Consider the 36-millimeter quartz watches with custom-designed and beaded straps that were presented to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex during their recent visit to South Africa by Lunga Ntuli, founder of LN Watches.
The strap of the duke’s watch — called Nkosana, which means prince in the Zulu language — featured triangles and stripes of purple, white, red and blue that, to the Zulu, symbolize royalty, purity, strength and peace, Mr. Ntuli said. The duchess’s watch — called Nkosazana, or princess — had pink, green and yellow triangles and stripes, signaling unconditional love, contentment, joy and happiness.
Such designs, along with others inspired by traditional African prints, symbols and landscapes, are often the most distinctive feature of these makers’ timepieces.
“I never wanted to follow the trends of what has been done globally,” said Kholofelo Xesha Masha, founder of the year-old watch company Xesha South Africa, which features intricate dial designs drawn from tribal patterns. “I’ve always wanted to have a unique story to tell and stand out from the rest that have existed over time.”
The makers, and their businesses, share several other similarities:
Most are self-taught. There are few opportunities for formal watchmaking education on the continent, so many learned their skills from YouTube videos or online courses, or by hanging around repair shops. (Anthony Dzamefe of Caveman Watches spent two months with a shoemaker, learning to work with animal skins to create straps.)
Their watches match their resources, and public demand. Most makers are self-financed, often working at home. They buy parts, primarily from Asia, with the Miyota quartz movement from Japan a popular choice. And most of their watches sell for less than the equivalent of $100 — but that can be considered pricey when the average annual income in the continent’s wealthiest country, South Africa, was the equivalent of $5,750 a year in 2018, according to the World Bank.
Africa, with its more than 1.2 billion people, took only 0.9 percent of Swiss watch exports worldwide in 2018, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. And the value of exports decreased from the equivalent of 197.2 million francs in 2017 to 185.7 million Swiss francs in 2018.
The internet and social media are key to their success. Consider Bettél Watches, which has a waterfront shop in Cape Town and a stall at a weekly market, but also sells a lot online. Stuart Swan, Bettél’s co-founder, said the internet has strengthened the brand “ by making our products accessible to people from other countries.”
Lunga Ntuli created a stylish watch brand inspired by Zulu beading culture.