Jewellery expert Joanna Hardy has an outstanding CV of more than 35 years of experience in the trade, including working for diamond company De Beers and auction house Sothebys, and appearances as a jewellery specialist on BBC TV’s Antiques Roadshow. Jane Perrone finds out what sparked Joanna’s passion for both modern and antique jewellery, and what inspired her to pass on her knowledge to others.
Who or what inspired you to take up a career in jewellery?
When I was about eight years old I loved looking through a microscope at the detail of stones, weeds, soils, pebbles and shells. If someone told me to find a needle in a haystack I would love that challenge, so from a very young age it has always been the detail that has intrigued me.
And jewellery is all about the detail.
My godmother Margaret Biggs was the first woman to pass her FGA (Fellow of the Gemmological Association) in 1923 with distinction, and she was also the first woman to be president of the National Association of Jewellers. She had a jewellery shop called Biggs of Farnham and lived in a beautiful Georgian terraced house in Farnham, Surrey. She was a very grand lady; she would sit in her throne with her afternoon tea taking audiences, rather like a mini Delhi Durbar. Around her were Georgian glass vitrines containing amazing geodes and mineral specimens. Her sister would paint the inclusions of gemstones, they were like abstract paintings.
One of Joanna's first Jewellery designs from when she begun making Jewellery aged 14
When I went to Bedales School (the Hampshire public school) they had a jewellery bench and I started making jewellery there when I was 14. I had complete freedom to explore and a very inspirational teacher called Martin Box: I still have all the jewellery I made there. I spent hours and hours in that workshop, so I didn’t feel there was anything else I wanted to do.
I went on to do a foundation course at West Surrey College of Art and Design, then I went to Sir John Cass college in Aldgate East and started a three-year diploma in silversmithing and jewellery. I worked as a Saturday girl in Hatton Garden (London’s jewellery quarter), selling chains off reels and mass-produced jewellery. I was studying in the evenings to be a gemologist, so when I passed my FGA in 1982 my godmother and my father came to the Goldsmiths Hall where my presentation took place.
I wasn’t very good at making jewellery, I wanted to be front of house rather than at the bench. I didn’t finish the course, I did two years then worked for two years in Hatton Garden. Then I got a job working at De Beers as a rough diamond valuer. I wanted to go to Africa in my khaki outfit, but it was a very male dominated company - the guys would come in and go straight into French lessons because they were going to the Congo - women just stayed there. They trained you to look through a loop and sort stones - there are 12,000 categories of diamond. It wasn’t feeding my sense of adventure, I felt like I was a machine.
Talking of machines - how has the jewellery industry changed in the past 30 years?
You can design jewellery with computer aided technology (CAD) and even 3D print in gold now. People are relying on technology and losing the skills of the craftsperson because machines can do everything that used to be done by hand.
I used to look at a piece of rough; marking it out, working out how much polish you would get from that rough and that allows you to price your rough. Now you put it in a machine and the machine will tell you everything, even where the inclusions are. Cleaving and cutting gemstones is now done by laser. When I went to Burma recently I bought a ruby in the rough, then I went to find someone who could cut it for me. He had no electricity, no loops, no machines - nothing - and he could still cut a beautiful ruby. I showed a diamond cutter in the UK and he said we don’t have those skills any more in the west.
Who is your Learning With Experts jewellery course aimed at?
What’s so lovely is there isn’t going to be a typical student. I want to be able to share my 35 years of knowledge, the fact that I love contemporary, and I love antique, and I love gemstones. I’ll be showing how to appreciate jewellery, going behind the scenes, getting into places to which the average person in the trade won’t even have access.
I am not worried about imparting my knowledge to people - I love it. No one is going to learn 35 years’ worth of knowledge in nine lessons, but it will give them a good foundation. If I have sparked an interest and passion in someone to go and learn more, that’s fantastic, whether you’re starting out in the trade, want to change career, or just want to start buying jewellery for yourself. This is not being led by a brand - it’s totally impartial advice I have gathered over 35 years. That is what makes these courses unique. For more information on Joanna's Jewellery courses, click here.
You have written books about rubies and emeralds - what is particularly special about these gemstones?
I was commissioned by Gemfields to write the books to represent these stones and the appreciation of them: they’ve got an emerald mine in Zambia which is the largest emerald deposit outside Colombia and they have found the most significant ruby deposit in the world for 800 years in Mozambique.
De Beers have done a very good job in promoting diamonds, and everybody understands the four c’s (Cut, Clarity, Colour and Carat Weight) but stick a red stone or a blue or a green one in front of the average salesperson and they’ll say, “hmmm not quite sure about this”. So this is all part of educating people about coloured gemstones - I jumped at the chance to write the books because that hasn’t been done - there are loads of books of diamonds and pearls, but very few books on emeralds or rubies.
How do you choose the jewellery you wear for public appearances such as the Antiques Roadshow?
You want something that’s big and bold on television. Everyone’s watching very closely: last week when I was on the show I had tweets afterwards from people asking me about the ring I was wearing. I love supporting young contemporary jewellery designers.
You may wake up in the morning and be going somewhere you need to be an extrovert, so your jewellery will reflect that. Or if you’re going to something sombre, you’d wear your jewellery accordingly. The days of pearl twinsets are long gone; people wear jewellery as part of an armour. I am always thinking of my jewellery first, then what am I going to wear to complement the jewels - never the other way around, and I think everyone should do the same. Of course Cartier did that back in the 1920s, they exhibited with the Worth haute couture firm.
How do you let someone down gently that their jewellery isn’t a priceless treasure?
Valuing jewellery is always 75% counselling and 25% knowledge, because everybody has got expectations, especially with jewellery. It shouldn’t be about the intrinsic value, but everyone secretly hopes it will be - that’s part of the reason why I am wearing brooches on the Antiques Roadshow that are made of resin, acrylic, and stainless steel - they are precious to me, I would be devastated if I lost one of them.
People who come on the Antiques Roadshow always want to be able to tell you their story. Jewellery is about relationships and memories: very rarely will you wear a piece of jewellery that reminds you of something bad, and you won’t wear something if you didn’t like the person who made it. When I hear harrowing stories, to actually put a price on something feels vulgar, and that’s not what jewellery is about - it’s a little capsule of a memory for somebody, and you must be very sensitive to that.
It does help when you have wrinkles - I remember telling someone when I was young that they had a synthetic stone and they said “call yourself an expert, you don’t know what you are talking about”, but when you have been around a bit longer they accept it. That’s the good thing about being a jewellery specialist, the older you get, the more faith they have in you.