Fans of Maddy Barber’s silky voice and cheery personality will be sad to see her retire from radio after 25 years, but her effervescence is merely being transposed into a more abstract, but fittingly delightful medium: bespoke jewellery.
The former Kiss92 Breakfast show anchor co-founded Madly Gems with a gemmologist partner back in 2014, but eventually took control of the business four years later to further her true cause: to spread the joy of coloured gemstones in a diamond-dominated world.
Now that’s she’s learned the ropes of the jewellery business, Barber has decided it’s time to hang up her headset and mic so that she can dedicate all her energies into creating precious pieces that shine as brilliantly as she does.
You managed to do both radio and Madly for seven years. Why stop now?
I got really tired. My work days could be 12 to 14 hours long, but it never seemed to be enough for anyone. My radio bosses would say I wasn’t committed, and it felt like my business was telling me to be there and hold its hand. But I also felt like I’ve done the best show I could have done, with co-hosts that I shared the best chemistry and magic with. Past this point I could only see deterioration. But with Madly, there is still so much to do, like getting out there and going to trade shows, connecting with people and putting us on the map.
Were there any lessons you learned from radio that you applied to Madly?
You can’t have a good show if you’re only pretending to have fun. Our fun started off-air, and I saw how much it fostered camaraderie, and how it made people want to stay no matter how shitty the hours were, or how unreasonable management could get. I wanted that for Madly. I was going to make this place a Disneyland of jewellery. Too many companies talk about CSR plans when their staff welfare is in the doldrums. Your staff needs to be happy working together and laughing as a team before you can talk about a fun, collaborative company culture.
Why did you choose to focus on coloured stones when diamonds have traditionally been marketed as “a girl’s best friend”?
Compared to diamonds, you get a lot more bang for your buck with coloured stones. The amount you pay for a 0.9 ct E or F colour diamond could get you a 1 or 2 carat coloured stone, some of which are even rarer than diamonds. I also feel like coloured stones have a lot more character and variety. I’ve noticed that jewellers are increasingly paying more attention to coloured stones in the last five years, and I’d say that we had a lot to do with it — in Singapore, at least.
How did you grow your customer base? Did your celebrity help?
If I were selling cupcakes then sure, that could help. But I don’t think people will spend thousands of their hard-earned dollars just because they’re my fans. And I wouldn’t say, “Oh I’m a media personality so I’m just going to go and sell whatever I want to sell!” Jewellery is a business of trust, and I believe that if you want to do something, you really have to know your stuff.
Speaking of trust, are your stones traceable?
We opened our own gem sourcing offices in Tanzania and Sri Lanka with the help of a third-generation gem hunter I partnered with. This gives us pretty good visibility on a gem’s journey, but because we still have to source some of our stones on the open market, I’m only fairly confident about the provenance of about 60 per cent of our stones. Hopefully, as we continue to grow, that percentage will increase.
Did you face any criticism for making such an unusual career change?
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 they see something they’ve saved up for a long time. We had someone bring in a piece of jewellery their mother left them. It was in a style she wouldn’t wear but she wanted to save the stone. So we took it out, found a second stone to represent her, and put both in a new ring. When she cried, we all cried. There’s nothing more personal than watches and jewellery to pass on to your kids. You’re not going to give them an Hermes bag when you’re on your death bed, right? I even have a friend whose mother left her a very expensive juicer. So I’ve sat down with my daughters as they went through my jewellery box picking out what they’d want to remember me by. Besides memories, I think it’s beautiful that we have this to give.