Once upon a time there were two spinsters who lived in a fabulous, five-storey Georgian house on the high street in Farnham, Surrey. The sisters had loved in the First World War. The men never returned, and they never loved again. But they had their jewellery shops: Biggs of Farnham, and Biggs of Maidenhead.

It’s an unlikely location for the start of Joanna Hardy’s story in the world of gemstones, but this is, indeed, where the tale begins to take shape.

“My godmother had a large part to play – by visiting her when I was 7 or 8 years old with my parents. She would have these old Georgian glass vitrines [display cases] in her lounge, with geodes of amethysts and rock crystals, all sorts of specimens, alongside silver. An eclectic mix. Quite like an Aladdin’s Cave for a young girl.

“Her sister used to do oil paintings of inclusions in gemstones, which were hung on the wall as well. Now we have all this photography through microscopes, but that, in the ’70s – for her to look into gemstones and paint, and they looked like abstract paintings – that was sort of ahead of its time.”

Hardy’s godmother – Margaret Biggs – was the first woman to pass her gemmology exam to become a Fellow of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain. “She passed that with distinction in 1923.” She was also President of the National Association of Goldsmiths.

The Donnersmarck Diamonds: Joanna Hardy has been in the privileged position to see them up-close – and handle them. © Joanna Hardy

At Bedales school, where they “valued craft as much as the science”, Hardy started to learn jewellery making, eventually leading her to train as a goldsmith at Sir John Cass College in London, and to begin her association with gems through a Saturday job in Hatton Garden.

While there are collectors of jewellery, Hardy is a collector of knowledge about jewellery. From those visits to her godmother, and from her early adventures to places such as Morocco with her parents, to her days in Hatton Garden as a Saturday girl, being hungry for in-depth knowledge has been the foundation of her reputation as a specialist in the field of gemstones.

‘I remember him, now and again, talking about travels to these far-flung places. And it just sounded absolutely fascinating.’

Much of that knowledge came from those close at hand: Robert Holt, proprietor of R. Holt & Co., a shop opposite to where she would spend her Saturdays, where she would buy loose stones for “a few pennies”. Mr. Holt – “an extremely humble man” – went on field trips to buy half his stock. “I remember him, now and again, talking about travels to these far-flung places. And it just sounded absolutely fascinating.” Or Henry Ginder, during her time in Antwerp as a polished diamond dealer. “You didn’t have to be a woman in a man’s world, you just had to have the knowledge. That’s all you needed to do, and that’s fine and they’ll accept you,” says Hardy. More knowledge came with years at Phillips, the auctioneers, and then Sotheby’s.

 Joanna Hardy as auctioneer at Sotheby’s in 2008. © Joanna Hardy

“Before my interview [for Phillips] I was still living in Antwerp; I went over on the Zeebrugge ferry to go to the V&A and sit in the gallery there trying to remember all these periods and dates of antique jewellery, but it was the stones … I was so pleased to be seeing colour again,” explains Hardy. “It was quite interesting being void of colour, just seeing white stones, white stones, counting how many black marks were in them … I did feel rusty [in relation to the coloured gemstones]. I felt rusty from a price point of view. But all that gemmology, all that I had done, very quickly came back. I had always kept up with it, with my books – I’d still buy books everywhere I went on holiday, where I’d buy bits of rocks. But it was the auction houses where you start seeing old jewellery with old stones.”

‘I just loved being able to get my loupe out and I could look at all these different stones, the internal world of these different stones – that was great.’

Hardy explains further: “During the early days of the ’80s and ’90s, origin of coloured stones wasn’t really a thing. It was more of a gemmology thing, but it wasn’t coming into price like it does now – Burma [Myanmar], Kashmir, and so on, lab reports for origin; it wasn’t like that at all. Because De Beers were doing so well with their marketing, coloured stones were really playing second fiddle to diamonds all the time. But I just loved being able to get my loupe out and I could look at all these different stones, the internal world of these different stones – that was great.

 Hardy has travelled to many mines in the past 12 years, including to Mogok, in Mayanmar (left), and Zambia’s Kagem emerald mine. © Joanna Hardy

“There were only a couple of guys who came in who knew their coloured gemstones. There were very few people who really understood gemstones, and the potential of gemstones, but just had an affinity with them. Everyone was diamond-focused because you could make more money, and that was the bottom line.”

But Hardy was “seeing incredible stones”. “I was seeing the best of the best,” she says. “And you get very spoilt. You’re so privileged to see enormous rubies and all these incredible stones.”

‘I was seeing the best of the best. And you get very spoilt. You’re so privileged to see enormous rubies and all these incredible stones.’

But that was then, about 25 years ago.

“Sotheby’s and Phillips gave me the opportunity to really understand and get to know, get familiar with, very special stones. And that was such a thrill. When you see the best of the best, anything of your passion, it’s so enticing, it’s mesmerising. And when people say this is fabulous quality, whatever, you know what is fabulous quality, and that’s a real advantage, because I’ve seen it and I’ve handled it. And it’s rather like diamond grading, you always have it [in your head], you understand colours in your head. You keep them in your head.”

In the past 12 years, since leaving Sotheby’s, much of Hardy’s ongoing knowledge has been from on the ground. In a 10-year collaboration with Gemfields, she has written first, Emerald: Twenty-One Centuries of Jewelled Opulence and Power; then Ruby: The King of Gems; and soon-to-be-published third in the series, Sapphire: The Celebration of Colour.

 Ruby cutting in Myanmar (left); and examining sapphires in Madagascar. © Joanna Hardy

“These last 10 years have fulfilled all my dreams. I love roughing it; I ride motorbikes; I love camping; I love nature. (I’m married to an Australian who’s from the Outback, a park ranger.) To encompass all that with gemstones, well, for me, is a dream come true. It’s been amazing.

‘These last 10 years have fulfilled all my dreams. I love roughing it; I ride motorbikes; I love camping; I love nature. To encompass all that with gemstones, well, for me, is a dream come true.’

“I like the gemmology bit, and find the geology fascinating. But now, geology is so integral to gemmology, and traveling with experts in that field has completely increased my knowledge and you keep on learning. I’ve been to nearly all the major coloured stone mines… it’s just unbelievable where I’ve been. There’s been no airs and graces … I’ve been exposed to what it’s all about, whether it’s Colombia, Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, Madagascar, Mozambique, Zambia – I mean it’s just been unbelievable. The majority of that has been under the Gemfields umbrella, which has been incredibly generous of them, but they knew for me to be able to write these books I really had to know independently what it was all about, not just their mines, but other people’s mines and yep, other countries. So, [I was] going to Madagascar just before lockdown last year, where they don’t have a sapphire mine, and yet I was sent to Madagascar to look at the sapphire deposits there so that I could write my book.

“It’s been an incredible privilege.

“What is fabulous is that because I’ve got to know the archivists at Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, at the high end, very few people get to see the source and go down Place Vendôme. I’ve straddled both worlds. I’ve seen the source, and I understand situations and circumstances, the challenges that miners have, whether that’s artisanal miners or to be able to say that you’ve been somewhere, even Burma, when you’ve seen old jewellery with Burmese stones, actually understand and smelt it first-hand where those stones would have come from, before current sanctions, it really does allow me to paint a picture that’s coming from me. It’s not coming from a book.”

In the end, however, the appreciation of gemstones is “all in the eye of the beholder”. “Someone might like that stone, someone doesn’t. And that’s what’s nice about it,” admits Hardy. “It doesn’t have a classification.

“They are more accessible, on the whole. They are more accessible than diamonds. They fuel the imagination more than diamonds.”

And crucially, “You don’t have to spend millions – a few hundred and you can get just as much pleasure,” says Hardy, who still keeps close all the rocks and gemstones she once bought with her pennies in Hatton Garden as that 18-year-old Saturday girl.

Banner image by Javier Esteban/Unsplash

SHOP STONE VAULT
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