Joanna Gong, Private Sales Director Specialist, Sotheby’s


"Jewelry is quite a family oriented industry, and a lot of it is generational. But my family is definitely not in jewelry—what happened was, when I was in university in New York, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and fell in love with their arms and armor collection. I wanted to learn how to make things like that. I signed up for a blacksmithing course, and very quickly moved on to softer metals such as silver and gold. That’s how I became a jewelry design major. My fascination with the art world often comes from the idea of exploring the collective unconscious. I used to do lectures on jewelry history, and I’d often start off with a quote that was something like, ‘The history of the world is often the history of desire, and the history of desire can be best told through jewelry.’ Think about the French Revolution and Marie Antoinette, or the Romanovs fleeing Russia with a pocketful of diamonds, or how Manhattan Island was bought with a pocketful of glass beads from the Dutch… I love exploring the historical side of jewelry, and how design can be a distillation of a society’s cultural values.

At Sotheby’s, I kind of straddle two departments: Private Sales is fixed price selling, and my Specialist title means I’m an expert in my category, US Appraiser Association compliant, and qualified for consignment and auction. When I’m wearing my specialist hat, sometimes that involves going six feet under into a bank vault in a tiny room with no lighting, opening a drawer of someone’s inheritance, and shuffling through what could be real. Or it could be going to massive estates, and opening the intimates drawer of some opulent piece of furniture and finding some jewelry. A lot of it is quickly figuring out and documenting what’s worth what. Then, I’m able to give the client a good sense of what is in their possession and what they could do with it. Should they be saving it for their children? Should they go the auction route? I think of everything as a long-term game. Regardless of if I’m selling fixed price or auction, whatever I sell to my clients, I know that one day they might want to consign it back to me. So I’m not about letting them run purely on adrenaline—unless it’s really a one-of-a-kind moment in history, and they have the means. Sometimes it’s worth paying record-breaking prices for pieces like that.

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From the beginning of my professional life, I have been shuffling between Beijing, Paris, Hong Kong, Geneva, and New York. I visit many places for shows, like Miami, Palm Beach, Vegas, London, the Netherlands… And I also moved around as I was growing up. I was born in Seattle, moved to Beijing when I was six, and back to the US for high school and college. I also did some of my university in Tokyo. Different cultures have different aesthetic tastes, and that translates to how [people] dress themselves in the context of both jewelry and cosmetics. When you think of Paris, for example, you’ll very seldom see someone wearing a blinged-out, flashy brooch. Hair and makeup is a little undone, and the approach to jewelry is similar: minimalistic, simple, and sculptural. In Hong Kong, you’ll see crocodile Birkins and diamond brooches. That’s the look. And the beauty routine is definitely much more opulent as well. It’s common for an office girl who makes a very modest salary to save up for a $300 face cream from La Mer or La Prairie. Treating themselves is part of their culture, and it’s something they pride themselves on.

I am always jetlagged and always traveling, so I shop with travel in mind. I shy away from things with heavy glass packaging—at this phase of my life at least, I need things with lightweight plastic tubing, pumps, and twist-locks so they won’t come open in my bag. And it’s always under 100ml. Most of the beauty products I use are from local pharmacies wherever I am. Switzerland and the US share a lot of pharmacy products with France. Sasa is the main drugstore-slash-Sephora place in Hong Kong. There was one literally beneath my building—I would stock up on everything from face masks, to hand sanitizer, to makeup there. It’s the best because I can get a lot of the things that are offered in Korea and Japan—it’s kind of like a one stop shop. I sometimes get facials when I travel, but not super often. I will say that should one want to splurge on a fantastic facial in France, they should go to the Hotel de Crillon, which is right across from the Tuileries Garden. The Mandarin Oriental also has a great spa system internationally.

When you think of Paris, for example, you’ll very seldom see someone wearing a blinged-out, flashy brooch. Hair and makeup is a little undone, and the approach to jewelry is similar.

At night, I take my makeup off with Bioderma and then wash my face with an It Cosmetics cleanser or this super basic one from Avène. If I don’t use the Bioderma, I also have this Skinvill Hot Cleansing Gel I got in Japan that basically melts into an oil and takes makeup off, but rinses clean and doesn’t require a double cleanse. I have an Eve Lom cold cream that I always say I’m going to treat myself with a massage, but I very seldom do. [Laughs] I’m too lazy to wash my face twice. When I’m traveling, I also have these powdered cleanser pods that are activated by water, so I don’t need to carry liquid cleanser. I use a moisturizing toner—either this Korean one, which is kind of a toner-serum, or the Fresh Rose Floral Toner. For serums, I have The Ordinary’s Niacinamide and Zinc and the Caudalie Vinoperfect Radiance Serum. At first, I thought that one was too light to really be doing anything. But there was a period pre-Covid that I was between France and Beijing, and my skin was getting pollution particle reactions. The Vinoperfect Serum really calmed it down. From then on, I was a believer. Occasionally, once or twice a week, I exfoliate with Alpha H Liquid Gold. It does sting a little bit, but I feel that it’s quite refined—for context, I actually find Drunk Elephant’s TLC Sukari Babyfacial too harsh.

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Then, I’ll slap moisturizer on top of that. La Roche-Posay Toleriane Ultra Soothing Repair is my normal one, and in the winter, I use La Roche-Posay’s Cicaplast Baume B5 as an extra layer on my cheeks. I prefer that over Elizabeth Arden’s Eight Hour Cream because it absorbs faster and is less sticky. The Laneige Cica Sleeping Mask is supposed to be an overnight mask, but I use it in small quantities as a moisturizer. That has helped a lot with maskne and flaking—I quite like cica for its antimicrobial and anti-redness qualities. Sometimes, if I’m really dried out from a flight or whatever, I’ll do a sheet mask. When I was living in Hong Kong, I stocked up on a bunch of Dr. Jart ones, just because they’re common and easy. If I’m out and about I’ll use sunscreen, and the one I use depends on which continent I’m on. [Laughs] I really like Supergoop’s Unseen Sunscreen, which is almost like a dry oil gel that dries with a powdery finish. It’s really interesting. I like Bioré’s Aqua Rich Watery Essence from Japan, which is very watery. La Roche-Posay is good when I’m in France.

Being in Hong Kong is great because I can get a lot of the things that are offered in Korea and Japan—it’s kind of like a one stop shop.

Day-to-day I wear BB or CC cream with SPF. I like to get some suncare in my tinted products. The It Cosmetics CC Cream is actually more of a full coverage foundation to me—at least, that’s as full coverage as I go. I also have a Laneige cushion compact, but a bunch of Korean brands have similar ones. Those are great for travel because the product and the applicator are together, and I can just continuously wash the sponge. I apply it selectively: around my nose, underneath my mouth, on my chin, and a little bit in my T-zone. Then, I do a light, intentional powder. I’m not very picky with that as long as it’s very fine. If I don’t have that on hand, I use these blotting papers from Kyoto.

If I’m feeling fancy, I’ll put a primer like Urban Decay’s Primer Potion or Nars Pro-Prime Smudge Proof Eyeshadow Base on before my eyeshadow. I usually do a really neutral taupe or brown in my socket, and then tap on some Fenty Diamond Bomb in How Many Carats with my ring finger as an inner corner highlight. What’s most important, if I want to complete my look, is winged liner. I’m quite specific about using a felt tip liner, because it’s much more precise, much easier to control, the brushes don’t split, and it’s easy. I use Heroine Make’s Kiss Me Smooth Liquid Eyeliner the most, which is Japanese. It comes in all these different colors—I usually use dark brown for daytime and black for nighttime, but sometimes I use dark blue or dark purple. People can hardly tell, but they do bring out the honey tones in brown eyes. The way I do my eyeliner is similar to how I use my loupe, which is the magnifying glass I use when I’m working. I use the knuckle of my thumb to stabilize my loupe so that my lens doesn’t shake. And for eyeliner, I rest my pinky on my face to stabilize my hand. I can even do it in a bumpy car at this point.

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I love Lisa Eldridge’s Luxuriously Lucent Lip Colour, so I have a bunch of those—almost all of them, maybe. [Laughs] They’re super moisturizing, and I’m obsessed with the fact that she references a lot of art history when she creates her pigments. Painterly is a love, Spirited Away is a love. I also have some of her matte shades, like Velvet Cinnabar. The color cinnabar literally comes from a pigment from Chinese antiquity, and I love my Chinese antiquities. Otherwise, I like Marc Jacobs lipstick in J’adore [Ed note: discontinued], and MAC Marrakesh is a forever staple.

Since the pandemic, we’ve created a myriad of innovative ways to sell property remotely, and that includes information packets, comparables from past sales of similar items, and photos and videos in different lightings. In fact, we now provide significantly more information than we ever did prior to Covid—clients were sometimes too intimidated to ask questions, but now we give them a full-on education. [Laughs] Modeling jewelry for international clients is actually part of my job, so I’m able to expense a manicure every two to three weeks. Sometimes we’re so busy that I can only go get a manicure during a lunch break, and Nails on 1st is great because it’s two blocks away from my office. OPI gel lasts the longest and never chips. I will say, it’s a bitch to get off. Considering how difficult it is to get off it’s probably not the best one for your nails, but my nail will break before this stuff chips. Literally. I would just plan to spend 20 extra minutes at the salon to soak and buff them off. For sale season I almost always get a nude color, either a pinky ballet nude or a mannequin-hand nude. A few shades I love are Tiramisu for Two, Bare My Soul, Kyoto Pearl, and Do You Take Lei Away. I also always have hand cream around.

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There are only a few gemstones that you have to be careful about oils and alcohols with, the most common ones being pearls, coral, and turquoise. They’re porous, so anything you put on will get absorbed and damage or discolor your jewelry. If you have a pearl ring, definitely take it off before washing your hands and applying hand sanitizer or lotion. You don’t have to take off gold, or faceted gemstones like diamonds, sapphires, and garnets when you wash your hands, but I take them off before applying hand cream. Oil will stick onto the gemstones and make them look dull. And actually, diamonds attract grease. The way they sort diamond away from its host rock in a diamond mine is by running them through a grease conveyor belt—the diamonds stick onto the conveyor belt with the oil on it, and the debris will wash off. That’s how much diamonds like oil. They won’t absorb oil, but you’ll have to really clean it to get the oil off.

My favorite is the Caudalie Vinoperfect Hand Cream, which I prefer over the other French options. It’s better than L’Occitane, for example, and Nuxe’s Rêve de Miel, which is fine. In Japan, there’s a myriad of different brands that make super moisturizing hand creams with horse oil. It’s a Hokkaido specialty. When you travel throughout Japan, you’re expected to bring back omiyage, which translates to local specialties, for your office, your family, and your friends. It’s almost mandatory in Japanese culture. That’s why all the train stations will have super nice gift shops. In Kyoto, the traditional practices are mochi snacks or green tea. And in Hokkaido, it’s lavender and horse oil. I pick some up as gifts and spread them around.

There are only a few gemstones that you have to be careful about oils and alcohols with, the most common ones being pearls, coral, and turquoise.

Like I was saying, pearls are porous gemstones, which is why they always say that pearls are the last thing you put on before you leave the house. They come after perfume. I lift my hair up and spray fragrance at the nape of my neck, and then a little bit between my wrists. If I have a rollerball, it’ll just be the wrists, and maybe behind my ears. In the summer, there’s a fig scent that reminds me of Italian summers—it’s from Fragonard. Acqua di Parma also has a fig scent that I use, but it’s for men. Maison Margiela Replica has some really cool unisex scents, like the By the Fireplace. And actually, my winter scent is also a men’s scent. It smells like incense wood, and it’s from René Lalique, which is a glass brand. They don’t really make fragrances, but they do have this one. I don’t think it’s popular at all."

—as told to ITG

Joanna Gong photographed in New York by Alexandra Genova on November 23, 2021