Q&A: Jewellery specialist Joanna Hardy on evaluating gems and why ruby is king

Many people are fascinated by the world of glamorous jewellery and captivating gems, but very few really know their way through this multi-faceted industry. One of the few specialists in the field is Joanna Hardy, a jewellery and gemstone expert with more than 30 years of experience under her belt.

Hardy started out as a goldsmith, before moving on to become a rough diamond valuer for De Beers, and working as a polished diamond dealer in Antwerp, Tel Aviv, Mumbai and New York. She then advanced her career by joining Phillips the Auctioneers in London, before moving on to Sotheby’s, where she spent fourteen years as a senior jewellery specialist and auctioneer looking after worldwide jewellery auctions from London to New York to Geneva.

We recently caught up with Hardy as she stopped by Hong Kong to launch her new book RUBY, commissioned by Gemfields. During our one-on-one interview, she revealed to us some valuable tips on evaluating jewellery, her thoughts on contemporary jewellery as an investment, and why ruby is the king of gems.

When did you start developing an interest in jewellery?

I started making jewellery when I was 14. I was lucky enough to attend a school that had a jewellery workshop, so I learned a lot there. My godmother, Margaret Biggs, was the first woman to pass her gemmology exam with distinction in 1923, and she also had a jewellery shop. I used to visit her with my parents when I was very young; we’d have tea, and behind her she would have this wonderful cabinet full of minerals and gemstones. Seeing all these wonderful stones as a young kid and being able to then make jewellery at school, I quickly became hooked. I didn’t want to do anything else, I just knew from that age that all I wanted to do was to be in the jewellery industry.

Joanna Hardy
Joanna Hardy has over 30 years of experience in the jewellery world.

How did you begin your journey into the jewellery world?

I had no idea what I was going to do, so I went to train as a goldsmith, but then I realised actually I wasn’t very good at it. So then I went into stones and I trained as a gemologist and ended up at De Beers. So you know, for my career I just went with it, I never had a plan; I never thought I would be an auctioneer for Sotheby’s, a diamond dealer in Antwerp — I had no idea any of this would happen.

The jewellery field is rather broad, is there a proper way to begin? Any suggestions for those who'd like to make a career in this industry?

The first thing is, you’ve got to have passion. If you have a real passion, you’ll find a way. I think that’s very important because I think a lot of people today, they want things very quickly, and this is not quick. I am 35 years in the business, and I’m still learning.

It’s also about trust, about reputation. I would never have achieved [publishing a book] if it wasn’t for the relationships that I have with Cartier, Van Cleef and Arpels, Boucheron, and also Gemfields. There are so many different people that have helped me, but this is after years and years of building relationships, trust and understanding. When people can see that you’ve got a passion, they will help you.

Yes, you can train as a gemologist, but going on from there, you’ve got to work Saturdays in a jewellery shop, you’ve got to go visit the auctions, you’ve got to go to the gem fairs. It takes time, and that’s what you have to invest. If you want to make jewellery, you find a college that teaches, or you find a workshop that will take on apprentices. That’s really the route, it’s not an easy route and I don’t think it should be.

Do you think with information on the internet readily available, anybody can aspire to be a jewellery expert?

I think with the internet, you can’t believe everything you read. Everything has got so much information that sometimes, you’re not sure what is the right information. So, just be careful what you’re reading, that it’s from a reputable source, that it’s from people that really know and understand the industry.

At the same time, the internet is allowing people to find out so much more than what they ever have before. You can go online to the laboratories and see their reports and what they’ve written about discoveries or the latest techniques. There’s so much information, which is great, but as long as you go to the right information, for example, the GIA or SSEF. There are all these different laboratories and they all have amazing newsletters.

You must have came across so many different types of jewellery throughout your career, what is it that you look for when you are given a piece of jewellery to evaluate?

A lot. There are lots of things going on in my head at the same time. It’s rather like a jigsaw puzzle, I look at a piece of jewellery, I break it all down in my head. If this is an antique piece, I’m looking to see if it started off life as a brooch. It might not have done, it might have been part of a tiara, or it might have started off as a necklace and been chopped down and made into earrings later.

Then I look at the stones: Have the stones been changed? Is the cut of the stone the same period as the piece? What metal is it made of? Are there any repairs? Have the fittings been changed? So, I’m breaking it all down, I’m looking at it front and back. The back is really important, that’s like the inside of a book, it’s telling you a lot of information about the jewellery, such as how it was made, when it was made, if it’s made by hand, if it’s a reproduction, or if it’s a real piece of 1850’s Victorian jewellery. So, after breaking it all down I put the pieces back together in my head, and then I’m saying “Okay, yes, you are late Victorian. This is genuine, this is not a reproduction, this is a good stone.” That is what I do.

Van Cleef and Arpels
“I’m looking at it front and back. The back is really important, that’s like the inside of a book, it’s telling you a lot of information about the jewellery.” (Pictured: Ruby and diamond Jarretiere cuff bracelet by Van Cleef and Arpels, made between 1937 and 1939 for Marlene Dietrich.)

What about contemporary pieces? What should we look at to determine if it's of good quality?

For contemporary pieces, I always look at the back. The back is very, very important, I want to see if the craftsman is passionate about his work. If he is, he will want to make sure that the piece is beautifully finished, that he’s done the job properly.

Even today when you look at bespoke pieces at Cartier, Boucheron, Van Cleef and Arpels, all of these jewellery houses — look at the back and you’ll see the attention to detail is as good as the front. Even for individual craftsmen, I always look at the back, and the fixtures and fittings too, because so often people don’t think of the hooks and fastenings, how it fits on the body, and whether the secure is well-made.

There is a growing trend of using 3D printing technology to create custom jewellery, what do you think of this?

With modern technology, people want everything now, I think that’s the down side because people haven’t taken time to train their eye to detail. I’m worried that the skill of the craftsman is declining, and I want to keep that alive. I think it’s really important for people to be able to cut diamonds, to cut gemstones, to be able to create jewellery by hand.

Does that mean you don't particularly appreciate printed or mass produced jewellery?

It’s okay, as long as people know there’s another world of jewellery as well. That’s my main thing. Jewellery is very personal. I always say that you buy the best that you can afford, and it’s about design, it’s what it means to you. You can buy a piece of jewellery for 50 dollars, that’s absolutely fine, but as long as you know there’s another world out there, too, to be enjoyed. It’s a multi-faceted industry, so I don’t want people to be sort of myopic and just think “this is the only area, this is what jewellery is all about” — because it’s not. There’s contemporary, antique and gemstones — it’s a vast field.

Do you feel that the awareness and appreciation in antiques is coming back?

I think so, because the old stones and the way they were cut, it was all before machinery, all cut by hand, so it’s about the appreciation of the character of the stones that you find in antique jewellery, from the different designs to the metals to the materials. I think people are appreciating it.

There are also people who are buying old jewellery and breaking it up to make new ones, but you’ve got to be very careful before you break anything up. You should get it checked by a good antique dealer, if it is a good period piece, then don’t. That’s very important, and you’ve got to be very careful. Say, if you’ve inherited a piece of jewellery that you don’t like, sometimes it’s better to sell it as it is, and then use that money to buy something that you will wear, rather than breaking it up, because then you’ve destroyed the jewel, its heritage and the legacy, and you’ve lost money.

But there are many antique jewellery pieces that were once broken down and made into new pieces, would that also have demolished the value?

No. In the past, people used to break up the jewellery because there were very little stones around. That was back in 17th century, and the styles changed and the trends changed, so people used the old stones and put them into a later mount. Also, there weren’t as many people with the money to be able to buy it, so it was left to aristocratic families or merchants that were wealthy. There wasn’t an importance in old jewellery, they just wanted the stones to recreate.

Today, it’s a totally different thing, as there are more people who can afford it and can understand and appreciate that if you break up a piece of jewellery, you’ll never ever get it again. Even if you change only the fittings, or anything, that devalues it. Then of course, just because it’s antique, that doesn’t mean it’s always good; some could be horribly made, but that’s up for an expert to decide.

bbc antiques roadshow
Joanna Hardy is one of the jewellery experts on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow.

This might be a very difficult question to answer, but do you have a most memorable find from all the pieces you've ever come across?

This is very tricky indeed (laughs), there are so many! Do you know that I do the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow? I’ve been shooting all summer for the next series, and I’ve had some amazing finds from people who come in with pieces that are bought from a car boot sale for five pounds, and I’m telling them that it’s worth 10,000 pounds!

I think also when I was younger and I was at Sotheby’s, I came across some great finds that will always stay with me. They were very exciting. There were pink diamonds, blue diamonds. I remember there was a person who didn’t think it was a blue diamond and thought it was an aquamarine, so there are lots of tales.

So the value of gemstones depend on the clarity and rarity, and the value of jewellery pieces depends on craftsmanship and history, is this correct?

Correct, but for jewellery, craftsmanship is key, because not everything is signed by a known designer or maker, but it can still be really important.

So do you think contemporary jewellery is something that's also worth investing in?

I don’t like the word ‘investment’, or saying ‘investing in’, because it makes me feel people are buying it just to make money from it. That’s not right, because if you’ll never wear it, you’ll probably buy the wrong thing. So, that’s a very dangerous road to go down. You buy jewellery that is well-made and you buy jewellery that you will wear. I love contemporary jewellery myself, I buy them more then antique jewellery, but I don’t have a particular period that I like, it’s all about the craftsmanship and the design that speaks to me.

Joanna Hardy and Michelle Ong, director and creative head of Carnet Jewellery
Joanna Hardy and Michelle Ong, director and creative head of Carnet Jewellery, recently co-hosted a cocktail reception in Hong Kong for the launch of RUBY.

You've recently published a book on rubies with Gemfields, what makes this particular stone so special that it's called the 'king of all gems'?

Every stone has been the king at one stage, but I think the reason why rubies are the king is because there’s more emotion that comes from looking at a ruby than any other gemstone. The colour red, whether you like it or not, makes you sit up; it makes you feel very passionate towards it. It’s a very emotive colour, more than anything else.

You know, emerald is very soothing to the eyes, and a blue sapphire makes you think of the Himalayas and the sky. For ruby, it’s very fire-y, so I think it evokes emotion. It’s a lucky colour in heritage and culture, and particularly important in Chinese culture and Indian culture. It’s also a protective colour, which protects you from evil and in battle. So really, that’s why it’s the king of gems, because no other stone has that intensity of emotion attached to it.