Text by Christine Hugo
The discovery of the first diamond in Namibia in 1908 took the world by storm. It tugged at imaginations and from all over the globe fortune hunters flocked to the country, putting all their cards on the table to gamble on the dream of these expensive little stones scattered in the dry and seemingly lifeless desert, for any and everyone to pick up.
Towns shot up along the desert coastline, as testified by the remains of their make-do diamond-sorting equipment that can still be seen amongst the deserted old buildings. For as suddenly as it started, the diamond rush came to an abrupt end.
There had only been a limited number of diamonds and richer fields had been discovered further south. Along with the gold diggers from other countries, the diamonds had left Namibia. With very few natural resources and almost no water, there was little hope of building a thriving economy in agriculture or mining. How would this barren country provide for its people? Not with diamonds, that was clear. Not the white ones, anyway.
Ironically, as with precious stones, one of the most important answers to this dilemma was also driven by fashion and vanity. In 1907, ten ewes and two rams from a special breed of sheep, the karakul, were shipped from the Middle East to Namibia.
With their short, black, curly fur, these animals were different from the local breeds in appearance. But they took to the dry landscape like fish to water, adapting well to the long droughts and living off the scarce bushes and occasional grass that characterised the expansive southern region of Namibia.
Slowly but surely, die-hard farmers established farming practices in the country. It was a risky business, as it still is, with no guarantees as far as nature is concerned. But the tougher breeds of cattle and sheep thrived under the harsh conditions.
Nobody could anticipate the potential of the karakul sheep. The world fur market was in awe. Here, at last, was a sustainable product that could earn Namibia foreign income.
As the industry developed and the karakul breeders experimented with and improved the quality and condition of the pelts, the barren southern half of the country became inhabitable. The industry provided jobs and opportunities to people who had previously been forced to either live on luck under unforgiving conditions or leave.
In 1930, 91 000 karakul pelts were produced and sold in Namibia; in 1950 production had risen to 2 607 327 pelts; and in 1971 production of the black diamond of the Namib Desert, as it was being referred to by then, had risen to 3 428 683 pelts.
It justified more human resources, and more investment for the development of the product. Revolutionary work was done in the improvement of karakul fur breeding, creating shiny, short-hair skins with a tamed and very unique curl. It was marketed under the name Swakara – a brand label created by the Karakul Board of Namibia for karakul pelts produced in Namibia and highly recognised and regarded by the European market.
Then, as suddenly as the rush for the shiny stones of the desert had come to an end, the black diamond market crashed and the entire industry in southern Namibia came to a halt.
The pelt industry in Europe had taken a dive and this had an immediate impact on Namibian producers. Meat became more profitable than skins and many of the bankrupt or struggling karakul farmers started breeding meat-producing sheep. Only a few karakul farmers, as determined and robust as their beloved sheep to survive the drought in the market, stuck to their karakul breeds.
The Karakul Board of Namibia – which, apart from international marketing of the Swakara brand, was also responsible for the sorting of pelts and for representing Namibian farmers on international auctions – now had to take the reins. The farmers who hadn’t pulled the plug on karakul pelt production needed help.
With little hope and under difficult circumstances, the Karakul Board continued its work, subsidising farmers, attending trade shows and joining international discussions. Namibia didn’t have that many back-up systems, so there weren’t a lot of choices.
The upside was that while there might be a limited supply of diamonds in the ground, the black-diamond industry could be sustained and developed further, as long as a new market could be found. Thus the industry continued, quietly and slowly with very small returns.
Following Namibia’s Independence in 1990, political changes required the development of communal farmers, giving previously disadvantaged members of the community an opportunity to make a living through farming. Karakul breeding lent itself to this process, as karakul sheep are instinctively herd animals and are therefore easy to manage and control without an expensive infrastructure.
Namibia had all the expertise to help these farmers. Furthermore, the Karakul Board, in collaboration with the Agricultural Co-operation of Farmers in Namibia, already had a marketing and sales system in place for karakul products. Since 1999, 1 059 karakul rams and ewes have been subsidised and distributed to communal farmers across the country.
Training and the development of good genetic material is a continuous priority, with support from the Ministry of Agriculture through development projects and training courses on the research station Gellap Ost, as well as training in pelt sorting by the Agra Pelt Centre. Throughout the dry years of the pelt industry, the work continued. Communal farming production was increased to 20% of today’s total production, a record contribution for such a brief period of time.
They say fashion is fickle. As the global village became smaller, the fur trade slowly became bigger. Through the quiet years, Swakara remained present at the international trade shows. The demand was low, but whoever bought, still wanted the best quality available and if they were going to buy karakul, Namibia’s representatives made sure they knew about Swakara.
As the local development of karakul farming in Namibia pushed on, the tide slowly turned. China and Russia emerged as the new big buyers – and they were big. The European market also started picking up. The demand increased.
But the supply from Namibia had become low. From the all-time high of 3.4 million pelts produced in 1971, the market had turned at 56 667 pelts at its lowest point. Even though it had been increasing slowly since the late nineties, production was still nowhere near what it had been in the 70s.
Then suddenly Swakara was on the lips of heavyweight fashion houses such as Prada, Gucci, Cavalli and Dona Karen. International agents jumped to shake hands and make deals with the producers of black diamonds. In 2005 there was a 50% increase in pelt prices on average over the previous year as demand continued to exceed supply. Startled, more Namibian farmers conservatively started breeding again in small quantities.
Another large vote of confidence came in 2005 with the signing up of Kopenhagen Fur, the largest fur auction house in the world, as Swakara’s official international auction house last year.
This included the selling of Swakara pelts under Kopenhagen Fur’s own special classifying system – Kopenhagen Purple, Kopenhagen Platinum, Kopenhagen Burgundy and Kopenhagen Ivory – recognised as some of the highest quality fur on the market.
Consequently, at the first Kopenhagen Fur auction in April this year, Swakara pelts were sold for 60% more than in 2005. In turn, ram prices at the Elite Ram Auction in Keetmanshoop in April fetched N$6 515 on average, with N$17 000 as the highest price recorded for a black karakul ram.
Ninety-nine years since the first handful of sheep were shipped to Namibia, the karakul industry is back on track. It has suffered a fall and picked itself up again, transforming an entire community and making a tremendous contribution to the economic and social development of the country, right in time for its centenary celebration next year.
“We need more!” the international furriers are shouting. Ger Kuzabe of Mayer&cie in Frankfurt praises the lightness of the Swakara pelt, and its uniqueness. “Buyers want to sell it in high-class fur shops. It is fashionable now, different to the very curly type that was sold in department stores in former years. Also, the market is so much bigger, with Russia and China also knowing about the product and wanting to buy it.”
Kopenhagen Fur marketing manager Heidi Nyby attributes the increase in interest in Swakara pelts to the flexibility and femininity of the product. “If you look at all the big fashion houses at the moment, they all have Swakara in their collections. I think women like Swakara garments because they have such a feminine feel to them. Swakara is a light product and gives you a very feminine silhouette. We see a lot of young consumers looking for exclusive materials that make them look young.”
Although the demand for more karakul pelts from Namibia is high, fur houses all agree that an increase in production should not compromise the quality of the fur, since it is their exceptional and unique quality that makes Swakara pelts so appealing in the first place.
The future of the black diamond industry looks decidedly bright. The Namibian Government has pledged its full support. Communal farmers are increasingly contributing and benefiting from the manageable and sustainable nature of the industry. And the pioneer farmers who started and developed the industry over the last hundred years – the visionaries who developed this unique product against the odds – they too can now sleep soundly. It has been a good rain year.