‘It was a gut thing’, says Emmet Smith of his decision to launch a bespoke signet ring and jewellery brand - ‘we supply a blank canvas and lots of enthusiasm’. Now the founder and owner of Hatton Garden-based store, Rebus, Emmett’s jewellery career started aged 15, working in the same iconic jewellery district where his store stands. His path has taken him from hand-engraving apprentice to jewellery brand owner.
Focusing on the ‘synergy’ between brand and customer and intent on supporting the industry and area where he has worked for over 30 years, Emmett has carved himself a niche specialising in hand-engraved signet rings - and engravable pendants - each individually customised. We met him to hear about his jewellery journey, new store and future plans.
Let’s talk about Hatton Garden?
I’ve been working in Hatton Garden since I was 15 - in 1986. During the 80s it was full of workshops and craftsmen - you could hear the tapping of metal against metal as you walked down the street, jewellers at work. There was a lot of buzz around the Hatton Garden industry back then.
How did you get into engraving in the first place?
I wasn’t terribly good at school, so I left at 15, and went to the John Cass art school. I did a foundation course in jewellery - silversmithing, diamond mounting, design, hand engraving. I loved hand engraving, so I found an apprenticeship with RH Wilkins engravers in Hatton Garden.
Tell me about your apprenticeship?
RH Wilkins was the biggest hand engraving company in London, if not in England. There were 10-11 hand engravers who each had a speciality - lettering, copperplate engraving, sealing. I did a five year apprenticeship, learning from the best. When I finished, my masterpiece was an engraved portrait of Samuel Beckett - it won a gold award at Goldsmiths craft council - it still sits proudly in my store entrance.
What did you do when you’d finished?
I finished my apprenticeship at 22 and went off gallivanting for four years. When I came back, I went back to working with my old boss at RH Wilkins. After about six months he said ‘I want to retire, are you interested in buying the company?’ I said yes - I don’t think before I jump! I was 26/27 - over three years I bought the company, and he sailed off into retirement.
‘Engraving - it’s like drawing your spoon through ice cream’
What made you launch Rebus, your jewellery brand?
I got fed up with the quality of other people’s rings we were engraving. On the surface, they looked perfect, inside they were badly made - I thought, I can do this better. Most of the rings coming through the workshop were cast - injecting molten metal into a mould. Our rings are stamped out in the same way a coin is - they are created under enormous pressure. As engravers, we love it - it’s like drawing your spoon through ice cream. I started with a few rings, it was organic, instinctive, a passion project.
Having been working for the trade, was it easy to find customers?
Our website really kick-started it and we grew from there. My customers wanted something simple, good-quality, low-key, something they could put their own stamp on and with an engraving workshop on site we were able to provide that.
Experience is really important for today's consumer. What experience do you provide?
Experience is a two way relationship - a synergy between customer and staff. We get our customers excited, we work with them to create a bespoke crest, introduce them to the guys making it. The joy you can bring to someone makes you want to go on to the next project - the more interest the customer has in the project, the more the service team will engage with the customer.
‘All you can do in this life is give your skills away’
And the new store?
We wanted more space - it’s double the size of our old store, and has windows onto the street. I wanted a stimulating space for my both my customers and my staff.
Who designed the space and what was the concept?
An architect practice - Nick Leith Smith - helped on workflow, analysing how customers would use the space, introduced a colour palette and materials. We divided the space into three areas - the biggest has display cabinets and sofas, for browsing. Then we’ve got two consultation spaces where we can sit down with people in an informal way, draw sketches, show product.
And, what’s next?
My next plan is to find a third apprentice - the best I can find, and give them the best training I can give. When you’re on your deathbed, you’re not going to think ‘thank God I’ve sold lots of signet rings’, you’re going to think ‘thank God I’ve given some skills to these apprentices’. All you can do in this life is give your skills away.