The 10-foot-high wire fence that once surrounded the infamous prison on Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, has a second life as jewelry. The prison is where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before Apartheid collapsed. Though the prison gates were opened in 1994, it wasn’t until 2009 that the eyesore of a fence itself was torn down. It was destined for the scrap metal heap—until a visiting artist, Chris Swift, intervened, and took pieces of the fence to display in art installations.
Now, Swift has handed over the jagged metal to Cape Town designer Charmaine Taylor, 34. She has sliced it up and turned it into pendants, earrings, cufflinks, and necklaces, gorgeously coated in silver and gold through electroforming. Called the Legacy Collection, it turns material loaded with devastating history "into something positive,” as Taylor puts it.
Taylor, who was a graphic designer with little experience in jewelry-making before embarking on this project, has made about 160 pieces so far. Each piece is hand-made, and comes with a unique number lasered onto it and a certificate of authenticity. Some pieces taking up to nine weeks to make—the rusted fence is an unforgiving medium, and often bloodies Taylor’s hands while she tries to manipulate it with pliers—or it gives her splinters and bruises.
"It really is a labor of love,” Taylor told the Guardian in a recent interview. “I say the pieces are like my children. When I see them go, I know what process they've been through. I know them by their texture and style. Each one is unique: they're always similar but always different."
Celebrities from Paula Abdul to Francesca Eastwood (Clint’s daughter) have purchased pieces. Taylor donates a percentage of the profits from every piece of jewelry she sells to the Nelson Mandela Foundation and to Abalimi Bezakhaya (which translates to “We Are Farmers”), which teaches farming in the Eastern Cape townships. She estimates that her limited chunk of fence will last for another two years, after which this former tool of brutality will have been completely transformed into wearable art. As Taylor writes on her website, the collection “symbolizes that while scars still remain, they also remind us of how peace and reconciliation was achieved in South Africa and can occur across our world.”