Sotheby’s Joanna Gong on Natural Diamond Style, Trends, and Approachability

Plus, a look at the online marketplace where you can buy diamond jewelry on the spot.

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Sotheby’s is a name that evokes thoughts of grandeur and luxury in the world of fine art and jewelry auctions. With locations in New York, London, and Geneva, it’s hard not to be captivated by the allure of walking through their halls and bidding on one of the famed natural diamonds that grace their auction blocks. But, securing diamonds through an auction is not the only way to shop at Sotheby’s—their online marketplace offers a variety of diamond jewelry, all ready to be purchased with a click of a button. To provide insights into the world of Sotheby’s jewelry, Only Natural Diamonds sat down with Joanna Gong, Sotheby’s Private Sales Director and Specialist for Jewelry. In this interview, Joanna provides shopping tips, discusses jewelry trends, and shares how Sotheby’s has something to offer everyone. She also revealed her diamond story, a Marie Antoinette mystery, and the one piece of diamond jewelry she wished she kept, and the fascinating coincidence surrounding the piece. 

Joanna Gong at Sotheby’s

Only Natural Diamonds: Very few people realize that you can actually walk into a Sotheby’s and shop, almost like a traditional retailer. Can you explain that aspect of Sotheby’s? 

Joanna Gong: We’re so thrilled that we’ve expanded the ways in which we interact with our clients. It really came out of popular demand. We will always have clients that are looking for things year-round outside of our auction calendar. And there’s also this element of certainty and immediacy that oftentimes our clients are looking for that we just needed to fill. I think the big differentiating feature of Sotheby’s is to have this immediately approachable online platform that is very much modern and user-friendly. We’re really keeping up with the times because the process of an auction is similar to what it was 277 years ago. This really just adds a whole new dimension to how we can interact with our clients.

OND: How many of the locations around the world do you have an inventory where people could just walk in and shop, similar to a traditional jewelry retailer? 

JG: We currently have our New York and London headquarters that have a full-on emporium or buy-now marketplace. We also have our satellite galleries. Some of them are seasonal, and some of them are long-term. Those include East Hampton, Palm Beach, LA, and Monaco as well. 

A diamond ring by Nicholas Lieou available in the Sotheby’s Buy Now Marketplace
Courtesy of Sotheby’s

OND: What do you think sets Sotheby’s Buy Now Marketplace apart from a traditional jewelry retailer? 

JG: I think it’s because we have such a standard of excellence, expertise and connoisseurship coming from our auction backgrounds. We have had the privilege of handling amongst the most valuable and historically important pieces in the world. The standards are extremely high because our clients are mostly extremely seasoned and knowledgeable, and in order to present them with something that is up to par with our auction standards, we very much uphold an extremely high standard of curation for our marketplace.

OND: So how did your journey with Sotheby’s begin? 

JG: I started as an auction specialist in 2019 before we officially launched our online marketplace. I was offered a rather international role rotating across our different regions, with the purpose of  having a specialist that understood our international markets.Consiquently, I could better connect our international clients with each other, from consigner to buyer. Before Sotheby’s, I was an independent dealer and curator for private clients. I interacted with the auction houses a lot representing my clients- which is, I think, how they found me in the first place. I distinctly remember it was 2018- they basically said: “Instead of working with us, how about working for us?” And the rest is history. Here I am.

Eli Frei White Gold, Black Diamond and Diamond Drop Earrings
Courtesy of Sotheby’s

OND: I think most people look at auction houses as something unapproachable, you know, where they wouldn’t dare go unless they were a multi-millionaire. But that’s obviously not really the case, is it? 

JG: Auction property has always had a breadth in regard to its price range. Maybe people have the misconception that we only handle super high-value multimillion-dollar pieces because that’s what makes the headlines. We’re obviously very proud and privileged to be able to handle those items, but our clients are very much varied. Even multi-millionaires and billionaires will want their everyday diamond studs. And, you know, maybe the small gold bracelet for her daughter or a graduation present. I mean, all of our clients have varied  lives and different lifestyles, and we ultimately are trying to cater to whatever they might look for in us.

OND: What do you see people sort of flocking to style-wise recently, anything stand out?

JG: I feel like retro jewelry is making a comeback. Large tank-like retro gold bracelets, and they’re stacking them. I find both men and women finding ways to style them, perhaps because they can easily be molded into a more casual lifestyle, like with a jean jacket. People really enjoy molding jewelry into their everyday life. We’ve very much left the idea that jewelry is only for the evening. I personally find that traditionally ‘evening jewelry’ in the daytime is just the chicest. If you have a big diamond riviera, put it with a motorcycle jacket. I find that recontextualizing traditional jewelry is the name of the game now, both regarding what genders wear them and also when you can wear them. 

Diamond riviera necklace
Courtesy of Sotheby’s

OND: Mother’s Day is fast approaching us, and it has long been one of the biggest shopping occasions for diamond jewelry. What is it about diamonds that seem to strike a chord in celebrating our Mothers?

JG: I think that diamond jewelry seems to be in a category of occasion and celebratory milestones at large for anyone, but obviously, our mothers are amongst the most important people that we can celebrate. We are nonexistent without our mothers – so any occasion that honorsand celebrates them is a good reason to acquire something special- And fine jewelry happens to be a special type of thing. I will also say that it’s very encouraging that women don’t necessarily wait to be gifted jewelry anymore. We have women, more than increasingly so, either shopping for themselves or with their families together. It’s very much past the ladyin waiting period!

OND: What shopping advice do you give to those searching for fine jewelry as a gift? 

JG: Anytime someone is shopping for someone else when they’re not present, I always start by asking-what is their lifestyle? Start by describing this person to me. Jewelry is an intimate object that’s meant to be worn- it has to suit their lifestyle. So if they’re an extremely active person, and they are maybe using their hands a lot or they play a sport, then maybe something extremely dangling or bulky might not suit them. If their lifestyle is much more evening event oriented, then you know, that’s a whole different type of jewelry needed– maybe they’re looking for statement pieces. . We want to make sure that it molds to the function of their daily life first-  then we can talk styles and colors and budgets etc.

Vintage two-stone diamond ring
Courtesy of Sotheby’s

OND: In your time at Sotheby’s, you have seen some breathtaking jewelry; what is the one piece you wish you had kept? 

JG: We’ve had some really exceptional pieces, and I definitely have a favorite every season. That being said, I distinctly remember one twin-stone diamond ring. It was an early 20th century, like 1915 or 1920s Austrian ring. It might have been made by Ostier–  it was these two old mine-cut chunky pear-shaped diamonds stacked on top of each other with these really sweet emerald sides and then diamonds going down the shank. When I saw it, I was immediately obsessed. So much so I almost changed the down payment from my house to buy this ring! I called my parentsand screamed: “would it be absurd if I bought my own engagement ring before I even started dating someone?!” The ring went for multiples over its high estimate- outside of anyone’s expectation. What’s even crazier is that, less than a year after the sale ended, I went to a friend’s house in the Hamptons, celebrating our July birthday babies together. She came out greeting me wearing this ring. I literally grabbed her hand and I was like, “I know this ring!!”  I almost pryed the ring off of her fingers. But at least now I know where it is for whenever I save up my pennies, and you know, maybe one day in a very distant future, attempt to knock on her door. But yeah, it was pretty Kismet.

Diamond signet ring with Marie Antoinette monogram
Courtesy of Sotheby’s

OND: Diamond jewelry is the ultimate heirloom, and heirlooms come with stories that have been passed down with the jewelry. What is the most memorable story from the pieces you have worked with at Sotheby’s? 

JG: Every piece has a story, but my immediate thought is a small diamond signet ring that was owned by Marie Antoinette. It had her initials encrusted with diamonds and a small locket of hair in the back. I mean, it could have been her hair, but it’s a bit of a mystery. If this was her personal ring, then it’s not so likely that she would wear her own hair; the hair would have been one of her loved ones, either a lover or maybe one of her children. And that’s very powerful. But if it was her hair, the ring might have belonged as a commemoration ring to one of her children that wore it. Both are really interesting and fascinating to think about. Just to think that a piece of jewelry can hold so much sentimentality and so much emotion, and so much energy. With both of those possibilities, your imagination can just run wild with all the stories that could have happened around, you know, how this ring came about, and how many hands it’s been on and been through and over such defining times in Western history. So that, to me, is always a little thing that I think about from time to time, just how powerful a jewel can be.