INTERVIEW: Joanna Yuan Gong

Interview by Brynn Wallner, photos by Cobey Arner 
March 2022 
        I first met Joanna on the Las Vegas strip, her effortless glamour only accentuated against the backdrop of the consumerist desert wasteland. She was wearing a perfectly tailored, hot pink suit set fresh off of the plane from New York, and I was instantly struck at how someone could look so chic after a cross-country flight. She was in Vegas for the Antique Jewelry and Watch Show, representing Sotheby’s as their Private Sales Director and fine jewelry specialist. To even remotely define her by this job title, though, would be missing the point. Getting to know Joanna has been like peeling away the layers of a lush red onion; and whenever we hang out, she’ll casually drop some tidbit about her incredible life, leaving me completely thrown.

This interview, then, was designed as a personal attempt to piece together her narrative, as much as it was to behold her distinctive watch collection. We met for dinner uptown at her friend’s spot, NR, where she chit-chatted with the owners and waitresses in flowy, conversational Japanese. Sprawled amongst the uni-topped devilled eggs on ice and steamy pots of ramen (her order? The Sapporo with yuzu) were her watches: a Patek Hobnail Calatrava, a Hamilton art deco diamond watch, a Gilbert Albert, two Royal Oaks and a Zenith Rolex Daytona. It was a proper feast for the eyes and our taste buds, and I sat spellbound at how I was merely scratching the surface of the fascinating creature that is Joanna Yuan Gong.

Brynn Wallner: Can you just start by telling me a little about your upbringing and how you eventually landed yourself a career in the world of luxury?

Joanna Yuan Gong: The short-hand version regarding my upbringing is this: I was born in Seattle, and when I was six, I moved to Beijing. I went to an international primary and secondary school there, but because I was a U.S. citizen, my parents encouraged me to move back to the states to eventually attend an American university. So, I moved to the DC/DMV area for high school and had reverse culture shock – I went from a very small, international private school to an American public school with around 4,000 students.

BW: Oh, my god.

JYG: Yes, it was very overwhelming! But it was a great experience. I made some really wonderful friends there. I then went to Pratt Institute in New York, where I majored in jewelry design with a minor in art history. I was always more interested in the object side of things and was inspired to study blacksmithing, initially so I could make a gauntlet… As any young New York art student does, I took an off-campus trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I wandered into the Arms and Armor Department. I instantly fell in love and went back to school thinking, I want to make armor

BW: Wow, your career in jewelry holds so much more meaning to me now that I know you were actually making these items.

JYG: Being hands-on with craftsmanship has allowed me to really stand my ground in the field of fine jewelry. I understand how things are constructed. If I didn’t have that four to five years worth of training – literally filing away at the bench – I don’t think I’d have been able to progress in my career nearly as quickly. It’s not the most conventional way to get into auction…

BW: You’re also GIA-certified right?

JYG: Yes! This actually links back to my time in high school. The friends I made there were a group of Burmese refugees. This was back when Burma was under its long-term military junta, and I became very interested in the country and its socio-political situation. I ended up writing my art history thesis on Burmese ruby mines and their ecological and ethical standing at the time and throughout history. That put me on a journey of visiting stone mines whenever I traveled, including when I visited Burma for my research. It was very interesting and prompted me to get a more comprehensive gemological education, which is why I did the GIA!

BW: So this happened kind of by accident – all because of your friend group in high school. Do you find yourself yearning for a return to that nomadic life?

JYG: I’m always trying to strike an equilibrium, which is essential in this very fast-paced, consumer-oriented life in luxury. The most liberating and grounding process for me, personally, is leaving the country with a backpack and nothing else.

BW: What a contrast from your career.

JYG: Everyone can, conceptually, say that money and luxury isn’t everything; but to be able to introspectively define what the term 'luxury' means, that is paramount to me.

BW: So, would you define luxury as the ability to check out of the rat race?

JYG: I consider health a luxury, of course. Being able to stand on my own two feet is a luxury. But, basics aside, I think it all comes down to the individual power to choose. Should we want to subscribe to what society dictates to us as important is not a bad thing; but to even acknowledge that we have a choice in the matter is essential. 

BW: Your perspective on luxury is quite compelling, contextualized against the backdrop of this world, where luxury feels so pre-defined as fast cars, fancy jewelry, yachts, etcetera.

JYG: Anything that is not a necessity is a luxury. So what do you choose as your non-necessity? Some people choose time – time for themselves and to dedicate to their family. Some people choose to be a patron of the arts and find themselves enriched in that community. Whatever we dedicate ourselves to should be of our own volition. Nobody should subscribe to a luxury because they feel forced into it.

BW: It becomes a chore. This feels especially relevant in the watch world, where so many people are fighting to keep up with the hype and secure the “grails.” So that gets me to your collection. And, don’t get me wrong, you have some grails – but I also love your lesser-known pieces, like the Gilbert Albert.

JYG: Ah, my Gilbert Albert? [exaggerated French accent] That one is so fun. The skeletal design on this watch, the detailing, the cabochon sapphires around the bezel, the shagreen strap… all of it really spoke to me, even when I knew nothing about him. I wasn’t aware of the fact that he collaborated with Patek Philippe and Omega as a jeweler, but I bid on it and won! And I’ve loved and cherished this piece ever since.

BW: It’s so unusual, and it really stands apart on your wrist because of how you style it. Can you expand on your personal style and how you choose your watches? And you have to tell me about your power suits.

JYG: I quite like unisex dressing – I like my suits, and I like a big dial on my wrist. My Daytona is the biggest watch I have. The suits are simply fitted pajamas that I don’t have to think about. 

BW: You woke up like this! Also, I know we’re here for watches, but you have to tell me about your jewelry.

JYG: I love antique jewelry, and I also wear a lot of my friends’ designs, like the head ring I was wearing during our shoot. It’s by one of my favorite contemporary designers, Anthony Lent. The woodgrain-looking metal is the result of a process called mokume, meaning “the eye of the tree.”

BW: It’s wild to think about such an involved process, creating all of these layers that end up as one organic-seeming result.

JYG: Metals are a natural element to the earth, and with enough patience and technique, you create art. We move materials of the earth around in creative ways that reflect our inner being. God, I sound so cheesy.

BW: No, you don’t! It’s such an important reminder. As humans, we get so arrogant, taking for granted the material things we have, like a steel watch. We forget where that steel comes from…

JYG: When it comes to watches and jewelry, all we do is polish and process. Yes, we may mathematically engineer a stone to reflect light, but, ultimately, the stone is born that way. We didn’t create any of this. We’re just molding it.

BW: So, what about your diamond Hamilton watch? Was that your first high-end watch, or was it your Patek?

JYG: Well, you might be interested to know that I got my first-ever watch when I was – god, I must have been six or seven years old. My father would take me to these big markets in Beijing to buy Pokemon figurines that I had saved up for. I know I was born to be a dealer because I would literally haggle for these figurines, which were only, like, 1 RMB. But during one of our big market outings, I passed by a stall with this really pretty ladybug pendant. If you pressed on the crown, the ladybug wings would open up and reveal a little timepiece. I was obsessed with it.  

BW: So cute! I love picturing baby Joanna haggling at the market.

JYG: I was a tough sell. And, it’s funny, I was already quality controlling Pokemon figures, like, this one has a mold seam. Or, this one has a paint deficiency in its left foot.

BW: You’re an OG. You’ve been about this lifestyle!

JYG: It has definitely helped me in my career. Before I joined the corporate world, I was an independent consultant in the jewelry industry. At one point, a group of investors came to me looking to diversify their portfolio, and I pitched them to build an antique jewelry collection for both financial and educational purposes. I think that a good consumer is an educated one – but, due to limitations of the media in China, specifically, a lot of people don’t have the resources to obtain accurate, peer-reviewed information. There aren’t many books, and there’s literally no Google. So I built this collection of pieces designed to supplement this group’s portfolio, but to also educate them on the asymmetrical field of antique jewelry. I wound up touring this collection around China doing educational lectures, something I hope to be able to continue under my larger platform in the future.

BW: Do you have any pieces in your current collection that you could illuminate from an educational perspective?

JYG: Yes, the diamond Hamilton Art Deco watch! Female timepieces from this era are such an important emblem of emancipation. Post-WW1 was a time when women began to keep their own time; whereas, prior to this, they were always following men – whether it be their fathers or their husbands once they got married. There was no purpose, then, for a woman to keep her own time. But when all the men went to war, women had to hold down the fort back at home. They became business owners and entrepreneurs. It was during this time, at the very start of the 21st Century, that women had the incentive – and the means – to keep their own time, which was often chicly concealed in pieces of jewelry, like this one here. Symbolically, I find this very inspiring. Women should keep their own time, you know? We’re not on anyone else’s clock.