling jewellery in Dubai through contacts in schools, fairs in Dubai and ARTE Dubai. Dubai is great for networking. It blew me over - people have the sense of what it is to be a fish out of water and are incredibly kind and supportive. For example, instead of paying for venues, I might offer a free necklace or a free workshop. I don't take from people. I won't pay Dh500 for a venue, and I know that if I can give a gift in exchange I may not have to pay. I keep my overheads as low as possible. I get my jewellery materials - minerals, fossils, stones, strings, beads and silver - from India, South Africa, Dubai and Europe.

My pieces sell for about Dh180 to Dh380, usually, and I have a variety of necklaces, bracelets, earrings, head pieces, arm pieces and window hangings at any one time. These are made from woven embroidery string, stones, crystals and beads. I also exhibit at ARTE Dubai, a popular art and craft fair. I pay around Dh200 a day for a table and make Dh3,000, on average. I sold 13 pieces at the last one, earning Dh3,500. I might do two to three ARTE fairs a month, plus two coffee mornings and two workshops. Around Christmas, it gets busier. A lot of my customers are repeat customers, which is really nice, and I'm very grateful for the support of the community.

I don't just sell in Dubai. I sell wherever I am: South Africa, Dubai, Europe, India. I also have a website where people can order custom made pieces, at www.decowyn.etsy.com. This is just starting to get off the ground, and I've sold to people in America and Holland who have seen my work online. I also aim to start getting my jewellery into some exclusive shops or art galleries where they stock unique handcrafts or art.

In this way I hope to establish more of an international presence. It takes around five hours to make each piece. Sometimes I think I can't make them fast enough to generate enough income. So in addition, I'm doing workshops, charging Dh500 for each session. I do them every month or so. I like to think that part of my role on this planet is to remind people that there are alternative ways to live that are a bit outside the box. I don't really save money at the moment, but I make sure I do not go into debt. Sometimes, if I have cash flow issues, I draw on my inheritance money, but I always put it back. I spend money on my business and on travel.

Annually, I probably spend around Dh4,000 on flights and Dh1,000 on public transport here. Some days I won't spend anything on myself, while other days Dh100 to Dh200 might be spent on various expenses. I also spend my money on technology - a laptop, camera and iPod to take care of communication and my business. * As told to Jola Chudy