Riffels, not Riedels, for an Age of Austerity

Friday, 26 November, 2010
Neil Pendock
Neil Pendock on a Christmas stocking filler that makes sense.
"We had that Jamie Oliver all over us," remarked Cathy Prettejohn from Ngwenya Glass "looking for a Naked Chef range of stemware. Jamie was really keen on the whole ethical thing, but when he heard the price, he went to China."

Confirming that, in the UK at least, the whole Fair Trade "thing" is price dependent - great and a nice to have, if someone else pays. Just ask SA wine producers, squeezed for margin by ethical supermarkets. Other people's morals are an ironic subtext to this brave glassmaking operation five minutes from the Oshoek border post, in the coolest part of the Swazi mountain kingdom and in the shadow of the oldest iron ore mine in the world.

Established by Swedish aid in 1979, Ngwenya (translation: crocodile) sank after the seriously scrupulous Swedes decreed that no trade was to be conducted with apartheid South Africa. Hard to do in a landlocked country squashed between Mozambique and the Highveld. When company cash disappeared and the manager was spotted dodging donkeys in his new top of the line Mercedes, the graffiti was on the wall and the Swedes retreated to their saunas in Stockholm, defeated.

Enter the Prettejohns from East London who saved the crocodile by releasing a range of small glass animals as business class mementos on SAA. "I still fly SAA today because of that deal," says MD Chas. Ngwenya's latest release is a range of classy stemware designed by Reuben Riffel, Kaal Kok from the Kaap. With trendy restaurants in Franschhoek and Robertson, Reuben's latest trick was to pull Gordon Ramsay's Maze @ the One&Only out of a tail spin. Maze had melted down in scenes of incredible Antony Bourdain excess, amid hard to believe reports of Big Gordo's boyos bashing up local kitchen staff in the cold room, putting in the boot and all. Pity the food never showed as much passion or excitement.

Bandages applied, Reuben's first task was to heal relationships with local suppliers, focusing on asparagus from Malmesbury and free range beef from Namibia rather than elusive (and ruinously expensive) white truffles from Umbria and Kobe beef from...Kobe. For his next trick: a range of glasses.

Made from 100% recycled bottles, Reuben's Welcome Home range is stocked by Boardman's. "It's the first local design product that has any merit," according to Boardman's Parisian CEO Hugues Witvoet who bought fashion in the East for a decade. A claim vigorously disputed by Marie Claire editor Aspasia Karras, who countered with her latest photographic commission: a black diamond in fishnets and high heels riding three white muscle men. "Not something we would stock," remarked Hugues (pronounced "ooog") dryly. But the glasses certainly are: rustic, robust and realistically priced - Riedels for an Age of Austerity. The elegant water glass is my favourite while the wonky jug is a true Dalí design.

Production manager Sibusiso Mhlanga started out with the Swedes and has been blowing bowls and delicate African animals from recycled glass ever since. Plain glass bottles are sourced by thirty families from rubbish dumps. Paid 75c a kilogram after washing and label removal, the modern trend to lightweight bottles to reduce carbon footprints means more work for the same pay. Other people's morals, once again.