Ex-banker Emma de Sybel converts old pieces to new designs © Charlie Bibby/FT

For former JPMorgan investment banker Emma de Sybel, it was working 12-hour days and missing her son growing up that prompted her to try something completely different.

In 2017, she started Baroque Rocks as a direct-to-consumer business specialising in repurposing mostly unnamed eccentric vintage gold jewellery dating from the 1960s onwards — think statement-making gold bamboo bracelets or elaborate cocktail rings with flashy-coloured stones or asperous patterns.

For de Sybel, novelty is important. What also sets her apart is the assiduous refurbishment process, which starts in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter and finishes at her home in London. “Ultimately, it is about creating a brand where clients want to return for good craftsmanship and rare pieces that are fun and create conversations,” she says. “Also, having a business where, if all went wrong, the inventory has a hard asset value was a driving force.”

One of the most unlikely takeaways from her banking days was that pre-owned jewellery did not have a good reputation among financiers. “Colleagues would often cite that their wives would shun anything that was second-hand due to [a perceived lack of] cleanliness and bad vibes,” she says. “So, I racked my brains about how to offer my product to a certain part of the market that would not normally buy this type of jewellery.”

De Sybel now has everything professionally polished up and even uses tuning forks to “sound cleanse” the pieces — in a process inspired by homeopathy.

Her efforts, however unorthodox, appear to have paid off. Recently, fashion brands eager to dip a toe in this burgeoning market have given de Sybel a new outlet for her finds. Baroque Rocks previously had a space in London-based luxury womenswear retailer Bluebird. But, after Bluebird closed two years ago, Jo Sykes, creative director of fashion retailer Jigsaw, made room for de Sybel in the company’s Chelsea store.

This year, Sykes says she intends to carry Baroque Rocks’ pieces at Jigsaw’s store in Guildford, Surrey, and feature them online.

“What appeals is its uniqueness,” she says, adding that the focus will be on pieces that complement the colours and direction of Jigsaw’s own upcoming fashion collections.

But Jigsaw is not the only brand providing a stepping stone for de Sybel. Fashion label Paul Smith now features her 9-carat gold novelty pendants, offered in Baroque Rock packaging, in its online selection.

Baroque Rocks’ recent success bears out a wider trend. “Pre-owned in fine jewellery can go in many directions and holds great potential,” says Tyler Harris, associate partner at consultants McKinsey. “Pre-owned could also mean the resale of a branded piece, much like we see in watches. Alternatively, it could mean redesigning and reimagining an old heirloom from one’s own family or another’s estate, which is a more unique definition of pre-owned.”

Polishing, re-enamelling, resetting and swapping stones is what gives de Sybel’s venture an edge. Her approach also allows for much experimentation to understand precisely what appeals to her customers.

She discovered, for example, that some stones, such as red garnets, smoky quartzes, and hard stones, such as lapis lazuli or tiger eye, do not sell very well. “I had a fabulous 1973 cocktail ring festooned with red garnets, so we swapped them out for pyro pink tourmalines and neon green peridots,” she explains.

She also converts brooches to pendants and replaces paste stones — a feature of 1960s and 1970s gold jewellery — with gemstones in contemporary colours. For example, she removed the red paste eyes in a 9-carat gold turtle pendant and replaced them with emeralds.

One downside to the increased interest in the vintage field, de Sybel says, is that “with more players fishing in similar ponds, treasure hunting becomes more difficult”. While many of her finds come from auctions, she also has relationships with independent jewellery retailers that sell new and second-hand pieces. She will buy those the retailer is not interested in but in which she sees potential.

“They’ll WhatsApp me images and I’ll say yes or no, or they save pieces for me to come and look at when I’m in the area. For example, on a visit to the Forest of Dean [in Gloucestershire], I bought an amazing, round 1970s garnet ring. It’s the only one I haven’t pulled all the stones out of, because I’ve never seen anything like it.”

De Sybel chose to do business in Birmingham, rather than London’s “incredibly busy” Hatton Garden, as she found the pricing better and turnround times faster. “The Birmingham Jewellery Quarter has an industrial feel. It is very trade focused and I love walking up the somewhat rickety Dickensian steps to a workshop,” she says.

She has also uncovered some juicy, jewellery-related scoops along the way — like the polishers making thousands of pounds swapping collected gold dust for cash at local bullion dealers. “That’s the amazing thing with jewellery: nothing gets wasted.”

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