Designer Strikes Gold for Charities

By Caroline Lagnado

Published November 10, 2006, issue of November 10, 2006.
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Fashionably dressed, with her shiny graying hair grown long, jewelry designer Joan Hornig seems to have a permanent smile on her face as she flits around her tall glass display case at Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. It is not unusual for Hornig to engage the high-end department store’s shoppers in conversation while she pitches her ornate creations, whose hefty price tags support charitable causes. On a typical day at Bergdorf’s, Hornig eyes potential customers — well-heeled women who may be involved with philanthropic work themselves or who simply enjoy fine jewelry. In either case, the amiable Hornig is always ready to chat, sharing her spiel about charity with all who will listen.

“People think I already know all of these women,” she told the Forward, “but I usually just meet them while they’re buying my work.”

Hornig sells elegant pieces constructed of 18-karat gold and natural stones. All profits from her designs, which sell for an average of approximately $500, go to charitable causes that each buyer chooses from a list Hornig provides. To date, Hornig has donated more than $250,000 to charity.

Hornig, whose past work experiences include teaching art to young children, fund raising and working for more than 20 years on Wall Street, has both the financial savvy and the heart to share the fruits of her talents with the less privileged. After years of making jewelry as an artistic outlet, Hornig partnered with Bergdorf Goodman to sell her jewelry and donate the profits; the Joan B. Hornig Foundation was created in 2003. In order to fund the production costs, Hornig continues to work as a hedge fund consultant.

Her design process is organic; Hornig often has dreams about future pieces before their fruition. “I’m more Jackson Pollock-like than any jewelry designer on the face of the earth,” she said, referring to the influential abstract-expressionist painter. She prefers working with colorful stones, and also enjoys working with precious metals for their malleability, their ability to be remolded and reworked. After Hornig designs her pieces at home with the help of an assistant, she hires craftsmen to do the metalwork and bead stringing. She keeps all of the production work in New York so that her jewelry line’s quality can remain controlled and so that she can oversee each step of the creation process.

When Hornig first began selling her jewelry, she didn’t tell customers that she was personally absorbing production costs and donating her profits to charity, until sales became “robust” and she found market acceptance. Hornig now readily discusses her company’s charitable ethos with prospective buyers. Hornig’s clients tend to chat about their jewelry — “people buy jewelry that they like,” she remarked — and she wants her wearers to be easily identified as philanthropists while discussing the collection’s “pay it forward” purpose. She hopes her jewelry gets people talking — about the artistry, and about the good causes it supports; it’s similar to the idea behind the red ribbons worn for AIDS awareness, or the pink ribbons worn to support the fight against breast cancer. Hornig said she purposely decided “not to create quiet jewelry, but jewelry with a signature look” that denotes her consumers as “charitable and stylish.”

Hornig’s business model challenges her patrons not only to choose pieces of beauty, but to think actively about the less fortunate. With each purchase, the consumer has the ability to choose a charity where 100% of the profits will go — her existing charity list is six pages long, including New York’s Congregation Rodeph Shalom and Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, as well as various schools, medical causes and the arts. While Hornig doesn’t prioritize Jewish charities over secular ones, rather choosing those that she feels most urgently need the money, she actively supports the Educational Alliance, which has Jewish roots, as well as the UJA-Federation of New York.

One charity that has received funding from Hornig’s jewelry line is the Bottomless Closet, a fund to promote self-sufficiency among poor women, championed by Arlyn Gardner — who, like Hornig, hails from Cleveland. Gardner, a prominent Jewish philanthropist, stopped in at Bergdorf’s recently to shop for her daughter’s birthday present when she saw Hornig proudly displaying her wares. While Gardner perused the glittering selection, she gushed, “I love her things, she makes the most extraordinary jewelry and she has the most generous heart.” Gardner ultimately chose a pair of dangling “Georgette” earrings named after Hornig’s husband, George.

The couple, who married 31 years ago as undergrads at Harvard, live in an impressive Upper East Side apartment that also serves as Hornig’s studio space. Hornig’s sense of aesthetics and her degree in fine arts are evident in their art-covered walls, including pieces by Thomas Cole, Honoré Daumier and Hungarian avant-garde painters. George is a non-practicing attorney who works as a general manager at Credit Suisse. They have two children: Jessie, a high school student, and Julia, who is a freshman at Harvard.

Hornig, 51, says her sense of philanthropy was instilled in her from childhood: “A sense of giving back was very important, no matter how much you had.” She grew up in the Reform movement and continues to live what she calls a “culturally Jewish life” as a member of Temple Emanu-El, where both of her children were confirmed and had their bat mitzvahs. While she doesn’t design overtly Jewish jewelry with Stars of David or the like, one aspect of her work that is distinctly Jewish is her decision to use 18-stone patterns, inspired by the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew letters spelling chai, or “life.” “Everything I do has Judaism hidden in it,” she mused.

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