In the Diamond Mind: Caroline Morrissey

A conversation with Caroline Morrissey, Director of Jewelry, Bonhams New York.

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Caroline Morrissey Head of Jewelry at Bonhams
Caroline Morrissey, Director of Jewelry for Bonhams New York.

One of the first things Caroline Morrissey said during our conversation was, “I’m a diamond person, unapologetically.” That last word would apply to a number of statements by the straight talking, bold new head of jewelry for Bonhams New York, who is anything but apologetic. From the diamonds that blew her mind to the empowerment of women in jewelry and the value of silence – the latter topic came up a few times, which is anything but surprising when speaking with a mother of three small children – Caroline shared her thoughts on our 10 questions with candor, eloquence and a certain sparkle. Enjoy.  

What’s the story of your first diamond? 

One of my first jobs was working for a diamond wholesaler in Antwerp and I was regularly sent to Bombay to source diamonds. During each trip, I would spend a week sitting in an appointment room at the top of a tall skyscraper. The room had large, floor-to-ceiling windows with a beautiful view overlooking Mumbai. Over the course of a week, I would look at thousands upon thousands of diamonds, presented in small packages called parcels, and I would sift through each stone, choosing the parcels to buy.

One sunny day, a parcel was brought in with bigger diamonds and then, as usual, I was left alone to look at the stones. As I unfolded the white paper, used to wrap gemstones into their parcels, the handful of diamonds inside caught the sunlight. The room was quiet and still, and the diamonds sparkled. Hundreds of carats. It was awesome to behold. I’m a diamond person, unapologetically.  

Q: What excites you most at the moment?

Jewelry is more accessible today than ever before. Beautiful jewelry can be bought through many entities, including auction houses, at a variety of prices. It can be bought in person or online, first thing in the morning or at 11pm at night. For the most part, you can buy what you want, when you want and how you want.

I’m also excited about women and jewelry. I’m proud to be part of a team led exclusively by women. Bonhams is the only international auction house with a jewelry department entirely led by women around the world and it makes me think about some of the great women leaders in the jewelry world. One hundred years ago, Jeanne Boivin, Suzanne Belperron and Jeanne Toussaint from Cartier were incredible role models at a time when it was unusual for women to hold a lot of power in a company. They understood jewelry as no one else could. Toussaint herself was the inspiration for the panthere, one of my favorite Cartier motifs, and that says a lot about her style and her business acumen.

On the other side of the desk as buyers, women have their own money today and they are more empowered. It’s crazy to think that in the US women couldn’t open their own bank account until the 1960s and there was legislation passed in 1974 that allowed women to have credit cards without their husband’s consent! Today, women are financially savvy. They are working and investing. They don’t need anyone’s permission. The self-purchasing market for women is growing faster than any other area. Women are buying more than ever and, they aren’t just buying gifts, they’re buying for themselves. Women are saying, “I’m going to buy the jewelry I want and I am going to feel fantastic when I wear it.”

The Bonhams auction house in New York City
The Bonhams auction house in New York City.

Q: What is your intention for the year ahead?

I recently took on the role of New York Jewelry Director and I am very excited about how I can continue to develop my relationships with clients. Something I love about the auction business is meeting people from all walks of life, seeing their jewelry collections and hearing their stories. No two clients and collections are the same. And where they acquired their pieces are varied and fascinating. I’m a people person and one of my skills is hearing a client’s story and interpreting what is best for them. Clients often come to us at sensitive moments in their lives. It might be best for one person to sell a collection all at once, while a different timeline will be better for another. And it is the best feeling in the world when you get to tell a client about a fantastic result that will really help them in their lives.

A challenge during the past year has been not meeting clients in person. It’s still possible to develop relationships over zoom, email and phone calls, but it is different. I’ve been enjoying sharing behind-the-scenes looks at what is on my desk on Instagram. My intention is to continue developing the same, close relationships with clients despite these constraints and to bring beautiful jewelry with interesting stories to the auction block at Bonhams New York.

Q: What’s your greatest indulgence?

Decorating baked goods alone. I have three small children, aged one, three and four years old. They love to ask me for elaborate cakes. I will bake with them, but the one thing I save for myself is to assemble and ice. That is my indulgence. It’s 20 minutes of sweet calm and silence.   

Q: What diamond destination is at the top of your list?

The greatest diamond destination in the world is New York City. Every important stone finds its way here at some point. That’s why I’m here.

Somewhere I would go on a plane is the Ekati Diamond Mine in Canada. Earlier in my career, I created a branded jewelry line for Canadian diamonds and I learned about the Ekati Mine. Before it could be opened, the company had to try to ensure it would not harm the local environment and that was a feat. It ran ecological studies. Rivers were rerouted so fish migration patterns would not be impacted. Partnerships were created with the local Inuit. Ice roads were built. It’s amazing. I’d love a chance to see the source.

Q: What inspired you to pursue a career in jewelry?

I started out as a Saturday sales girl! While in school, I worked with a friend of mine in his family’s jewelry store in Edinburgh. I learned all about jewelry, especially diamonds and engagement rings, and I was hooked. In university, I wrote my thesis about conflict diamonds. Then, I moved to Antwerp to work for a diamond wholesaler. I have done stints at Cartier and Harrods, as well as tried my hand at design, and now I am in the auction business. I’ve never looked back.     

Two important diamond necklaces by Harry Winston, sold at a Bonhams New York auction
Harry Winston diamond necklaces sold at a Bonhams New York auction,

Q: What moment still blows your mind?

I spent time at Kensington Palace, because my grandfather worked for the British Royal Household, and I got to see the British Crown Jewels when I was quite young, including the Cullinan I and II. There is something incredible about those diamonds. I could not wrap my head around them then and I cannot now. The size, the beauty and the history all wrapped up in a perfect package. They blew my mind.

Q: What life lesson has been the hardest earned, and taught you the most?

The power of silence. Being a woman in a male-dominated industry has not always been easy and, while I like to talk, I have learned that silence is a powerful tool. Earlier in my career, I had a male manager who was a master of silence. One day I realized, two can play this game. The next time he went quiet, I did too. He was the first to break the silence.

Using silence has helped me to negotiate. It has also helped me connect with clients. If you give people more time to share, they often will. Going back to jewelry, it has helped me appreciate the beauty of a piece more. When a jewel is in front of you, it can be awesome to be quiet and take it in.

Q: What advice would you give your younger self?

We all make mistakes. When they happen, own them, apologize, find a solution and, importantly, move on.

Q: What’s next for diamonds? 

Diamonds will continue to be beautiful, fabulous forms of portable wealth. That has not changed in centuries and their supreme reign will continue purely because they are timeless.

Something great about today is that people have more freedom to choose what is important to them in a diamond. Is it certain quality factors, size or perhaps the feeling it evokes? Instead of being constrained by the stock at the local jeweler, people can go out and find the right diamond for them. Bonhams works hard to make auctions accessible to every price point. It used to be that only dealers or clients making extraordinary purchases could come to auction, but now it’s really the best deal to be found. I have had couples purchase modest and lovely engagement rings from the same sale where someone else purchases an enormous stone. The world of jewelry is opening up and that is a game changer for diamonds.