Tanzanite Foundation’s Hayley Henning: As Valuable as the Gemstone She Promotes

At the end of my WJA Metropolitan Chapter meeting on Monday night, fellow board member Hayley Henning broke some big news: The Tanzanite Foundation—her employer—would shut down at the end of August.

What a shock! After all, tanzanite has been riding a popularity wave with seemingly no end in sight: For more than a year, the gemstone, first discovered in Tanzania 45 years ago, has been a fixture in many jewelry collections, particularly those of trend leaders such as Sutra. How could the foundation, which exists to promote it, fold? (The short answer: too-low prices for the gem!)

But then there’s Henning—who doesn’t know, value, and adore her? She is a regular on the New York City industry-event circuit and the quintessential cheerleader for tanzanite. She knows it, wears it, talks about it, and brings people together to celebrate it and feature it in jewelry collections sold around the world. JCK’s own sales director Bill Furman has affectionately called her Happy Hayley for years.

Hayley Henning at a tanzanite mine in Tanzania

Hayley Henning—aka Happy Hayley—at a tanzanite mining village in Tanzania

And not only has she championed the purplish-blue gemstone—though that’s not exactly a difficult proposition to wrap your brain around—but she has endeavored to uplift the communities in which the gem is mined through earmarking foundation resources toward the building of schools, clinics, and jobs for locals. Her favorite project: the Maasai Ladies, which started two years ago to teach Maasai tribeswomen how to make beaded jewelry. “It’s a small group—just 12 women—but its reach is enormous,” she told me. “We’re giving them some independence to pay for their kids’ education, or for whatever their needs are.” Proof of its success: Henning has gotten the handiwork airtime—and sales—on the Liquidation Channel, as well as placement in the upcoming Smithsonian Christmas 2014 catalog, and shelf space in the soon-to-open This Life showroom in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“I would like to see someone do for the gem industry what she’s done for tanzanite,” observes Deb Yonick, a York, Pa.–based freelance writer. “She’s a good steward of the gem, and her leadership and market savvy has helped introduce designers to it.”

Beverly Hills, Calif.–based jewelry designer Erica Courtney agrees. “She talks to me about tanzanite like I’ve never heard of it before!” jokes Courtney, whose business is built on using only the toniest stones found in nature. “She has brought the glamour to tanzanite, and that’s something I feel that we are missing in the gem and jewelry world. Designers don’t understand gem dealers, and gem dealers don’t understand designers, but she bridges that gap.”

Tanzanite, gold, and diamond ring from Erica Courtney

Tanzanite, gold, and diamond ring from Erica Courtney

Henning actually started working with the company that would become TanzaniteOne back in her hometown of Johannesburg in 1994. Hired to sell the gem throughout East Africa, she did, up until her move to New York City in 2000. Stateside, Henning worked marketing, sales, and branding positions for David Yurman, John Hardy, and Rand Diamond until her old employer opened an office in the Big Apple, asking her to head up operations.

“I loved the African connection,” Henning recollects. “I loved bridging the gap between what goes on in the mines and how these gems find their way into the first world.”

Asked what Henning has done for tanzanite—and the industry in general—Afshin Hackman asked me, “Do you have 24 hours?” The vice president of Intercolor, a dealer in fine stones, estimates that since she took over the executive director role, tanzanite sales have doubled. “I’ve felt that because of her promotional efforts, tanzanite has become the No. 4 stone (after ruby, emerald, sapphire). Plus, she’s done it singlehandedly. “She has had no one to help her,” observes Hackman. “She’ll be a great asset to next person who hires her,” he adds.

There is also an opportunity for another firm to assume the foundation’s office space in the Diamond District, which includes a jeweler’s safe in a secure building. Reach out to Henning at hayley@tanzanitefoundation.org or 212-575-3020 for more information, or with other opportunities.

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