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Former DJ and founder of bespoke jewellery brand Madly, Maddy Barber shares insider info on gemstone acquisition

Jasmine Alimin
Jasmine Alimin • 11 min read
Former DJ and founder of bespoke jewellery brand Madly, Maddy Barber shares insider info on gemstone acquisition
Former DJ and founder of bespoke jewellery studio Madly, Maddy Barber talks about gemstone acquisition
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It’s been almost three months since former Kiss 92 breakfast show anchor Maddy Barber hung up her mic and headset after 25 years in the music business. And, while she genuinely misses her co-hosts Andre Hoeden and Divian Nair (but not so much the 6am call times), she’s really enjoying being full-time custodian to her fine jewellery brand, Madly.

“I know I’ve given my best to radio, but I haven’t given my all, if not my best to Madly. With how quickly the brand is growing and moving upstream, my baby needs all hands on deck! We have an office in Tanzania which I’ve never personally seen, and with radio as my day job, I probably would never be able to see it if I didn’t make this move,” says the 47-year-old mother of two.

Barber co-founded the bespoke jewellery house with a gemologist partner back in 2014 — creating one- of-a-kind pieces with rare top-quality coloured gemstones — but took full control of the business only four years later. Today, she runs a tight ship at Madly’s showroom in the laidback Tiong Bahru enclave with a trained team of 15 comprising multiple Gemological Institute of America (GIA) graduates, certified pearl experts, jewellery designers and an in-house gem cutter.

The well-trained team at Madly comprises Gemological Institute of America (GIA) graduates, certified pearl experts, jewellery designers and an in-house gem cutter

“Madly has been profitable every year since its inception, but it wasn’t until my husband and I fully took over the business in 2018 and implemented a three-year growth strategy that took the company to the next level; driving an increase in revenue that enabled us to hire the best talent in the industry and expand the team to support Madly’s continual growth,” she shares.

Although she can’t disclose financial figures, Barber shares that orders for her bespoke designs have grown substantially over the last seven years. From just one jewellery designer at the start, she now has seven in her team — one of whom is her eldest daughter Elizabeth, a former architect — and is still recruiting more.

A testament to the reputation of her brand and quality of her designers’ craftsmanship are the numerous international awards bagged in Italy, China, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Singapore. Aside from being awarded Singapore’s Promising SME 500 business luminary, Madly has been Tatler’s 10 Best Singaporean Jewellers four years in a row, Best Bespoke Jewellery House 2021 by APAC Insider, Singapore’s Best for Bespoke Jewellery Design (2020 and 2021) by LUXLife, Best Jeweller in Asia (2018 and 2019) by the Luxury Travel Guide Lifestyle Awards, and TallyPress’ Top 10 Artisan Jewellery.

“We’re immensely proud to be a Singaporean brand, and especially so because we’re in the creative scene. Singapore is well known across the globe as a financial hub, but our presence as an imaginative jewellery design house which can hold its own amongst international players definitely highlights the artistic and creative talents that our little red dot has,” enthuses Barber.

Now that she has fully taken over the reins as boss lady, the company is now on a hyper-speed trajectory to expand and establish a second outlet. When asked where, she replies cheekily: “You’ll just have to watch this space.”

Blue Tourmaline and Yellow Sapphire

Working with colour

Although diamonds are beautiful, coloured gems spark joy and have so much quirk and character, which is why Madly works largely with coloured stones to create whimsical pieces that are bold and unconventional. While the jewellery house does use diamonds in its designs, they play second fiddle to the vivid colours of its exceptional gems.

Barber notes that jewellers in Singapore are now paying more attention to coloured stones beyond the traditional sapphire, emerald and ruby. “The coloured gemstone market has certainly expanded tremendously over the last five to 10 years and I’d say that we had a lot to do with it— in Singapore, at least. Now, there’s so much information on the internet about the rarity of various gemstones, and the once diamond-centric buyer is slowly but surely waking up to their beauty, if not the intrinsic value they offer,” Barber said in a previous interview.

On top of being more unique than diamonds, coloured gemstones also offer more bang for your buck in terms of size. For example, with the amount you pay for a 1-carat diamond, you could get a 3- to 5-carat coloured stone, some of which are even rarer than diamonds. “Most coloured gemstones don’t cost as much as white diamonds on a per carat basis but many of them are rarer than diamonds, or at least the gemstones we have at Madly,” Barber says.

Iridescent Wedding Set

Typically, Madly’s bespoke rings can start anywhere from $2,500 and up for engagement rings, while the complex cocktail rings start from $6,500. “Essentially, the larger your gemstones and ring size and the more complex or elaborate a design, the higher the cost will be,” she explains.

As a design house focussed on creating beguiling jewellery that tell a story, Madly promises an experience that’s personal, tailored, luxurious and completely unintimidating. Its young team of designers are brimming with creative and colourful ideas, and are equally respectful of protecting the integrity of the customer’s heirloom gemstones.

Whether the piece is a symbol of power, a statement of freedom, or a sparkly reminder of those nearest and dearest, Madly’s bespoke service offers its customers the chance to create meaningful coloured gem jewellery that speaks of who they are and who they want to be.

“No one should settle for less when they are paying good money for something as precious and luxurious as fine jewellery. Big brands charge more because they can. SMEs like ours can’t, so it has to be all about value. You gotta make sure people get what they pay for, and then some!” Barber says.

Vietnamese Spinel and Paraiba Tourmaline

Ethical, sustainable and responsibly mined
Madly may be fun, vibrant and sassy, but the bespoke jeweller definitely takes its commitment on gem acquisition very seriously. Not only does it stock the largest gemstone varieties in Singapore — from colourful Burmese spinels to blue Sri Lankan sapphires, violet tanzanite from Tanzania and vibrant Namibian tourmalines — all of these scintillating stones are the top 0.1% in the world, meaning that only a handful of gems meet its stringent standards.

Madly’s gemstones are responsibly mined and ethically sourced. It is the only jeweller in Singapore to be accredited with the International Coloured Stone Association’s Ethical Accreditation programme, which means the gems purchased are mined responsibly, traded sustainably, and not sourced using child labour or obtained legally.

“I started Madly because I wanted to give back to the communities which unearth the world’s natural wonders, and make sure that they have similar opportunities as us and earn decent wages to provide for their families,” says Barber.

To ensure traceability and legitimacy, she has invested in sourcing offices in the coloured gem capitals of the world, Tanzania and Sri Lanka, managed by a trusted jewellery partner. “I have been most blessed to have met a third-generation gem hunter who not only mentored me, but really brought me into this very closed world. He is now my partner in our subsidiary gem sourcing business that allowed us to have offices in Tanzania and Sri Lanka,” she reveals.

In this email interview with Options, Barber shares about the intricacies of gemstone acquisition and how Covid pushed her to set up sourcing offices closer to mining production regions.

Fairytale Castle Brooch

Can you share how the business of gem acquisition works?
The business is very relationship based and the barriers to entry are extremely high. To be able to purchase either rough or cut and polished stones commercially, you do need to buy in bulk, called ‘lots’ or ‘parcels’. Within these lots, the material is normally of varying quality. Some of it will be totally unusable as a gemstone, the majority of it will be low-grade gem material, while a minority of it will be high-grade gem material. That’s the material that we are looking for at Madly. We take the best material from these lots and cut it into finished gemstones for use in our bespoke jewellery items, and let the lower-grade material go back into the wholesale market for use in other sectors of the market.

Was it difficult finding trusted and reliable suppliers?
Extremely! That’s why we’ve invested in our own sourcing offices. By having local offices in two major gem producing countries, we can purchase gemstones from mine owners, the miners themselves and trusted contacts with direct access to the mines. We have visibility on the exact mining locations and production practices. We regularly visit some of the mining operations ourselves. This gives us clarity of the gem’s journey and allows us to testify fairly confidently to the provenance of the gemstone in question.

Was your business affected by Covid?
Covid dramatically affected the supply of raw materials coming out of all gem-producing regions around the world. Combined with the political situation in Myanmar, the amount of material of many types of gemstones reaching the market is severely limited, and in some cases non-existent. The scarcity of material means that prices are constantly on the increase, which is why we have invested in acquiring more stock.

As we watched the pandemic destabilise in Europe in early 2020, we pivoted from our original plans for a second retail location, and went full steam ahead on securing our upstream capabilities instead. Having our offices at source locations really helps us to secure a regular supply of the stones and gives us first access to any material coming out of the mines.

Is the bespoke business model viable during a pandemic?
It’s actually more viable than ever because we are by appointment only, so we’ve always kept the numbers of visitors in the studio rather intimate, to allow our clients the privacy and attention they deserve. We also have clients both here and abroad with whom we work remotely through video chats and on WhatsApp. Nothing beats seeing a gemstone against your skin but we do our best to ensure that every Madly customer receives the same level of service wherever they are and whatever the circumstance.

What is your personal gemstone of choice and why?
Spinel! Always have been and always will be. They’re basically the gem that got me started — their lustre, their colour, their story. To me, they’re the Cinderella of gemstones. She was always beautiful and always there, but people only took notice of her after her Fairy Godmother worked her magic. For years, they’ve been overlooked, in favour of the better known sapphires, rubies and emeralds, and only those who knew could appreciate it.

At Madly, the popular stones for engagement rings are sapphires, spinels, tanzanites, tourmalines and colour-changing gemstones — many of which are rarer than white diamonds, yet offer much more in terms of variety, size and pricing.

What is it about the jewellery business that you love so much?
I think people trivialise what jewellers do and only think of this as a material-minded business. But what they don’t see is the joy we bring, and the way our clients’ eyes light up when we bring their ideas and dreams to life.

Heirloom jewels which hold meaning and memories for our clients are the most memorable for me. When a piece is made as a way of holding onto a lost loved one, to keep them by their side, there’s always more soul in the pieces, and when unveiling the finished piece, the happiest of tears are shed, and creative expression and our love for the world’s rarest gems aside, that’s why we love what we do. Few things are more personal than a bespoke piece of fine jewellery and we’re glad to guide our clients through this process.

Madly 72 Seng Poh Road #01-63 S160072
Contact +65 6650 1544 | [email protected] |

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