The Breath of Life
With techniques similar to Egyptian craftsmen of ancient times, manipulating hot, malleable glass and -quite literally- breathing life into this recycled material -is a poetry only a skilled few can capture the essence of. With this in mind, the team at Outside & In were thrilled to have the opportunity to interview Ngwenya Glass, the gem of Swaziland and learn all about this unique artistry and their thriving business which hinges on creating ‘poetry in motion’ over a hot and unforgiving 1 200°C furnace.
Ngwenya Glass has been around for over 3 decades…Tell us about the history of your brand?
Ngwenya Glass originally known as Swazi Glass, started as a Swedish Aid Project in 1979. By 1981 the Swedes handed over ownership to the Swaziland management team (now known as Eswatini) and soon after, liquidated.
The real story however, begins with the Prettejohn family (farmers from the Eastern Cape), who as a family, collected gorgeous glass elephants with plans to one day host a huge herd, displayed proudly on their dining room table.
After years of collecting these precious keepsakes – suddenly, they weren’t available! Chas, the youngest son of Richard and Alix Prettejohn, who had now arrived onshore from his marine engineering job, convinced his father to embark on an adventure and drive through to the mysterious Kingdom of Swaziland (Eswatini) in search of the final elephants to complete their herd.
After two long and hot days of driving through rough terrain they arrived to a dusty and dilapidated factory, and, instead of turning around and beelining to the nearest exit had a rush of blood to their heads and made an offer!
On the drive back to their farm in the Eastern Cape, Alix received a phone call. Much to her astonishment, she was met with the news that they are now the owners of a glass factory in Swaziland! All they knew about glass back then, was how to drink from one!
Over 3 decades later, with a country name change and living through a global pandemic, Ngwenya Glass is still a family run business now including, Cathy, Chas’ wife and their two bambinos, Lara and James.
What makes the Ngwenya team so unique?
Ngwenya Glass has always prided itself on producing 100% recycled glass products that are hand blown. We are also proud say we have been a green, eco-friendly company since conception in 1979. The Prettejohn’s felt it was extremely important to carry on with this business practice.
With every product being hand blown it passes through a minimum of 10 hands before the product is complete. We like to say we blow life back into the recycled glass. There is nothing more unique than that.
Ngwenya Glass is known for unique glassware, tell us a little about the ideas behind the glass shapes and styles?
We love to keep our shapes and ranges as unique as possible. Some of our designs are from our original predecessors, some are crazy, out-there ideas that Chas, our Managing Director, doodled subconsciously whilst on the phone one day and some from working with and collaborating with designers and fellow glass artists from South Africa and around the world.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
We draw inspiration from our beautiful African landscapes and cultures. We love incorporating local shapes and elements into our designs and especially in our once off art pieces. We are extremely lucky to have made some amazing glass blowing friends from around the world who have come to work with us. Seeing the beauty of Africa refreshed through their eyes is always inspiring!
What are some exciting new products you will be showcasing this coming season?
We are so excited to launch our new Ngwenya Glass Experience Boxes! Included in these boxes will of course be a set of Ngwenya Glass glasses that pair beautifully with either a bespoke bottle of wine, micro brewed beer/cider or gin (sourced from boutique wineries, distillers & breweries in South Africa) depending on the customer’s preference. Every month will be a different experience. A great monthly surprise gift to yourself and great gifts to loved ones.
What makes your glassware unique to the South African consumer?
Ngwenya Glass is a local Southern African product that illuminates with local pride, is hand blown and considered with the consumers experience in mind. Our factory in Eswatini is a beautiful place to visit as well, and we love meeting the general public at our factory, which is one of the top tourist attractions in Eswatini! Being only 4 hours from Johannesburg, Eswatini is the perfect ‘local’ getaway.
At the Ngwenya Glass factory you can witness your favourite glasses and ornaments being blown right in front of your eyes from our viewing deck, enjoy a delicious meal at our restaurant, shop not only at our Factory Shop but also at the numerous local, fair trade artisan shops in our complex… There is every reason to come and visit us!
How important is your green footprint and giving back to your community?
Being able to put back what we take from this earth is very important to us. Not only is our raw material recycled; we use old fast food cooking oil to run our furnace, collect rainwater from our rooftop and use recycled newspaper in both production and in our packaging. We also have a mini solar farm on our roof which almost contributes to all our electricity usage.