In the Diamond Mind: Joanne Milner

A conversation with Joanne Milner, CEO of Garrard

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The famous House of Garrard is a jewelry brand known to many and admired by all who have been fortunate enough to lay eyes on their breathtaking jeweled creations. With a history spanning almost three hundred years, this British jewelry brand is famed for creating some of the world’s most important pieces of jewelry. From the Sovereign’s Scepter commissioned by King George V in 1910 to the late Princess Diana’s sapphire and diamond cluster engagement ring (now worn by Catherine, Princess of Wales), Garrard is deeply embedded in the DNA of the British Royal Family and the nation’s history. The Natural Diamond Council had the pleasure of speaking with Joanne Milner, the CEO of the House of Garrard. Former CEO of the etiquette specialist Debrett’s, here is what she had to say about her love of natural diamonds, her thoughts on the jewelry industry, and what is yet to come.

Livia Primo-Lack: What’s the story of your first diamond?

Joanne Milner: My first piece of diamond jewelry of great significance was designed especially for me by Garrard’s Creative Director, Sara Prentice. After I gave birth to my little boy, I wanted to create a piece of jewelry that would mark this important moment in my life. Together with Sara, we designed a beautiful eternity band set with fourteen perfect diamonds. Each of these fourteen diamonds is set within a sovereign motif inspired by the Sovereign’s Sceptre from the Crown Jewels. Shaped like a heart, it was the perfect hidden design element to include in my ring. Whilst I have indulged in other Garrard collection pieces, this was my first bespoke piece from the brand. I now understand on a personal level why Garrard is so well known for creating one-of-a-kind pieces. Every time I look at my ring (which I wear every day!) it takes my breath away.

A modern-day classic, the elegant oval shape of Princess Diana’s iconic engagement ring is radiantly interpreted the Garrard 1735 Double Cluster sapphire ring
Courtesy of Garrard

LPL: What excites you most at the moment?

JM: There are an overwhelming amount of exciting and wonderful things happening in the jewelry industry at the moment. What I find the most exciting is the renaissance of vintage jewelry. Quality pieces of fine jewelry can last several lifetimes. Whether redesigned or maintained in the same mounts, jewelry pieces that were made hundreds of years ago are being worn today, centuries later, as if no time has passed. In a world where there is so much fast fashion and waste, it’s wonderful to see that jewelry is ahead of its time in that aspect.

Experience the excitement of the Blaze collection, unveiled by the British actress Olivia Cooke, Garrard’s brand ambassador

Professionally, what excites me most at Garrard today are the strides we are taking in connecting with the younger generation of fine and high jewelry consumers. We want to be as strong in another 280 years as we are now. To do this, we must stay true to our incredibly loyal customer base while adapting to the ever-changing world by staying on the cusp of technological innovations and sourcing transparency and design. We recently brought on our first official brand ambassador, British actress Olivia Cooke, who is most well known for her role as Alicent Hightower in the House of the Dragon. Garrard has always had informal ambassadors, having served the British Royal Family for so many generations. However, we wanted to show the younger generation that they could just as easily have access to our designs. By choosing someone as relatable and slightly unexpected for Garrard as Cooke, we feel that this will shake things up in the public eye.

LPL: What is your intention for the year ahead?

JM: Something that has always been important to me is learning. I need to make sure that I have all the tools needed to lead any business I am in charge of. This year, the focus is on sustainability. I have now actually successfully completed the Cambridge course in Business Sustainability Management. It’s so important, in business, and in living, to be honest. I want to make sure that I am fully equipped to lead Garrard in that area. We have already received the Positive Luxury Butterfly Mark, but I want to make sure that we are doing the utmost possible to lead as exemplary a role in sustainability as we can. The diploma is a lot of work, but I am learning a great deal.

Beautiful and beguiling, an unheated 5.44 carat oval Sri Lankan Padparadscha sapphire is at the centre of this Garrard Jewelled Vault cocktail ring. Named after the colour of a lotus blossom, its highly desirable pinkish-orange sunset hue is accentuated by a round diamond and white mother of pearl sunburst surround that radiates outwards from the rarefied centre stone.

LPL: What’s your greatest indulgence?

JM: My greatest indulgence is Garrard jewelry. It sounds cliche, but it’s true. I mean, how can I not when I am surrounded by such beautiful jewels every day? I have a running wish list of both collection pieces and bespoke pieces. At the moment, a bespoke padparadscha sapphire ring is at the top of my list. I have been in search of my perfect padparadscha for a while now. Hopefully, I will find it soon.

What diamond destination is at the top of your list?

JM: I would love to visit the Cullinan diamond mine in South Africa. Cullinan diamonds have played such a unique part in our history. It would be so exciting to visit the mine that they came from. Garrard was entrusted to set the Cullinan I into the Sovereign’s Sceptre, which is still the world’s largest colorless diamond. The other Cullinan diamonds are set in various items within the Crown Jewels and the Royal Collection. There are also a lot of Cullinan diamonds set in the imperial state crown through to Queen Mary’s consort crown.

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

JM: I had never thought of pursuing a career in jewelry. The opportunity fell into my lap and thank goodness for that! I feel that my career path is unique in the jewelry industry. I imagine most people you speak to would have a history in the jewelry industry. But my background is in business. I worked in corporate finance, and private equity for many years. When I was approached about the position as CEO of Garrard, one of the things that I was quick to point out in my interview is that I didn’t know the jewelry industry. That is what fascinated me most about the role, I love learning.

Reimagining Garrard’s signature, heart-shape Sovereign motif with playful elegance, the Aloria collection is inspired by the setting of one of history’s most famous gems, the Cullinan I diamond.
In setting this legendary diamond upon the Sovereign’s Sceptre in 1910, Garrard made not just the sceptre, but history itself

LPL: What moment still blows your mind?

JM: When I was eleven years old and in primary school, I took a class trip to visit London for the first time. As many schools do, our teachers chose to visit the Tower of London. I remember being quite amazed by everything that I saw and learned. Little did I know, as this little eleven-year-old girl from Leeds, that I would one day become the CEO of the company that made these jewels. That is my most mind-blowing moment.

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

JM: The hardest lesson life has taught me so far is that it is ok to get things wrong. There is an insane desire to never make mistakes. We all worry about every decision and whether it’s the right or wrong one, it’s human! What I have learned over my many years in the business world is that most of the time, there isn’t an absolute right or wrong decision. It’s about taking control of what you can take control of and leaving the rest. Because if you’ve never made a wrong decision, you’ve never really made a good decision, as it means you’ve only ever made safe ones. Trust me, the safe ones are very rarely the best.

LPL: What advice would you give your younger self?

JM: The best advice I can give to any young person starting off their career is that life is a journey of discovery. I am all for drive and ambition but be careful not to become so tunnel-visioned that you miss things on the way. The best opportunities always come a little bit out of left field. I think if I had been too focused on corporate finance and private equity, industries that very few people leave, I would have missed the most amazing experiences. I’ve taken chances and I’ve enjoyed it all.

Courtesy of Garrard

LPL: What’s next for diamonds?

JM: Transparency and traceability. These are the founding pillars we need to build upon to ensure the successful future of natural diamonds. Diamonds are magical. When you see people’s faces light up the way they do when they see a natural diamond sparkle, it shows that the world is still truly fascinated with this beautiful gem. To keep this positive interest, however, I do think we need more transparency in the industry. There is a lot of fantastic work that has been happening on the blockchain. We need to make sure that this good, as well as the good that goes into investing back into mining communities, is being well reported on. There needs to be a whole lot more transparency across the entire value chain. For diamonds to hold a bright future, this is something that needs to be a big focus for the industry, and it certainly is where Garrard is concerned. For us, for every stone that we use, natural diamond or colored gemstone, we need to know where it comes from, that it has been ethically sourced, and that it is giving back to wherever it came from. These are the core values of our business and our ethos.