Together for tomorrow


Q&A: AuTerra turns e-waste into heirloom-worthy, timeless treasures

by | Feb 11, 2022

Care, consideration, and a keen attention to detail are at the heart of local jewellery brand, AuTerra. Started by Ashley Heather in 2011, AuTerra makes heirloom-worthy jewellery, with an eco-friendly twist. The Au Terra timeless pieces are made from reclaimed silver and gold from e-waste. In recognition for its work, the brand won the Accessory Category at the Twyg Sustainable Fashion Award 2021.

We caught up with creative director Ashley Heather, founder of AuTerra, to find out more.

Tell us about the brand name.

In 2011 I started this brand under my own name, ashley heather jewellery, with a firmly entrenched idea about what it meant to be a goldsmith/entrepreneur/designer and even more so about what it meant to wear all those hats. How wrong I was and how delighted I am in this learning over the last ten years.

This little company grew beyond me, it took on a life far more compelling than anything I alone could bring to the table. It has grown and it has shrunk, it has morphed and shifted and wandered off in strange directions before finding its way back again. It is not mine; it never really was. It belongs to everyone who works in and alongside it. That is just how it should be and as our team grows the unsettled feeling of bearing my name grew too.

In 2021, we rebranded to AuTerra, Au (pronounced just as what it is- ‘ore’), the atomic symbol for gold and Terra, Latin for ‘earth’, roughly translates to ‘golden earth’. It is a name, I think, that encapsulates everything we are and everything we hope to be and an exciting new chapter for our brand.

What influences and inspires your collections?

There really is no single source of inspiration although the collections do all share a common theme – details. I’m constantly inspired by the tiny details in the world around me – the shape of a shadow hitting a building or the form of a tiny leaf unfurling. Jewellery’s scale has trained my eye to be obsessed with all the tiny moments of wonder in the world.

Tell us about the one piece from your recent collection that you hope everyone would love to own?

If I had to choose just one piece from our latest Solaris collection it would have to be the Light Seeker pendant. It was the catalyst for the collection as a whole and was inspired by my own journey, over the last few years, and acts as a reminder to trust my intuition. It is perhaps the most personal piece I have ever designed, but one that seems to resonate with so many people as well.

Since you started your business, has there been a shift in how people view e-waste?

Working over both the jewellery and sustainability sectors means that no two days are ever the same. I love the variety and constant challenges. Since we started working in e-waste, in 2015, people have become a lot more aware of e-waste and the environmental and social challenges it poses. It’s exciting to engage in meaningful conversations with our customers about the ins and outs, challenges, pitfalls and victories of creating sustainable jewellery.

The fashion industry as a whole is very prone to greenwashing but people are starting to call people out, ask the hard questions, and interrogate everything. I think it’s a really exciting time to be an entrepreneur in slow/sustainable fashion.

What lessons have you learned running a small business?

Running a small business can feel a bit like being on a treadmill, at times. Before the pandemic, we were doing work we were passionate about, but we were also going with the flow and saying “yes” to things as they came along. This meant that as we grew our brand, we were starting to spread ourselves a little too thin.

That first lockdown was a very difficult time but it also gave us the space to take a step back and decide where we wanted to direct our focus to build a truly resilient brand. That time served us well and we are certainly stronger for it which was a great privilege at a time that was so heart-wrenching for so many people.

Do you use all the electronic parts of the e-waste?

The broken electronics are manually dismantled and all the components are sent their separate ways for recycling. All the precious metals containing components (including diodes, resistors, and transistors) are handled by our refinery. The other materials, most notably the aluminium and plastics, are sent on to other specialist recyclers.

What do you think about the Twyg Sustainable Fashion Awards?

I think it’s really exciting that the Twyg Sustainable Fashion awards are facilitating sustainable fashion conversations, locally. Our sustainable fashion movement has been tied to that of the Global North, for many years. So, it’s exciting that there is a forum for grappling with what sustainable fashion means for us as a country with our unique challenges and opportunities.

Do you believe South Africa’s slow fashion industry is making progress?

It is very exciting to see South African consumers deliberately seeking out alternatives to fast fashion. I believe the interest and enthusiasm are here, we just need to make sustainable options accessible to more people.

How do you define and ensure the quality of your jewellery?

For me, quality comes down to two things with jewellery: material and craftsmanship.

Solid metals (9k/14/18k gold and sterling silver) will last through this generation and the next, whereas gold plated or vermeil pieces will only last a few seasons to a few years before they start to become dull and dirty looking.

The craftsmanship can make or break the longevity of a piece. Jewellery made to last should have strong, neat solder seams, enough thickness to withstand daily wear, and carefully considered proportions and details.

The third thing to look at is the finish. Whilst it’s not directly related to longevity, the amount of care a jeweller has taken with the finish can, at times, be a good indicator of the overall quality. Is the finish uniform with no solder stains (darker coloured marks) and no sharp edges? If so, the jeweller has taken care in this last step and quite possibly throughout the rest of the process as well.

We add one last criterion to our work when it comes to quality and that is the impact the creation of the piece had on the people who made it and the society and environment in which it was made. We hope to return to a view of jewellery as an heirloom-worthy of passing down –not just of the object itself, but also of a more just world for our future generations to wear it.


  • Take a look at AuTerra’s website to find out more.
  • Images: Supplied
  • AuTerra won the Accessory Award at the Twyg Sustainable Fashion Awards 2021.
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