Martha Najomo: A Jewel @ 55
By Remmy Diagbare
Martha Eseoghene Najomo is the CEO of Seraphina Gems, a jewellery business that stocks some of the most exotic jewellery in the world. If one were to have looked into a crystal ball 55 years ago, November 26th to be precise, the glamorous life Martha now lives may not have been part of the picture.
Martha who hails from Umolo in Delta State, began life from a modest background. Martha, who grew up in a close-knit family, was taught the value of hard work by her father who encouraged her to start off life in Education. She attended Nana College, Warri, Delta State, where she got a Grade II Teacher Training Certificate. Not content with that, she went on to attend the College of Education, Abraka, where she earned the National Certificate of Education.
Driven by ambition and zeal to succeed, she got admitted to the University of Lagos to read Public Administration and, afterwards, a Master’s degree in the same field. In 1994, after working in the private sector, she went on to establish her now very successful Seraphina Gems.
Martha is married to Captain Chris Najomo, one of the star pilots of Arik Air. She is a mother of seven and a grandmother. You will find her interview insightful.
Congratulations on turning 55. First, you do not look it. Is it good genes? What is the secret to maintaining your looks?
Thank you for the compliment. Firstly, I have to ascribe that to God for all glory and adoration belongs to Him alone. It’s not good genes per se but hard work on the tracks. I got to a stage in my life where I knew I needed to make a lifestyle change. I did that by exercising regularly and eating healthy. So, here you see the result! Lol.
What do you do and what is your eating habit?
Yes, I exercise regularly; at least 5-6 days a week. I eat as healthy as I can. I haven’t eaten fried foods for at least 16 years. I’d instead roast my plantain than eat dodo, for example. Anything that can be roasted/oven baked/grilled, I would take that option than fry my food. I jog 10km, at least, twice a week and two hours aerobics on the other days.
How do you feel about ageing? Is it something that scares you and are you preparing for it?
You are as old as you feel. I feel age is a thing of the mind and is nothing but a number. I’m not scared of ageing as I believe I’m ageing well. Lol… I know a 79-year-old woman that does aerobics with me and she’s as agile as ever! If you start exercising early, you age well. So, I’m looking forward to my later years as I know it will be more glorious and better than my former by God’s special grace.
How was your upbringing? I hear you spent holidays with your grandma while staying with your parents. First, what impact did that have on you? And, what did you learn from them before they passed on?
I stayed with my parents until I graduated from the University of Benin; before my father died. He died in 1988. My mum passed on in 2009. When I was younger, I would go to the village whenever I was on holidays to stay with my grandmother and help out as much as I could.
As for my upbringing, we didn’t have a lot of money but we had love and that has kept us as a tightly knit family unit until today. One thing our parents taught us was to value family over everything and also the value of hard work. It pays!
You started out as a teacher and ended as an entrepreneur with particular focus on expensive jewellery and precious stones. How did you transit from teaching to the glamorous business of jewellery?
I started off as a teacher after I finished at Nana College, Warri, Delta State (my secondary school). I then proceeded to the College of Education, Abraka. I finished there in 1984 did my NYSC in 1984/85. In 1985, I went to University of Benin (Uniben) to get my first degree. So, I was never a teacher per se as I’d only taught after my teacher-training education. After my first degree, I went to University of Lagos for my Master’s programme.
It was while I was there that a classmate commended me on my jewellery and asked if I had some for sale. When I replied in the negative, she encouraged me to take it up as a business venture as I had a particular eye for unique pieces. That was how I started selling. In the beginning, I would go to Kano and buy a few pieces and sell in tiny nylon bags. From there, I progressed to travelling to Europe (Italy) to buy Italian 18-karat gold pieces and moving around in my car with the jewellery in suitcases until God blessed me with a shop.
What were the challenges you faced? How did you surmount them? And, when did you get the breakthrough that sees you dining with kings and presidents?
Oh my God! Kings and presidents? Lol… I give God all the glory. The challenges are still prevalent to date. People would buy way above their means and suddenly lose interest in paying once you’d given them your jewellery. They will wear it without remorse but the minute you ask for your money, they will pick up a fight or stop picking your calls, narrate and bad mouth you all over the place or complain about not liking the piece in the first place. I decided a while back to stop selling on credit as there was so much debt owed. It’s an everyday struggle.
The jewellery business in Nigeria is not quite advanced. Is there an appreciation of beautiful jewellery amongst the elite here? And, how important is expensive/good jewellery to one’s entire outlook? Is there a tell-tale factor that one should look out for?
To me, jewellery makes a woman. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the very high class 18-karat with diamonds, 9-karat or 14-karat or even Brazilian gold. It changes the entire outlook of a woman when you adorn yourself with jewellery. Just like the missing (link in a) jigsaw puzzle.
How vital is genuine jewellery?
It doesn’t have to be entirely over-the-top expensive before one can look good wearing jewellery. Of course, the more valuable the piece, the more stunning and glamorous you look but truthfully, you don’t have to break the bank to look good. You would expect diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires to be beautiful but there is also jewellery that doesn’t cost half as much as those that look pretty good as well. It’s all about having an eye for jewellery and combining correctly.
How can one distinguish between fake? After all, they all glitter!
There are testers, certifications and stamps that can be used to ascertain; specific measures that can be taken to circumvent such forgery or attempt to try to pass off fake jewellery as genuine. For people that deal in jewellery, it’s not hard to know and differentiate really.
The glitter of fake jewellery is entirely different from the original. When an experienced eye looks at it, you would know.
Is there any particular tell-tale factor one should look out for?
The stamp. All jewellery are branded so once you look at it, you’ll know.
You are also a pastor having attended Bible college. How do you juggle being a minister with the business of jewellery?
I am not a full-time preaching pastor. I attended a Bible school in 2009 and I have just been made a minister. I have done my jewellery business for 24 years and I’ve loved God from day one. I’m not a preaching pastor so it doesn’t affect my jewellery business. I do attend ministers’ conferences and meetings, of course; my jewellery business is a well-run organisation now so, smoothly, everything runs when I have to be unavoidably absent.
What is your comment on the perception of those who say Christians are not supposed to wear jewellery?
Christians aren’t supposed to wear jewellery? Oh wow! I’m shocked. I’m speechless, to be honest. I challenge them to show me what portion of the Bible they got that ideology from. So, they think not following the commandments and doing right by God isn’t important as I’m guessing they feel once they don’t wear jewellery they’ll make heaven right? Focus on what’s inward and not on outward appearances. To each his own, I guess.
Tell me about your foundation. You train and provide shelter?
I had planned to open a foundation at my 50th but I didn’t get the support I needed so I still haven’t officially opened it. But on my own, I do a lot of charity work; I try as much as I can to encourage and empower women. In my opinion, a woman should work as I don’t buy into the ideology of being a full-time housewife without your income. Most times, they are left in the lurch (be it from the death of their spouses or the men leaving them and it’s always the kids that suffer. It pains me to see child hawkers and kids on the street begging).
As God helps me, I’ll continue to take on the financial burden of making sure children have a solid education as that’s the bedrock of their future. Pre and post my 50th, I’ve paid school fees for even people that I don’t know. I’ve sent some abroad to school and trained some in Nigeria as well. I help out in any way that I can really – as God helps me.
You marked your birthday in November. What lessons has life taught you?
Life has taught me to be faithful; it has taught me to put my trust in God only for He alone is absolute. It has taught me to take my problems to God daily for that’s the only source that can give me sustenance. Do not put your trust in man for they’ll always fail you and you’ll still be disappointed. Life has taught me not to read everything at face value for the heart of man is indeed desperately wicked. Take each day as it comes; enjoy each day for you don’t know what the next day would bring. Worrying never solved anything. Take it to God in prayers. Love everybody around you as it’s a commandment from God. Forget everything about the past as it’s only your future you can change today and never your history. Live in the present and don’t worry about the future for if you put your hope and trust in God, He’ll always come through for you.
Do you have any regrets thus far – decisions that you would have made differently today if you could?
I have no regrets about my life. Of course, there are many things I could have done differently but like I said earlier, you cannot change the past. I won’t brood over any decision I took in the past. I live in the present and try not to let past mistakes negatively impact my future. I have taught myself and realised that whatever is gone, is gone. Every decision I made shaped my life and has brought me to where I am today. Absolutely no regrets.
I would not want to change anything as I believe this is the path that God wants to take me through. Everybody has a route and, at the end of the day, we’ll arrive at the same destination but our paths are different. I love the direction I’ve chosen. No regrets.
How did you juggle marriage and motherhood with building a successful business?
Truthfully, it’s been God. I can’t give you a specific fool-proof blueprint but I tried as best as I could to give my children enough attention when they came home from boarding school. I would give them undivided attention and make them feel comfortable enough to tell me what’s going on in their lives. My children are my friends and I would always encourage them to come to me for anything. I would still provide a listening ear. There is absolutely nothing my kids don’t discuss with me. It’s better to be friends with your kids and make them comfortable enough to know that they can always talk anything with you. You have to find a balance. I tried as much as possible to arrange my travel time when they were in school so that once they are on holidays, they get my undivided attention. But truthfully, it’s been, God. He blessed me with beautiful kids. My husband has also been very supportive which has helped immensely.
To celebrate your birthday, you took select friends to Monaco for the party. Why Monaco?
I had never been to Monaco but I’d heard such wonderful stories about it so I decided to go there for a change. For my 45th birthday, I took some select friends to Spain and we had such a wonderful time. For my 50th, I decided to do a party in Nigeria and the crowd was too much. So I decided that for my 55th birthday, I would travel with select friends. I felt like a 30-40 people event outside Nigeria would make me happier. It was a one-week event. The party started from Nice and proceeded to Monte Carlo. On my actual birth date, November 24th, I rented a yacht for the day. We sailed for a few hours then had a party on board. We also had tours, spa days, group dinners etc. Everybody had a week to remember!
Which completes your look more – jewellery or shoes and bag?
A combination of all of them as I have tons of shoes, bags and jewellery.
What is the most expensive jewellery you have ever handled? What advice can you give women about jewellery – buying and caring for them and how to use?
The most expensive jewellery I’ve ever handled would not be something I would want to be divulged to the press. The advice I would give to women is: “If you ever want to resell jewellery, concentrate on buying gold jewellery on its own as opposed to buying diamonds because diamonds are a girl’s best friend. You can never sell them and get your money back unless, of course, you purchase diamond blocks. Once it’s crushed diamonds, you hardly get value while reselling as they would pop out all diamond bits before weighing. With gold, you just consider and get back value. But of course, in wearing, you look exquisite and classy with shiny diamond and precious stones so the choice is yours.
You have to keep your jewellery safe at all times. Keep them in safes; keep them at the bank etc. as those are the items easily targeted by domestic staff.
How to use: You wash your jewellery with warm water, mild liquid soap and gently use a toothbrush to wash them. Then, air-dry them or send them to the goldsmith to clean properly for you. They become as good as new. You can do this every 3 to 6 months.
What is your philosophy of life?
My philosophy of life is: loving God, living well and loving myself to the extreme. After God, I’m the most important thing he created. I’m the most important thing since sliced bread and I just love my life! Lol.
Live simple, love everyone around you, help the people you can help. My strongest passion in life is uplifting everyone around me and telling God daily to use me as a vessel to bless my generation.
Are you a book or a movie person? What type do you like?
I’m a book and a movie person. For movies, I prefer Nigerian films; most of them depict what’s happening in the society at large. As for books, I read a lot of Karen Kingsbury and Francine Rivers and some other Christian and philosophical/financial books.
Finally, a word of advice to women who seem in need of direction; who do not know or are afraid to follow their heart and transit.
Believe in yourself. God didn’t make you a photocopy or to be entirely dependent on anybody. When God created the world, He made them male and female. Meaning God made you useful to yourself. Do not let anybody treat you as a second-class citizen. You are unique and you are essential. Follow your heart, live right; live without being afraid of your environment. Rely on God and live without fear of making a mistake.
Don’t let anybody put you down or pull you down. Your greatest strength lies in how well you rise every time you fall. Don’t be afraid to take a step towards achieving your dreams. Don’t let anybody treat you like a second-class citizen just because you are a woman.
I don’t want to say I’m a women liberation leader but I don’t believe that anybody is superior to you just because of their gender. Of course, you must accord your husband all necessary respect but you won’t make yourself less of a human being because you’re a woman. Follow your heart, serve God rightly, work hard, make yourself useful to your household and your children; if not, God wouldn’t have cited the story of the virtuous woman in the Bible.
Just watch God work wonders.