After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Joan Hornig felt she had to do something for New York City to build bridges and break down the walls she saw being erected between people of different religious, ethnic, and financial backgrounds. The former Wall Street financier is a born connector, having spent many years raising money for her alma maters, Harvard University and Columbia Business School. She did it through, of all things, diamonds.
Joan Hornig. Photo: Joan Hornig Jewelry
She started out in Manhattan’s Diamond District, going stall-to-stall to connect artisans, all working in silos, to each other, and, more importantly, to the women who were buying their wares and their goals and desires. Hornig then launched multiple global jewelry lines under a Philanthropy is Beautiful umbrella. She developed a very special business model: 100% of the profits going to a charity. And not just any charity, the charity of the recipient’s choice. Her sparkling creations ultimately landed in Bergdorf Goodman. Hornig’s works have been worn by everyone from First Ladies Laura Bush and Michelle Obama, Former Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Meghan Markle. All of Hornig's profits from sales, exceeding $1 million, have been donated to 1,000+ nonprofits.
Her latest project focuses on the natural splendor of the Empire State. We sat down with Hornig recently to learn more about her journey, her inspiration, and what’s next.
NEW YORK MAKERS: How did you get started designing jewelry, and what inspired you?
JOAN HORNIG: The lack of empathy and connection that I saw after 9/11 inspired the line. I wanted to connect people in New York City again, and remind them that we are all more alike than different. I realized that using something that was beautiful, that women would buy anyway — jewelry — that funded a cause close to their heart, was a subtle way to connect people. It was subtle, but also an effective way to bring different people together.
Making the Classic Herkimer Diamond Necklace. Photo: Joan Hornig Jewelry
NYM: Was your sole goal to give back?
JH: An ongoing portfolio of giving was a key component, but I also wanted to empower women who were doing the buying. I always say, ‘It’s about you, not me.’ I want women to be inspired to be part of the solution. Americans are extremely philanthropic, it’s part of our culture, but I felt like having a thing of beauty they could wear again and again that signified their commitment to a cause was a reminder to give back again. It also makes me a completely agnostic part of the process; the buyer is the decision maker and the person who causes the good action in the world. The model has since been replicated in Europe. Amazon approached me, and we created a line for the European market as well.
Joan Hornig's Classic Herkimer Diamond Necklace (made exclusively for New York Makers) was featured in The Oprah Magazine's Sustainability Gift Guide in April 2020.
NYM: What inspires your designs?
JH: New York. The beautiful architecture of the city; the buildings, some of which are modernist and hard-edged, others that have more curves. I am also inspired by nature, from the cultivated gardens of the city, to the most rugged mountains and forests Upstate. I especially love New York’s abundant naturally occurring gems, like Herkimer diamonds and garnets.
NYM: What is a Herkimer diamond exactly?
JH: They’re beautiful. Technically, they’re not diamonds, they’re crystals, but because they’re double-terminated, with 18 facets, they’re unique. The gemstones are close to 500 million years old, works of nature that are found in rocks in the Herkimer mines, just like diamonds in the rough. [These gems naturally occur just in a few places. Only those mined in Herkimer County, New York, can be called Herkimer Diamonds.]
Now, people come from all over the world to mine for these “diamonds” in the Adirondack Mountains. After paying an entrance fee at the mines, prospectors dig through the rocks using tools they bring themselves, or the tools that the mines provide. Anything they find, they keep. Some people even spend the day mining and then sell back the best ones to the mine. But no matter what you find, it’s a wonderful experience because you realize that all of these come from the earth; they’re formed in nature, and, unlike other jewels, we know these are sourced ethically, from our state. It adds an additional layer of comfort for me, because the last thing I’d want to do with my foundation is contribute to anything that isn’t completely ethical.
NYM: Your necklaces are gorgeous; all of the “diamonds” are about the same size. Do you cut them? And do you mine for them yourselves?
JH: No, it was very important to me that all of the crystals be completely natural, as they are found in the mines. I think that’s what’s appealing to people. And we don’t mine for them, they ship them to us in bulk. I have been heartened to see how successful this line has been, there’s a lot of support for it, and I think that’s because it’s touching on so many things that are important to people right now during the pandemic: it supports a New York industry, it gives back, it’s unique, and it’s stunning without being ostentatious.
NYM: Giving back is the lynchpin of your business. Are there any charities that you have told customers you won’t donate to?
JH: We appeal to people across party lines, and I respect everyone’s beliefs. So if they donate to an anti-choice foundation, I opt to donate the same amount to Planned Parenthood. I’ve never had to turn someone away, but I would absolutely not donate to anything that encouraged guns, hate, or intolerance. I hope I never have to have that conversation with a buyer, but, if I have to, I will.
NYM: What’s next for you?
JH: I’ve loved working both with New York Makers and with New York’s natural treasures, and I’d like to extend both of those projects. I would absolutely love to collaborate on a project with other makers, and I’d love to explore a line featuring New York’s garnets. They’re gorgeous, such a unique red-purple hue.
The Herkimer Diamond Mines, in Herkimer, will reopen April 15, 2021. The Mines are family owned and operated, with a KOA Resort that has a range of options for longer-term visitors, from camping to cottages, right next door. There’s also plenty to see (and shop, browse, and graze through) including Saranac Brewery, Fort Stanwix, the Little Falls Antique Center, Howe Caverns and the Utica Zoo.
New York Makers goes Herkimer diamond mining, August 2020. Photos: New York MakersA natural treasure well worth exploring, especially for crystal enthusiasts, DIY jewelry lovers, and parents of children interested in geology. But whether you trek Upstate to mine New York’s distinctive diamonds, or just opt to buy a piece of jewelry from Hornig’s Herkimer Diamond Collection, available exclusively on New York Makers Marketplace, we hope after an extraordinarily challenging year, during this season of giving back, we can all remember to treasure each other, and the many things that connect all of us.