Mano has been commissioned to create the headdresses and earrings for George’s Bizos’s grandson’s wedding. He shows me a picture on his cell phone of models wearing red, crystal dresses and red, crystal crowns. While we speak, he is putting together ear-to-shoulder length red crystal earrings, each pair with a different Greek Orthodox saint in the middle, for the 17 bridesmaids. “He’s marrying a beautiful Lebanese girl,” he tells me. Now she wants huge red tassels hanging off them as well”, he chuckles. “It’s going to be spectacular!”
Son of the pioneering, ‘Lucky Packet King”, Lefty Christelis, Mano began making his “galactic jewellery” from lucky packet charms as a boy of eight. “My father had mountains of lucky packets in the sweet factory in Germiston. There were corridors of all these Hong Kong toys…little charms…” He describes the scene with child-like excitement, fuelling my own reminiscences of lucky packet exuberance.
“My dad had the machine that made all those little pink sweets and he had lollipop machines and he used to make marshmallow fish and rocket sherbet. His sherbet lines were the biggest success. And my dad’s twin brother used to sit at the machines and every 20 to 30 lucky packets he used to put in a 50 cent coin. So sometimes a kid would get a lucky packet with an extra 50 cent piece. It was like a big thing. He supplied the whole of Southern Africa, right up to Zambia and Zimbabwe and Mozambique. All the kids of that generation went for lucky packets.”
When his father got a consignment of beads after the Richelieu factory closed down, Mano incorporated the beads into his designs and started to cultivate an exclusive customer base.
In the eighties he set up a shop in the basement flea market in Pretorius Street in Hillbrow: “It was the time of the Café de Paris and the Three Sisters…and all the trendy shops were there…”
The performing artist, Steven Cohen used to visit the stall with his mother: “He used to come, dressed like a nice Jewish boy, with his mom. And he used to like my stuff. He loved all the plastic toys. And his mother used to say: ‘Oh come on Steven, this stuff isn’t for you! Let’s move on!’ Meanwhile, he has become so way out and eccentric that this is like, mild, you know…“ We laugh.
Prominent designers like Peter Soldatos and Chris Levin used the Galaxy jewellery in their fashion shows and his customers included people like Linda Goodman, Winnie Mandela, Marianne Fassler and Brenda Fassie .
Together with the ceramicist Tina van der Walt, Mano was one of the first to set up a stall at the flea market opposite the Market Theatre. “Every week we had a different theme. One week would be Egyptian, the next week it would be ancient ruins, and we would do a hellova production…That’s how I started. Then I got contracts with boutiques and started supplying Stuttafords and others.”
Mano’s interest in extra-terrestrial life; good and bad aliens; baroque architecture emanating from Venus; lizard people; giant snails on Neptune; parallel governments on Mars; teleportation and jump rooms, like lifts, has grown alongside his career as a trend-setter in the jewellery business, “I’ve always been interested in extra-terrestrial life, and I’ve had experiences of different galaxies on the astral plane,” he tells me, showing me pictures of new developments on Neptune, stored on his cell phone.
His fascination was the inspiration behind the Galaxy Muzeum in the small northern Free State town of Tweeling, where he owns several properties, including the old post office. “Tweeling is an energy point in the Free State,” he says. “People living there have seen triangular craft and all different craft moving across the area…”
I visited Tweeling with friend and photographer, Stan Sher.The display in the Galaxy Muzeum , consists of a series of vitrines depicting a variety of galaxies, dimensions, portals and life forms, including instructions on how to get there from Planet Earth. The first vitrine depicts a secret location in Mozambique where transport through history is conducted. “Civilization: humans in military operations using time door to change history”, the caption reads. The second, named ‘Planet Blueploy’ depicts “humabian aquatic people living in structures above oceans” accessed through a time hole in a magnetic field in the Free State area 86. Cement blocks and circles and brick-like structures, similar to the beads used in some of the jewellery appear in the various planetary constellations.
The exhibition includes the planet Jupiter, which is “three years by earth ship from planet earth’ ; Planet Oberroi, in the Zacacia Penticula Galaxy, which is 14 light years away from earth on the electronic transport field on Easter Island, inhabited by a hunter-gatherer community that is “peaceful in nature.” Another planet is reached by means of eighty light years through wormhole and the civilization here is "of human origin through intelligent manipulation.”
“Just like there are all different kinds of birds, there all different kinds of people,” Mano explains. “There are bird people, with feathers like birds, and there are half animal, half human people like the Egyptian hieroglyphs. “
Back in the Orange Grove factory, I ask Mano about the pictures of Greek Orthodox saints on the walls. “I’m Greek Orthodox. I was born in the realm of Jesus and that’s what I’m sticking to. I pray to God and Jesus and all the saints because that is my realm…The Greek Orthodox Church is quite open. I don’t think they would mind about reincarnation and different galaxies and things.”
I had a lot of laughs with Mano Christelis, and with Stan Sher on the trip to Tweeling. The vast array of images, resonant of the magic realism of a Marquez story, have been spinning around in my head and turning up in weird and wonderful ways in my dreams ever since.