BY PHOEBE DE CROISSET
Making philanthropy not just a luxury for those who can afford it, but part of a lifestyle for everyone.
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PHOEBE DE CROISSET Your commitment to philanthropy began years ago. Can you talk to us about how it all began?
JOAN HORNIG I think it goes back to when I was twenty years old. I was in the middle of college, and got married that year. Two weeks after my wedding, I became a Harvard student as part of the first joint Harvard-Radcliffe admissions program. As I walked down the aisle, all I could think was that my life was going to be so good. I had my wonderful husband and a Harvard BA; the opportunity I had been given exceeded anything I could ever have imaged. I said to myself, “By the time I am old, (which I defined as 50!) I should give everything back.” I made that promise to myself.
That’s a lofty promise! When did you begin to tackle it?
I spent a lot of time going to luncheon benefits in my twenties. Everyone would get dressed up. We’d do this for our friends as much as we’d do it for the cause. This was a different time; it really preceded social media, and being able to show videos explaining the organizations, share comments and visuals. Some woman would have to stand up at the podium reading off a piece of paper, thanking people and trying to talk about the organization. Nobody could focus on her because she was so difficult to hear and see. In my opinion, we didn’t pay enough attention to why we were there.
But, we always paid attention to the jewelry that other women were wearing. And I thought wouldn’t it be great if when someone said: “I love your earrings,” or “I love that bracelet,” you could say thank you and “Do you know it supported XYZ?” Jewelry could initiate important conversations.
What was the first piece you ever made, and how did you sell it?
After 9/11, my younger child took a beading class. I started beading with her and putting things together – I had always collected antique and vintage jewelry, and I had taken pieces and interwoven them into my beading designs.
One day, I was with another mother from my daughter’s class. She noticed my jewelry and said “I really like that! Where did you get it?” And of course I said “Oh, I made it!” She was surprised. “What do you mean you made it? You’re a finance person!” And I said, “Are you just a mother? Just a wife? Just a former executive? Just a volunteer?” She was also a member of the Board of Trustees for Children for Children, a newly organized non-profit. When she said to me, “If you make one for me, I’ll pay for it.” I said “Well, I’ll make you one, but you can’t pay for it, just donate what it costs to Children for Children.”
And the philanthropical enterprise was born…
I had made plenty of things by then, so I invited her over to my place to show her. I kept all my designs in Tupperware in my china cabinet drawers. She took one look at the pieces and walked over to the telephone in the kitchen. She called someone she had been in a “Mommy and Me” class with eleven years before who had risen up to be a very important manager at Bergdorf Goodman and said to her “You gotta see this.” And well, you never turn down somebody you have been in a Mommy and Me playgroup with. So I went to Bergdorf’s with a tote bag and all my Tupperware and they said “Where are your jewelry rolls?” And all I could think was “what is a jewelry roll??”
And they loved the collection! They offered to sell it right then and there.
Yes! And this was fifteen years ago, when Bergdorf’s was a shopping museum. It’s not the same now – they have such a strong online global access. But back then, editors, buyers, and stylists would come in. It was a feeding frenzy to see what was new and what could be covered. And then one day, Oprah walked in and bought my jewelry and wore it on billboards and the cover of magazines. It was a miracle to come out of nowhere and have all of the benefits of being a part of Bergdorf’s at a special time in the history of luxury retail items.
Were the salespeople telling the story as they made the sale?
I had to stand there a lot, because they were more motivated by making the sale than by telling the story. I tried really hard to get them to try to understand that they would have a customer for life if they remembered what somebody is passionate about. People do business with people they like, and they only buy and wear jewelry they like, but the message can be a motivator if someone is on the edge of a decision. And people will do a lot of things if they feel they are making a difference. Because the truth is, most things are commodities and it’s hard to differentiate in a crowded market. So it takes a lot of education and cultivation and sometimes it just takes a refresher course with a passionate presentation to get people geared up to put Joan Hornig Jewelry at the forefront of their minds.
From the start, I created cards for people to fill out because my idea was that if customers got a thank you note from the non-profit they chose that acknowledged a gift made in their honor, they might be inspired to do more giving. When I make the charitable donations, I always say whose honor the donation is in. Hopefully this increases the frequency and amount of donations, but I also want to encourage new shoppers to learn about what others support, so I list all the non-profits in alphabetical order on my website with links to their sites so people can just scroll down and see they are part of a movement.
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And you manage all the donations to the non-profits? Sounds like an administrative nightmare! It must take up so much time!!
It is! Administratively, it is a nightmare to do this business. I’ve given to over 900 different non-profits so far. I am going to start working on an e-commerce platform very soon. I hope it will simplify our follow up when the customers identify the non-profit’s web addresses. We’ve been working on it behind the scenes. But I’ve been slow to build a business this way because of my loyalty to BG for credentialing me. Honestly, without their support, I could have looked like just another Park Avenue matron stringing beads. You know, just about everyone who buys and wears jewelry thinks they can design it! (Truth be told, technology advances in printing and design will make this possible in the not too distant future.)
Maybe. But your designs don’t look like those of a housewife searching for a hobby! They are beautiful and really hold their own in a very saturated market.
Thank you! I think I am unique enough in my sense of design and color and proportions. I really want to be sure my jewelry stood out. That’s why I decided that closures were going to be very important to me. Every necklace I designed would have what I call a “lifesaver clasp,” because we save lives. I embed all sorts of messages and design elements in my line so that things like clasps become signature to me, and promote the tenets I follow.
You’ve also partnered with organizations like UNICEF to create custom pieces. How effective is this kind of partnership or special project?
I call these dedicated designs, when I work with a charity to create something unique for them to sell or use them for branding purposes so that as people are walking around wearing them, they’re saying that this issue or organization matters a lot to them. I would do one for a non-profit everyday if I were asked to. It’s a lot of work, because I must think about what somebody else would want and not necessarily what I am inspired to make. But, it is the pivotal point when a nonprofit realizes there is an item that a person will buy, wear and then talk about that carries their message. So, it’s about an extra tool for giving and marketing and I’m all for that!
Are the Jeffersonian dinners you host another tool you use to spread philanthropy? I hear your gatherings are pretty incredible.
I love to gather people. I never have a room full of people from only one profession like all bankers, lawyers, artists, or philanthropists. I just don’t think that way so there is always a guarantee of a mix of guests. I sort of look at who is coming, think of a theme after the RSVPs come in, and then make sure that everybody is engaged in the same conversation while they’re here. And I have given a lot of really great parties by following this strategy. The point is always to ask a collective question and prompt follow up discussions.
For example: What can we do to understand foster kids in the city? What are the issues? How many are there? With what I learned from a guest who had attended another party I hosted, I discovered that kids are turned out on the street when they are 18. That’s generally the middle of a school year and many of the foster kids don’t graduate, because they’re embarrassed by their clothes, so they don’t go to school. Then I discovered a friend who is involved in for Culture for One, a nonprofit which addresses the lack of arts opportunities available to NYC’s foster kids and tries to fill some of the gap by underwriting drawing classes, or visits to the museums and plays, and I connected them. I’ll host a tea, a lecture, a cocktail party. It’s really easy to get me involved in socializing with a purpose. I may be the “queen of friendraisers.” And, nobody is in the way to get to me, so I am easily accessible!
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You don’t say no often, do you!
I would say “No!” REALLY easily if someone wanted to do something in support of guns or intolerance of any kind. Otherwise, I am agnostic and interested in learning about and supporting new things.
I think your twenty-year old self would be very proud of all you have accomplished thus far. What are your hopes not just for the future of the brand, but your larger mission of giving back?
My real wish and hope is that philanthropy becomes a lifestyle choice. That has always been one of my goals. This is why I am so grateful to millennials and their attitude about purchases and activities. They actually get this. They haven’t necessarily committed to one thing or two things to support with their dollars; they understand that it’s ok to spin for a cause, for example. It takes time to identify what matters most to you. In my fantasy world, more and more people see Philanthropy is Beautiful and want to be a part of it. My real wish would be that it would catch on so much that I would essentially be able to license “Philanthropy Is Beautiful®” for all sorts of companies, and donate 100% of the royalties I would receive from using this name to non-profits. That would be my wish.