Hatching art from shells

MAY 2015 – Avoova has grown a thriving business in a small Karoo town through handcrafting luxury accessories from ostrich eggshell.

The Karoo is known for its harshness. Arid landscapes and vast plains of nothing but a few hardy plants, thorn bushes and the odd wind pump. In between are traditional Karoo towns, each with its own charm and a fair share of colonial architecture.

It was to one of these towns, Prince Albert, that conceptual artist, Gideon Engelbrecht, was drawn in the mid-1990s. A friend brought him some broken ostrich eggshells, believing that Gideon might know what to do with them – and he did. He started to experiment with a number of techniques and bonding agents, and the end result was a chair covered with ostrich eggshell.

It looked good and he received so much positive feedback that Gideon started to make once-off pieces on request, or he would exhibit and sell them in the local art gallery for a decent return.

Tom Goddard, an Englishman who had recently relocated to South Africa, was exploring Prince Albert when he came across one of Gideon’s pieces. Formerly a director for luxury brand LVMH’s liquor arm, Tom saw and appreciated the effort and quality of the craftsmanship that went into the piece. He’d never seen anything like it before, and tracked Gideon down.

From there Avoova was hatched. The name hails from the Latin word for egg, which is ‘ova’. Put the word back to back with itself and you get Avoova. The business officially started in 2003 with Gideon in charge of design while Tom took care of management and administration.

The pair invested in a hatchery, which they started on the edge of town. This still supplies the factory with ample raw material, while the hatchlings are sold on to local ostrich farmers. At any one time, there is a minimum of 10 tons of ostrich eggshell in stock since the birds breed only once a year.

The initial focus of the business was on honing skills on smaller items. The production process itself is extremely time consuming and heavily labour intensive. “The final product is much like a combination of a veneer effect on wood and mosaic”, explains Tom.

Setting, sanding, polishing, repeated several times, is pretty much the basic process, which is continually refined in order to ensure the best finish. Once the design is sketched and confirmed, the eggshell is applied to the base product and inlays of pewter, copper and silver are added. Each piece of eggshell is individually placed in order to ensure that the shape is kept and the design brief is adhered to. From the full staff complement of 50 employees, there are approximately 25 to 30 women who only do the shell layout.

Once the layout has been done, each piece goes through a minimum of 40 different processes, depending on its complexity and design. Only the best quality components are used on each Avoova product, to ensure that the highest standards are met at all times and each item is subjected to a series of quality checks throughout.

The Prince Alfred community has seen major benefits from the Avoova factory as it is the biggest private employer in the area. Each factory worker has roughly five to eight dependents and thus a number of families are supported by its efforts.

The first real break for Gideon and Tom came when a large order was placed by Spilhaus, the designer homeware store. From there, the company followed a gradual growth path as it set up its first stores. A humble beginning in a shop at the bottom of Cape Town’s Bree Street was followed by the opening of a second store in Franschhoek and a third at the V&A Waterfront. “It’s been a great progression. We started the company with a vision and today we are proud of what we have built up in such a relatively short space of time”, comments Tom.

With key Western Cape sites covered, the expansion followed a natural path to Johannesburg were there are currently two Avoova shops – in Hyde Park Corner and most recently in the newly refurbished Four Seasons Hotel.

A store adjoining the factory building in Prince Albert has also opened to capture the passing tourist trade through the popular Karoo town.

In 2010 Gideon left the business to explore other interests but he still consults for the company on an ad-hoc basis.

Several clients, including members of the Oppenheimer family, have commissioned bespoke Avoova pieces, ranging from tabletops to chess boards. One client is Russian businessman and Chelsea Football Club owner, Roman Abramovich, who has several Avoova items adorning his luxury yacht, among them intricately patterned coffee tables and mirrors.

Avoova furniture pieces, including impressive bar counters, stools and pedestals made in a range of shapes, colours and sizes, can also be found in upmarket restaurants and resorts around the world. Collaborations with furniture designers such as John Vogel and Andrew Dominic have also been hugely popular and have widened the offerings.

Today, Avoova pieces are available in a range of styles and shapes, from exquisite mirror frames, bowls, ice buckets and wine coolers to tables and stools, belt buckles and even jewellery. It would seem that any object can be turned into something truly special with the addition of polished ostrich shell. Owning an Avoova piece is similar to acquiring an original piece of art  – it’s a completely once-off work that can’t be replicated, plus it combines beauty with function.

Asked whether he has a “dream piece”, Tom replies: “I’ve always believed that it’s about the setting, but personally I think that a beautiful, organic table in a contemporary environment where there’s a contrast between natural and artificial elements would be rather spectacular.”

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