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The Most

Woman in the World


Cynthia Hardy

Co-founder of Green School Bali, former co-owner of John Hardy Jewelry, full-time mom, great skier

The Most
Woman in the World: Cynthia Hardy

Co-founder of Green School Bali, former co-owner of John Hardy Jewelry, full-time mom, great skier

With a rare combination of strong aesthetic vision and shrewd business instincts, Cynthia Hardy began making her own jewelry in her teens. Post-college, she moved to Bali and, after running her own import-export company, got married and became one half of her husband’s eponymous jewelry label, John Hardy Jewelry. Here, she talks about falling in love, hitting rock bottom, and rebuilding her identity after leaving an empire behind.

June 30, 2017 | Filed in: The Most Remarkable Women In The World

ON BEGINNINGS: I learned to make jewelry in high school. I had a great jewelry teacher who taught lost-wax casting, and I took it all four years. I was always creative as a kid, and very creatively getting into lots of trouble—and not getting caught for it. I had no idea what I was going to do with my college education; I went to college because I knew I was supposed to. I studied political science and economics at Berkeley. I thought I would do law, but I definitely didn’t have the intellectual rigor to pursue that. I had an unfulfilling experience in school. I always had the travel bug.

After I graduated, I started a trip around the world, but I didn’t get any farther than Bali. I fell in love with a Brazilian guy on the beach on my third day there, which ended up being a long story, and during the process I also fell in love with Bali and the people and the beautiful textiles. I loved the person I became there. I was quickly able to make money on my own, trading and wholesaling, turning seashells into earrings and using my design knowledge from high school. I imported baskets and incense holders and paintings and masks and everything I could fit into the car, my 1967 Mustang, and then I drove up and down the California coast and sold stuff at flea markets. I never really struggled to flip a nickel into a dime or into a quarter. It was something that just came easily to me. I had my own business for seven years.

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I drove up and down the California coast and sold stuff at flea markets. I never really struggled to flip a nickel into a dime or into a quarter. It was something that just came easily to me.

ON BUILDING A JEWELRY EMPIRE: My husband John and I got together in 1990. We met at the Pink Panther club, on opening night. There was a swimming pool and a disco. I was there with girlfriends, dancing, and he was sitting at the bar with his long beard, smoking a cigarette. He asked me what my name was. After that, I would run into him on the beach, and we kept crossing paths. I was always with different boyfriends. John had left his previous marriage, and we were encouraged by a mutual friend of ours who lived in California to consider going out with one another. We went on our first date in San Francisco. John had flown in from Chicago and had suitcases. When I asked him where he was staying that night, he just smiled.

John and I were both in the silver business and had complementary skills, so I decided to let go of my business and join his. We hired a computer consultant and started working together in a little grass shack. John is a total out-of-the-box thinker. I’m more of a networker, organizer, nuts-and-bolts-focused person. I hired staff, worked with the design team, edited the collection, and priced everything. The company grew from 6 employees to 800 over 15 years, all in Bali. John and I would come to the U.S. every year and do tours with Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s and small boutiques. It was so much fun to work with a company that created, manufactured, distributed, and actually sold people jewelry to take home. It’s wonderful to make things that people love. We were very, very fortunate.

We went on our first date in San Francisco. John had flown in from Chicago and had suitcases. When I asked him where he was staying that night, he just smiled.​

ON STARTING A FAMILY: I had a hard time imagining myself with kids when we were young. We worked 18-hour days and slept at the office all the time. We were addicted to our work, and bulldozing through it. I couldn’t imagine having another focus that would take me away from the beautiful life that we had created. Then I got pregnant with my oldest daughter. I was terrified. You’re never really ready. All of a sudden you wake up with this little baby and you’re transported to a whole new level of deep, profound, intense love. Kids took some of the edge off the intensity of work, in a good way. Things became much more fluid. We brought them with us everywhere we went, and homeschooled them when we traveled.

ON FOUNDING A HOTEL… AND A SCHOOL: We started building our house in Bali in 1995, and it was finished in 1997. Then, in the early 2000s, a piece of land just south of ours came onto the market. We didn’t need more space, but we knew that if we didn’t buy it someone else was going to build a hotel there. So we bought it and sat on it for a few years. We knew this really industrious guy from Java, and we asked him to find us some furniture and old wooden houses—traditional ones built in primitive ways, from logs, without panels. We put them up on that land and had the Neiman Marcus buyers come out and stay there. Eventually, we decided to turn it into something that paid for itself, and now it’s a little hotel called Bambu Indah that’s essentially an extension of our home. It has become John’s passion project. The floors creak, there’s holes in the wood, and our pool is more like a pond—there’s algae in it, and there’s a beautiful rope swing. The food is exquisite, and rooms are full of antiques we find on trips. It’s for the off-the-beaten-path traveler, and it’s gorgeous.

In 2006 and 2007 we built Green School, and in 2008 it opened with 90 kids. We created it because we wanted to send our children to an international school, but there wasn’t one near our home in Bali that we liked. Green School focuses on community-integrated learning and sustainability, and today there are 415 students, from 30 countries.

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We were addicted to our work, and bulldozing through it. I couldn’t imagine having another focus that would take me away from the beautiful life that we had created. Then I got pregnant with my oldest daughter. I was terrified. You’re never really ready.

ON CHALLENGES: 2008 was a dramatic year for us, with the financial markets. While we were building the school, we decided to exit the jewelry business, and it was a rough experience that culminated with John and I separating for four years, and nearly divorcing. We hadn’t been focused on our money, and we suffered tremendously for it. If I’ve ever been almost completely broken, it was when the school was six weeks old and our financial news came to us.

Being away from John and making the commitment to taking care of myself and our girls under one roof was important for me. I needed to step away from the identity of the empire and the name that we had built. After the financial crisis, I wanted to take the kids and nestle them here in New York and give them my 100%. I got back on my feet. I may not have looked like I was off my feet, but I felt like a wreck for a few years.

The space that John and I allowed to grow between us ultimately enabled us to come back together, and have a conversation about beginning again. We could say, “Let’s talk about everything that doesn’t work, or does work, and why. When something doesn’t work, let’s talk about it immediately, and not sit on it and build up resentment.” It was an opportunity to stop all the bad habits that we’d built up over 27 years together. We had a breather, and once we each felt good about ourselves, we were ready to go on. And more than anything, it was a positive choice to stand for family. We chose to reconcile our differences and resume the marriage. It was incredible. So here we are again. The separation allowed the relationship to reignite.

I’ve never felt constrained by professional identity. As inflexible as I may seem, I can turn on a dime and go 180 degrees in a different direction if I’m so moved. I’m willing to follow my gut without asking permission from anyone.

ON FOLLOWING HER GUT: I’ve never felt constrained by professional identity. As inflexible as I may seem, I can turn on a dime and go 180 degrees in a different direction if I’m so moved. I’m willing to follow my gut without asking permission from anyone. Being unafraid to shift and change my mind is my secret superpower. Another talent is that I’m a good advocate. If somebody needs something done, from surgery to getting in somewhere, I’m going to figure out how to do it fast and well.

My intuition is always good, but sometimes I make decisions against my better judgment, and say yes to things when I know I shouldn’t. That’s what you do often in a relationship; you make compromises. I’ve learned to pay attention to my intuition, and not to spread myself too thin. I did that for many years, and now I like staying in a more protected space. I’d say I’m totally committed to being a mom right now, which I feel great about. That’s good enough for me. I’m providing for the family. Providing a nourishing place to be.

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