How She’s Managing: Jewelry Industry Writer Peggy Jo Donahue

Every Thursday during the pandemic, we’re checking in on members of the jewelry trade in an attempt to glean shareable tips and tricks for doing business—and living as well as possible—during the COVID-19 crisis.

Today we hear from veteran jewelry writer (and former JCK editor) Peggy Jo Donahue, who pens communications for Greenland Ruby, Women’s Jewelry Association, and Gem Legacy, among others. 

JCK: Where are you based right now, and how is life there right now?

Peggy Jo Donahue: I live in southern New Jersey just across the mighty Delaware River from Philadelphia, near the Cooper River. It was on Cooper Crick, as it is known locally, that Ben Franklin spent his first night in the Philly area, when he first came here from Boston in the autumn of 1723. Franklin was with a group of travelers in a boat on the Delaware, who were lost because of the darkness. They turned into the crick and camped that night, and Franklin found Philly the next day.

It’s wonderful to live near Philadelphia and spend the Fourth of July each year at Independence Hall, near the room where the American experiment began. This year, I found myself fervently hoping that at last, this country will reckon with the reality that not all our people have enjoyed the promise of 1776 on equal terms.

I haven’t visited the city much this year, due to the pandemic, but we did go, masked up, on Saturday [November 7], when the news spread that the Biden-Harris ticket won the election. Amid the joyful pandemonium, Independence Hall stood by, impassively as ever, reminding me of the Declaration of Independence’s affirmation that “Governments [derive] their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Independence Hall in Philadelphia
Independence Hall in Philadelphia
Peggy Jo Donahue book booze
A good night in: Whiskey and ginger and a great book (Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light)

How has the COVID pandemic changed your life, and how are you managing in the pandemic?

In March, I realized that the new reality for many office workers had been my reality since mid-2009, when I began to work from home. The disorientation of not working in an office is real, and I tried to share the many coping techniques I’ve learned over the years, especially:

• Subscribe to all the industry publications’ daily newsletters to stay anchored to top news and trends. The best of these publications, like JCK, continue to bring us the kind of news that’s been vetted, an essential service.

• Use social media to keep up with informal conversations about the industry among your industry friends and colleagues. Social media has been rightly trashed for false narratives in the larger world, and I long ago blocked or turned off all industry people and groups who post incessantly about these topics (on both sides of the political spectrum!). Once you do that, the voices of genuine, everyday jewelers, designers, makers, and others come to life—and you learn a great deal informally about how the industry is doing that way. It truly does replace the office water cooler.

• Attend every conference you can. We are so lucky to have Zoom conferences to bring our thought leaders to life! Take advantage of it!

How has COVID changed or altered your work life? You seem very busy!

I am! My clients truly realize that communication is more important than ever, now that we are unable to press the flesh. This has kept me busy in the best possible way.

Have there been any silver linings during this tricky time for you?

The increased need for online communications means jewelers are updating websites and upping their online communications, all of which means they need the skills of writers and editors.

Why do you think communications and PR are of particular importance right now for brands and industry organizations?

In the business-to-business realm, the lack of industry shows and conferences means even those who never followed industry news sites, or used social media, need to climb aboard if they want to convey and/or learn about news and stay connected to industry-wide conversations.

The same is true for business-to-consumer. At a time when you may not be seeing your customers and clients in person very much, you have to project your personality and warmth via the stories and comments you make online.

And I truly think many websites and communications on social media have improved greatly!  I am very impressed by the superb writing, photography, and video that I’m seeing from members of the industry, both B2B and B2C. Also, I’m seeing new voices, which is terrific. Some of my favorite people in the industry had not been on social media personally before, and now many more are! That online thought leadership does not go unnoticed, and there are tremendous benefits that will accrue to you.

There’s also an increasing recognition that you can’t just spray marketing messages at people—you have to take time to like and comment on others’ posts and have genuine conversations online. Many more people are learning that being social online is truly like an electronic cocktail party, where no one wants to pay attention to the bore who only talks about himself and never asks about you! Yeah, it takes time, but I think you’ll find that the time is pleasurable, unless you’re a misanthrope!

By Chari Vote necklace
Donahue picked up Bychari’s Vote necklace during the pandemic

Has the pandemic changed how you’ll be moving forward in your career and/or life?

I’ll never complain again about the time or cost of an industry event! I miss them!

On a personal level, I treasure my family and friendships as never before, and I can’t believe how acutely I miss seeing friends and relatives in person. As a result, I’ve sent little gifts—including jewelry—to people I love all through this year, and I do believe jewelers can really be successful this holiday season by suggesting such gifts! And don’t forget self-gifting. I’ve purchased some treasured pieces for myself this year, such as Bychari’s Vote necklace that Michelle Obama wore.

I also successfully bid on a beautiful pair of 14k recycled gold earrings, featuring Arkansas quartz crystal dangles and Montana sapphires, by Enji Studio Jewelry. The Gem Legacy auction, to which the studio had generously donated the earrings, raised money to buy miner toolkits for artisanal colored-gem miners in East Africa. Gem Legacy is working to empower these types of small miners, who unearth most of our industry’s colored gemstones, and I serve on its advisory board [learn more about Gem Legacy here].

Peggy Jo Donahue Enji Studio
The Enji Studio earrings Donahue bid on (and won!)

What have you been doing to relax and have fun during this time?

I’m a Broadway nut, so I’m having the bends without live theater! Luckily, an extraordinary number of Broadway belters have been doing online Zoom-type paid/donation concerts. And Cynthia Erivo, who is a huge jewelry maven and supports responsible sourcing in our industry, has been doing her own belting on her Instagram page!

Also, I’ve been watching filmed plays, from past and present, trying to focus on off-off-Broadway and regional theater productions, where I know the need for donations is acute to keep them viable. If William Shakespeare and his London company could survive plague closings repeatedly, so should they!

Those who follow me on social networks know that I am also a passionate gardener, baker, and sometimes-cook. I am also learning about wine. My latest baking discovery was election cake, which used to be made in huge open hearths in colonial New England and given out to people who voted, mostly to sop up all the booze they were drinking that day! Lots of wonderful fall spices!

Peggy Jo Donahue garden
Flowers in Donahue’s garden
Peggy Jo Donahue cake
An election cake Donahue baked

Have any book/podcast/TV/movie recommendations?

I’m catching up on the Bowery Boys’ podcasts on the history of New York City, because I also desperately miss visiting the Big Apple. I also listened to a Fall of Rome podcast with historian Patrick Wyman, who explains in simple language how empires fall. Finally, our journalist son Bill [Donahue]’s podcast, called Pro Say, has been great in these fraught times. He and his colleagues take the headline issues of the day and explain their legal aspects in layperson’s terms. It’s nonpolitical and a wonderful antidote to most “news.” He works for Law360, which produces the podcast.

My fave fiction books during this time have included Elena Ferrante’s newest, The Lying Life of Adults; Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light; and Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, an imagined tale about Shakespeare’s family.

On streaming services, I’m kind of obsessed with movies from the early 1930s on the Criterion Channel. Everyone was grappling with the Depression, and it’s been inspirational to watch how our forebears handled bad times, as reflected on film. When I want to escape, however, I return again and again to old Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance sequences from their 1930s movies. Special bonus for jewelry lovers: Their dance to Smoke Gets in Your Eyes features absolutely fabulous diamond jewelry on Ginger: a gorgeous hair ornament, huge brooch, and glittering diamond bracelets! Swoon time!

Finally, I went through a Catherine Deneuve jag, especially her films from the 1960s. They are filled with a combo of joy and melancholy that is so uniquely French! It’s just about perfect for this strange time.

Top: Donahue at a Biden-Harris victory celebration (all photos courtesy of Peggy Jo Donahue)

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JCK Magazine Editor