What most people would consider trash, South African jewelry designer Kevin Friedman considers a treasure. A seventh-generation jeweler, Kevin is known for his unusual, one-of-a-kind pieces using found objects, which he sells under the brand Frankli Wild. He joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to talk about his long history in the industry and where he draws inspiration for his pieces, like his Disney collection and the award-winning Ponahalo Necklace. Read the episode transcript below.

Sharon:      Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, my guest is Kevin Friedman, multi-award-winning jewelry designer, artist and jewelry historian based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is the founder of Frankli Wild, which designs and sells handcrafted one-of-a-kind jewelry. His jewelry is sold all over the world and is also seen on runways. Today, he’ll tell us all about his jewelry journey. Kevin, I’m so glad to have you.

Kevin:         Thank you so much for contacting me and including me on your dynamic, exciting list of celebrities. I recognize most of the names of the people you’ve interviewed before, so it’s very exciting to be on the list.

Sharon:      We’re very glad to have you. Tell us a little about yourself. You come from a long line of jewelers.

Kevin:         I do.

Sharon:      Can you tell us about your own jewelry? Was it always assumed that you were going to go into jewelry, or did other things appeal to you?

Kevin:         My late grandfather always used to tell me that I’m a seventh-generation jeweler. My father says he’s lying; I’m only a sixth-generation jeweler. I grew up with jewelry around me all day, every day, whether it was jewelry my mother was wearing or whether it was going to work with my father and having fun in that process. I didn’t know what part I wanted to take. It was almost a natural part; it wasn’t a thought-out process. I went to study actuarial sciences and dug down into the financial route, as I loved math. But when you start looking at it, math is the foundation of art, so it became a natural journey and I fell into it by working as a kid in my father’s workshop. Then the competitions started coming up. I think I was about 12 or 13 the first time I got into the finals of the Diamond International Award. It was a natural process. You’re just emulating your environment.

When I finished school, I went to study in Israel, and when I came back, I fell into the business. It was a wonderful adventure because every day it was an adventure. Then I was very lucky to go and study at Sotheby’s in London with Amanda Triossi and Daniela Mascetti and the people who’ve written all the history books you’ve ever read on jewelry. That gave me a wonderful grounding in the history of jewelry and having a bit of the history of jewelry and understanding where things come from allowed my path to move forward into an exciting place with jewelry.

My journey started with a found object, because when somebody comes in with a diamond or anything that’s interesting, it becomes a treasure. For me, it’s not necessarily the financial value of the item; it’s the aesthetic value of the item that is going to become the centerpiece or the element of the piece. It inspired me to work with people because everybody’s got their own style and their own identity. For me, the biggest challenge in life is to work with somebody to bring out their personality. The jewelry needs to be worn by the person, not the person worn by the jewelry. It really has to be your own personality that’s shining through, because jewelry is one of the most intimate pieces of anything you can own. Jewelry has provenance; it has history; it has your personal experiences, whether it’s your first job and you’re buying for yourself, whether it’s a birthday present at an early age. Every aspect of jewelry has something that is special and has sentimental attachment to it. For people to trust me with the journey of their lives through jewelry is a hugely exciting place to be.

Sharon:      I like “the journey of their lives through jewelry.” That’s great. Tell us about Frankli Wild. How did you come up with that name, and was that something you already had in mind? What did you want your audience to know through that name?

Kevin:         I think it brewed organically. While working with my father, we developed a range of drinkware and tabletop items that was pewter and had animals. You’d get an elephant sculpture with a glass base, and you’d flip it over and it would be a sherry glass or a whiskey glass or something like that. It was all around wild animals. My father’s name is Frank, and in Swiss German “Frankli” means “little Frank,” and with “wild” it means “little wild Frank.” Because my father’s name is Frank Friedman it was a natural progression into personalizing the brand. It started off as a homeware brand, which we did very well at. I did some amazing commission work for Neiman Marcus and even some of the name brands under their name.

I did some really exciting work during the time of the Frankli Wild Housewares brand, but my passion, my obsession is for jewelry. It’s not even a passion. I always get accused by people that I look at their jewelry, not at their eyes. It just talks to me. I’m obsessed. So, the line grew in the lower areas of South Africa and the name tied in. It grew from being a homeware line to being homeware/housewares, so fittings and vases and all of those kinds of things, wall hangings, artworks out of beadworks, so it was still Frankli Wild. Then we started introducing jewelry lines, which started off very conservative in silver and gold with animals. They were amazing pieces, and it gave me the freedom to start doing other things. With a name like that, frankly everything I do is wild, so it doesn’t restrict me to one particular genre. Once you are making something, it takes a longer amount of time to make one unique thing than to make two things that are exactly the same. For me, every day I went to reinvent the wheel. I believe everyone is an individual and everyone deserves to have something completely unique, something that is their own and they very much own it. I don’t really like to make multiples of an item. That being said, I do create lines, but they’re really interesting and I think there is value in that process.

Sharon:      I want to remind everybody that we will have images of your jewelry with the show notes online. The name says what they are. They’re really creative and very different. Along those lines, you’ve won some prestigious awards for the Ponahalo Necklace.

Kevin:         The Ponahalo was actually a commission. The commission was based off 2000, the millennium, for the Diamond International, which was a diamond award that was literally like winning an Oscar in the jewelry industry. Anybody who won at Diamond International basically was the top jeweler of the day and it was a very, very prestigious award. They had tens of thousands of entries and it was a hugely dramatic piece to win that award. De Beers actually used the photograph of the piece that I won. Working with my community groups, I always feel that life moves naturally. The piece that I designed, it’s got a nice emotional attachment. Working with other people and having been working with them for many years at this stage, I took one of the classical patterns and made a very, very wide dog collar. My father said, “Are you going to put a big diamond in there?” and I said, “Well, I don’t have a big diamond,” and he said, “You actually do. When you were born, your grandfather gave you a 12-carat emerald cut.” He actually gave it to my mother, but my mother said she wouldn’t wear it, so she kept it for me. That became the centerpiece of my Diamond International presentation.

Sharon:      I understand it wasn’t the only diamond. There were a lot of diamonds on there. Can you tell us more about the necklace?

Kevin:         True to form, every time I try to do something, it’s reinventing the wheel. It was a sprung necklace based on African beadwork, where one color is separated by a black line between another color. It’s almost like the colors of certain cloisettes. The majority of the piece is white, so it’s traditionally white beads which I then replaced with closette, almost pavé, but they were closette white diamonds. We wove them in so they weren’t just wired on the beads; they were actually woven in the traditional technique into these shapes. I don’t even remember how many carats. They must have been about 84 carats.

Sharon:      I’m sorry, how many?

Kevin:         84, 89, approximately.

Sharon:      Wow!

Kevin:         It was quite a piece. It was photographed on a gorgeous model, and De Beers actually put that in the entrance of their head office in London. Every time you saw a picture of anybody doing a press conference or something at De Beers, there was my photograph behind it. What happened was De Beers and the Steinmetz Group found this diamond. They basically bought it together. It was found at one of the De Beers mines up in Messina, the Phoenicia Mine, and it’s got a hell of a wonderfully interesting story, but that’s a story for another day. The diamond was a partnership, and they turned around and said to me, “Kevin, this is a diamond. We’re cutting the diamond into five pieces. It’s a 360-carat diamond. We’re going to turn it into a 115-carater, a 70-carater, a 15-carater, a 3-carater and then a piece of skin from the diamond. We want you to set this and copy the same piece you did for Diamond International.” I was like, “No. Why do I need to do it again?” It was an interesting process on its own because we had to use piano strings to go through the beads. It was fascinating, but we’re talking about the formalities. With the diamond, it was found in the kingdom of Venda. Coming from Venda, the safety pin is a very important symbol because every person has been through initiation. They don’t have a cultural name; they’re considered “boy” or “girl,” because in African cultures it is very rude to ask personal questions, so all the answers to personal questions are worn on your dress. If you wear a safety pin, it means you have a name. It’s your right to passage, and with that I chose the safety pin as the symbol to set this piece together. So, 365 carats of diamonds and 900 safety pins and I made a necklace.

Sharon:      Wow! I know you’ve won some other awards too. Can you tell us about those?

Kevin:         The other award is the Jewelry Counsel of South Africa Awards. Again, I was using different elements, using telephone wire and gold, really playing with African materials or perceived African materials. The beauty about being in Africa is that any found object that has aesthetic value becomes precious. In the old days, if you remember the old telephone boxes, they used to have wire with all different colors. That makes the most exquisite pieces. You can bend it and weave it and twist it, so you get all those elements. It’s wonderful to be able to create new items with materials that weren’t ever created for jewelry. Often what we do with those kinds of materials is recycle it, so we buy them from the scrap yards and strip the cables down and then create the pieces.

Sharon:      Is that something you still do now? Do you still see things and say, “I have to have that. This would be great in a piece of jewelry”?

Kevin:         You’ve got to believe it! The biggest problem for me is to slow down and say, “Hold on a second. You’ve got to make something. You can’t just keep on building up to create all these things.” That being said, yes, if I see something, I’ll always grab and run.

Sharon:      Your jewelry is so unique, and you’ve made some incredible pieces for the runway. You sent me pictures of things you had for London Fashion Week. How did those opportunities come to you? How did you start designing for the runway?

Kevin:         Occasionally I work with designers to do pieces because if you have a gorgeous gown and put on a beautiful pair of earrings, it finishes the outfit. You don’t need a lot of jewelry, but jewelry closes the lock. There’s a symbiosis between fashion and jewelry. I’ve been working for many years with various runway shows and organizations. Somebody came to me and said, “We saw what you did for one of the runway shows”—we did a black and white collection; it was extraordinary—and they said, “We’re giving you 12 models at London Fashion Week. All you have to do is get there.” So, I put a collection together of all recycled, repurposed materials—the collection was based on that. It was a concept of rich versus poor with the new South Africa. We were talking about the rich because I was using recycled golf balls and rusted metal, so the contradictions—living in South Africa, you’re living in a country with the highest inequality in the world, so the contrasts are very marked. This has to come out in your work as an artist at some level.

My collection included things like golf balls which represent the very rich, which are the product of your golfing estates, your very high-end living. Then after that, a collection of stuff that came out of shipwrecks. It’s literally stuff that’s been brought up from the ocean and it’s rusted and aged and weathered to contrast the two. We also included elements like reflectors, and there were a lot of recycled cans which we shaped into creatures that we then covered into crystals. It was a very interesting commission, that runway show.

Sharon:      Does the fashion speak to you? Does the designer show you the piece and you immediately have a vision, or is it something you play with?

Kevin:         The thing is that everybody’s got their own personality and their own style. I try very hard not to say, “This needs that,” because the designer is showcasing their creation, and it’s not fair for me to turn around and say, “This is what you need.” I can make suggestions and share with them where my mind is, but they’re showing their collection. They’re not showing my collection, so I’ve got to be very sensitive to that. I know what I want to do, but sometimes it is very different from what they imagine. Often it’s much simpler pieces, like a hair ornament or a bracelet that will finish the piece. In some runway shows people go crazy. I’ve done cups with three-foot tassels down them for shows, so they move around as they move their arms. We’ve done beaded, giant cravats for a men’s runway show; they were showing pants and we used that instead of a shirt. It depends on the designer and how avant-garde they want to go with their jewelry. The London Show was my show so I had freedom to do what I wanted to do, but when you’re working with a designer, I feel that you need to be very sensitive to their vision they want to achieve.

Sharon:      That makes sense. It’s probably a very tricky balance. Can you tell us about the other unusual pieces you’ve done? You sent me a picture, for instance, of a necklace with Disney figures, which I thought was so cute. Tell us about the pieces you’re proudest of or the ones you think exemplify who you are.

Kevin:         It’s a tough question because every single one of the pieces are my children. Some of them you do prefer more and some of them you prefer less, but I don’t let anything go up that I’m not very proud of. That being said, my answer is the latest thing I’m working on is the thing I’m most excited about, which sounds terribly flaky. The Disney collection, that’s one of those remarkable collections. I went to the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, which was a real eye-opener to the concept behind Disney rather than just a Disney thing. I was so inspired, and I’ve been collecting Pez dispensers and old toys over the years. You go through flea markets and find all these wonderful old things, and I had made a collection of interesting, old memorabilia from Disney. There was a sugar spoon with Mickey Mouse on it—I think it was silver, then we set a stone in it. There was the one I sent you a picture of, which is Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. It’s a wearable, easy, fabulous piece. It’s not a piece you can wear every day—it is a hell of a statement piece—but it’s fun. For me, jewelry only has one reason to exist, and that’s to give pleasure. If you can’t look down at your hand and smile, the jewelry’s not doing the job it’s supposed to do.

I was working on a ship and it went into renovations, so they gave me all the pieces from different elements of the ship. It was mosaics, or—when they put the ship into dry dock, they lift it above the water and scrape off the old—they use special meta-technology paint that rusts and works as a surface, but it’s protecting the metal. They stripped that off and gave me those pieces of rust, which I then set with diamonds. Then we took pieces of granite and tumbled them and drilled them and wove them in with Swarovski crystals. I took mosaic tiles—those long, glass mosaic tiles—and drilled little holes in them just to make it fun. In fact, I’m wearing one of those now. That is an interesting challenge, when you’re given something that is rubbish. Normally I buy things I think are interesting and they’re my art treasurers, but somebody gave me something that was trash and said, “Make it into a treasure.” That was the most extraordinary challenge, and the pieces that came out using the emergency exit signs that glow in the dark and the old—one of my favorite pieces was from where the captain sits. It was a computer that was replaced and we took the computer apart and we used the keyboard.

Apple of South Africa gave me all their old, broken computers, anything that was not wanted. I literally ended up with a pile of old Apple keyboards, Apple computers, and they said to me, “We’ve got a gathering space. Let’s do your exhibition.” I went wild, because the only thing was that I was using computer components. That was the only theme of the exhibition. I took these old computer motherboards and I made a man, a standing man. It was six feet tall. A friend of mine is a doctor and he gave me a CT scan of a body, and I cut the old computer parts into a CT scan so the whole thing became stripes from old computer parts. Then for the brain I used a polished metal shell with pearls in it. It actually looked like it was the top of the brain. It was such an exciting challenge.

Sharon:      I hope we’ll have a picture of that to show. I know we have a picture of the neck piece, which looks like circuit boards. Kevin, what else would you like us to know about you, your work, where you want to go from here? What would you like us to know that we haven’t covered?

Kevin:         It’s been really interesting. I have spent the last 30 years traveling around the world, having the best fun and collecting the most amazing people on my journey and making meaningful relationships through my life and through the travels. So, being in lockdown—we’re in South Africa and we are still in lockdown. The country has started easing up, but we’re burning. We’re in what we call a red zone. I haven’t been out for three months. We are now allowed to walk around the neighborhood, which we weren’t for the first two months. It’s given me some time, because I’ve always said, “You need to slow down; you need to look at where you’re going,” and if I had time, I would do this. Needless to say, I haven’t really achieved what I perceived I would have achieved, but what I have achieved is interesting. I need to finish it, but I’ve put together a fun little kid’s book. I’m missing my jewelry, but I’m still checking in with all my friends who love my jewelry and love my pieces, so that still feels like it’s alive. We have been working on a few interesting and exciting commissions. My life was never run with a strict plan. It’s always just unfolded. I’m running with it and playing with it, but I definitely am ready to start travelling around the world and visiting all my friends.

Sharon:      I think we’re all waiting to travel again. I think a lot of us thought—at least I know I did—that we’d get a lot more done in this time. I know people talk about having swept their garages and cleaned their closets and things like that. It sounds like you’ve done some unique and creative things during this time.

Kevin:         It’s been interesting because I haven’t picked up a paintbrush or colored crayons since I left art school. I’m used to drawing jewelry, which is really small-scale, and it’s a big challenge to make your mind think bigger. I’ve been fighting with that, and I’ve been doing what I think is some wonderful photography of the scenes being able to walk around. Right now there are some amazing mushrooms and flowers and things. There’s a lot to explore.

Sharon:      Yes, there is. Over here, the birds have been singing nonstop, which is so nice to hear. Kevin, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been great talking with you.

Kevin:         Thank you for this wonderful opportunity.

Sharon:      I’m so glad to have you. To everybody listening, we’ll have images of some of the things Kevin talked about, his fabulous jewelry, very unique and very wild—wild in a good way. That’s it for the Jewelry Journey today. Thank you so much for listening, and don’t forget, as I said, we’ll have the images and links to Kevin’s site. Please join us for the next episode of the Jewelry Journey podcast, when we’ll have another jewelry industry professional sharing their experience. You can find us wherever you download your podcasts, and we would really appreciate it if you would rate us. Thanks so much.