A former Wall Streeter came up with a brilliant idea to turn compliments from strangers into high-end philanthropy

Joan HornigJoan HornigJoan Hornig

Over a decade ago, designer Joan Hornig became disheartened with swanky benefits that failed to engage people in the cause at hand.

“When I was growing up as a business person, all we did was go to benefits,” Hornig told Business Insider. “Lunch, dinner, breakfast. It was very much [about] the style of what we were doing.”

Rather than discussing the issue at hand, attendees often talked about what everyone else was wearing.

“I was very disturbed because … no one was listening to the speaker [at these benefits]. … What the women were saying was, let me see your skirt, let me look at your jewellery. Jewellery was always important,” she said.

“And instead of listening they were asking about the jewellery and passing it around, and I thought, ‘we’re all missing the point. We’re not here for the right reasons.'”

Inspiration struck, and Hornig decided to turn the distractions into the cause.

Hornig spent 20 years on Wall Street, working for stock brokerage and asset management firm Paine Webber (acquired by UBS in 2000) and as a consultant for hedge funds. She said she had “used a lot of things [she] learned sitting on a trading desk” to actualize Joan Hornig Jewellery, which launched in 2003.

Her idea for philanthropic luxury jewellery came at a good time — she noted that when the Bernie Madoff scandal broke in 2008, “all of a sudden, it looked good to have a social conscious.”

The company has now grown into a brand that’s popular with celebrities walking the red carpet and customers who shop in upscale department stores like Bergdorf Goodman in New York City.

Hornig designs the pieces herself and donates 100% of the profits from each piece to the charity of the customer’s choice. That way, each person can choose what cause they’d like to support. Joan Hornig jewellery has generated more than $US1 million in donations to hundreds of different organisations.

And just as she had hoped, the jewellery has become a way to start conversations about philanthropy among women who buy it and those who admire it.

One of Hornig’s customers, Louise Griffeth, told Business Insider that the philanthropic aspect of the jewellery “adds meaning” to her purchases.

“Every time I purchase a piece I feel good knowing I have something beautiful to wear and am doing something good for my favourite charity … Equest Therapeutic Horsemanship in Dallas,” Griffeth said. “I’ve even had complete strangers come up to ask me about a particular piece I am wearing.”

Those reactions from strangers is exactly what Hornig is going for when she creates the jewellery.

“I don’t want it to go out of style. It’s not a whim,” she said. “I want it to be their signature look. … I want the person who buys it to be asked over and over again what they supported.”

The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal took notice in 2010, and her pieces have been featured in several other publications (including InStyle and O, Oprah’s magazine) as well.

The Times noted that Hornig’s jewellery has “found favour with the young Hollywood set, like Katherine Heigl, Zoe Saldana, Miley Cyrus and Hayden Panettiere.”

The jewellery became popular with celebrities and politicians because “often a celebrity is given and choice [about what to wear] and if they can make a difference, they will choose it.”

Her jewellery doesn’t come cheap — she uses real precious metals and gemstones and said she targets “the woman who buys a Chanel suit and the matching blouse and doesn’t think twice about it.”

NOW WATCH: This simple exercise will work out every muscle in your body

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.