Who’s Here: Joan Hornig, Jewelry Designer

When Joan Hornig left Wall Street in 2002 after 20 successful years, she decided not only to give back, but to make it possible for everyone she did business with to give back. She became a jewelry designer, and from the outset announced that every penny of profit from the sale of her jewelry would be sent to the charity of the purchaser’s choice. Her line of jewelry, which has been seen adorning Tina Fey, Michelle Obama, Jennifer Lopez, Hillary Clinton, Emma Stone, Claire Danes, the Bushes, Mary Steenburgen, Amy Poehler, Naomi Watts and just about everyone else who can afford to purchase her work at such places as Bergdorf Goodman, has brought her much more than just attention. She has the satisfaction of knowing that every woman who purchases her art thinks of the charity it benefits when she sees it on her wrist or around her neck.

Joan Hornig was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, one of two daughters of Gladys and David Cavell. They lived in a three-bedroom house in Beachwood, a well-to-do suburb between Shaker Heights and University Heights. Her father was a consulting actuary, concerned with statistics about mortality. He worked not only with businesses, but also with the government, where he was the number two actuary in the Truman Administration.

Joan’s mother probably gave Joan her sense of fairness and her need to give back to the community. Active in Beachwood, she’d hear about something and see a need and help—for example, volunteering with schools to arrange for a certain kind of vision testing. On another occasion, she went to the Cleveland Museum of Art and arranged for mothers to learn how to be docents so they could go back into the classroom to work with the kids.

Joan went to Beachwood High School. Her boyfriend was valedictorian, and she ranked third or fourth out of a class of 200. But it seemed to the two of them that if any of the kids could widen their horizons on graduation, it would be them. While others would “safely” apply to Midwestern schools, they would take a risk and apply to the Ivy League and head east. With Joan’s interest in studio art and literature, she was accepted and went to Vassar, to begin studies in their excellent art history department. Her boyfriend, Alan Brown, went to Harvard. They continued to see one another, though far away. But at Vassar, Joan learned about two things she had not known much about before.

One was New York City. With Vassar just a train ride down the Hudson, she took in New York with great joy. “I went to the Met, the Guggenheim, MOMA,” she told me. “I’d go to a show or eat at Mamma Leone’s in Times Square, I’d go out to Coney Island and eat Nathan’s hot dogs. On a very real level, I was just a college girl from the Midwest. New York City changed me.”

“What did you think you would do after graduation?” I asked.

“I thought it would be good to work for a nonprofit or at a museum in the city. I definitely wanted to be in the city.”

The other thing she learned about was George Hornig. A Harvard student she knew from Cleveland, Jimmy Levy, needed a date to go with him on a trip to George’s family’s vacation home in the Catskills for the weekend, and he asked Joan if she’d come along.

Joan, who had always valued her mother’s advice, asked her if she should do that. The issue was her long-standing relationship with her boyfriend.

“My mother told me to go. If he needed a date, what was wrong with that?”

What was wrong with that was George Hornig, a smart, funny young man born and raised in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Joan, on that weekend, fell in love with him from afar, since she was Jimmy’s date. Acting on her feelings, she began seeing George and soon transferred to Harvard. One year after meeting, they were married. George was just graduating and would continue on at Harvard grad school for four years, getting a JD-MBA (combination law and business degree.) She was going into her senior year.

“We lived in a real dump on Ellery Street in Cambridge that first year of our marriage,” she recalled.

The couple decided they should find someplace else if they could. They didn’t have any money. For the following year, the best arrangement would be to live in one of the undergraduate dorms as proctors. That would give them free room and board. But the proctor rules required that both the husband and wife had to have a connection with Harvard. George was still a graduate student, so he qualified.

“But I didn’t,” Joan said. “So I took a typing test and became a secretary to Henry Kissinger at the Center of International Affairs. That satisfied that requirement. In subsequent years I worked for the university, first at the Radcliffe Development Office and then at the Harvard Development Office. That involved a lot of fundraising.”

When George graduated, he worked for a while at Skadden, Arps, a law firm in Boston and New York, but soon they moved to New York, where he found work at the mergers-and-acquisitions division of First Boston. Joan, meanwhile, went to Columbia to do graduate work, a two-year MBA program, but when she got there she was asked by the dean if she would consider taking a part-time job as director of Columbia’s Corporate Relations and External Development division, since she had done fundraising at Harvard. She redesigned her two-year MBA study program to be part-time, too. She’d complete the work in seven semesters instead of four. And she’d take the part-time job.

It was during this time that Joan and George, together with friends and colleagues, discovered the Hamptons in the summertime. At first the pair thought this was not for them. Instead, on hot summer days, they’d wake early and go to Robert Moses State Park for a swim before going back to work in the city. But the Hamptons?

“I had a perception that it was for the rich, famous and artists, like Newport. I thought it was as unobtainable as going to the moon.”

A friend of theirs encouraged them to go, however. He knew of an inexpensive bed and breakfast in Quogue.

“Stay there and drive around and see the place for yourself,” he told us. This was in 1984. Joan found she was all wrong.

“What a place. It wasn’t scary at all. I’d never seen such beautiful beaches. I loved the light, the farms,” she smiled, “and I enjoyed Dan’s Papers. It was not shopping or restaurants that attracted me. We didn’t have the money for that. I just loved the place. I thought that the following year we should join with others in a group share house. I talked to George. He felt the same way.”

And so, the following summer, that’s what they did.

“What a time. Going out to the Hamptons, we’d all climb into a car and talk all along the way. Sometimes we’d stop in Commack and go see a movie at the six-plex there to break things up. Our house was a three-bedroom rental on Halsey Lane in Bridgehampton. We went to the Community House, Elaine Benson’s Gallery for art openings on Fridays. We’d shop at the farm stands. At night we’d grill the fish we bought at Loaves & Fishes during the day. We’d go to the beach and bake in the sun. We all wanted to be tan in those days. And on Sunday night we’d buy flowers in a can at a roadside stand and bring them back to our apartment in the city.”

Over the next 20 years, George and Joan bought a summer place, bought a penthouse apartment in Manhattan, raised two daughters, made money on Wall Street and prospered. Joan, with her business degree, worked at Paine Webber, a full-service financial firm— retail investments, stocks and bonds, banking—as Executive Assistant to the President, Paul Guenther. She worked on building that firm’s back office in New Jersey, she handled human resources and technology, and participated in large-scale mergers and acquisitions. Later she began to work at Balfour, a private equity firm that dealt largely with pharmaceutical royalty trusts. Balfour had offices further uptown, on 57th Street.

It seemed to her that much of her business career had come about because of circumstances that just appeared as needed. She began to think, as she approached her mid-40s, that maybe she could make a shift in her life, not to leave finance entirely but to leave off what she was doing to give back and do something positive for the community. She thought, correctly, that when she turned 50, she’d probably have all the money they would ever need.

“It was while I was at Balfour that I discovered the Diamond District. I’d walk around town during lunch hour. It was just 10 blocks down Fifth Avenue from the office at 57th Street. I was fascinated by what I saw at the Diamond District. Here were people from all over the world, from China, Ecuador, Nigeria, Brazil, India, all with special skills, all working here in Manhattan in this one district, creating jewelry. They dealt with diamonds. Big deals were consummated with a handshake. Your word was your bond. And it didn’t matter where you came from. Everyone was working together. And it sparked my long-held interest in the arts. I thought I could design beautiful jewelry.”

It was at that point, around 2000, that she got the idea to make jewelry and sell it to some of the well-to-do people she had come to know, in a way that could help others. Many of her friends considered themselves philanthropists. But it was a philanthropy where you just gave cash. Here was another way. You could buy jewelry—high-end jewelry of diamonds and gold and pearls—and the profit would go to a charity of your choice. You would see your money do something.

Then came the catastrophe of 9/11. It deeply affected her and reinforced her desire to give back in this way.

“I saw the smoke from the towers. I was at an exercise class on 84th Street when someone said what was happening. George was in a commuter plane, flying upstate to a board meeting in Syracuse. Was he okay? I had no way of reaching him. The kids were in school at Dalton. Were they okay? Along with an executive from Sandler O’Neill, who was also at that class, I raced over to the school and took my kids home. I also took home as many of the other kids whose parents could not come right away. It made me realize how fragile life is and how important it is to take care of everyone I could in any way I could.”

The team of skilled people from around the world working in the Diamond District on 47th Street were, from Joan’s perspective, her factory. Now she began traveling abroad to their homelands and other places in search of the different stones and metals used in different cultures. She’d bring home finishings, mold makers, pearls, diamonds and she would design collections in the style of these different cultures. She was enormously talented at this. And she soon became quite well known.

“Philanthropy is Beautiful” is the signature of her firm, Joan Hornig Jewelry. Her work adorns the rich and famous wherever they might be seen, for example at fundraisers here in the Hamptons. She and George also frequently host fundraisers at the beautiful estate they own on Flying Point Road in Water Mill.

This month, for example, they will have hosted four Saturdays of four fundraisers for different charities of choice. On August 1, artist Chuck Close organized a private dinner to support Artists for Peace and Justice there. On August 9, Hillary, Chelsea and Bill Clinton are hosting a benefit to raise funds for the Clinton Foundation. On August 16, Christie Brinkley and others will hold a cocktail party benefit for the Children’s Justice Campaign. And on August 29, Jazz great Winton Marsalis, singer Rachel Brown and others will perform in a cocktail reception and dinner party at their home to benefit Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Through it all, Joan and George Hornig are enjoying a remarkable life, both in the city and the country.

Their younger daughter, Jessie, went to Brown and is working at a branding company called Brand Now. “She is the creative dreamer in the family,” Joan says.

Older daughter Julia went to Harvard and works with her mother, minding her IT systems, inventory and building the e-commerce infrastructure. “She said it’s the first place she ever worked where she understands the culture,” Joan says.

Several years ago, Joan was asked to design a piece of jewelry for that year’s Riverkeeper Annual Benefit, a necklace that was presented by Bobby Kennedy to Ann Hearst. Another year, she was selected by the National Jewelry Institute to be part of the first contemporary Jewelry Designer Showcase on display at the Forbes Gallery in New York. After that she was honored by Help USA for her work in opposing women’s abuse, and by the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she is on the board.

I interviewed Joan in her duplex penthouse apartment on Park Avenue in Manhattan, and in the course of things asked if she might consider doing a piece of jewelry that people could buy to benefit the Bridgehampton Child Care and Community Center in that town, which I help support. She said she would. And in short order, we sat down to have lunch with her young staff there and soon were busy working to make that happen.

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