After college, Robin Hancock flew straight to London to study the history of jewelry at Sotheby’s.
“I was fascinated with the consistency in our social history of people adorning themselves with beautifully made things,” says the owner of RSK, an Austin appraiser and purveyor of fine jewelry. “This is from the beginning of time. My sister calls me an anthropological gemologist.”
In fact, Hancock’s relationship to jewelry — she keeps a small, inviting shop in the Kerbey Lane Village complex — was informed by the unusual mix of subjects she studied at Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas.
“I combined liberal arts, sociology and business,” she says. “I’m not one to follow preordained paths.”
Originally from Houston, Hancock, 43, was busy this fall assisting with certain local charity benefits, such as the Beauty of Life Luncheon for Hospice Austin, where she showed a selection of her singular adornments, and the Heart & Soul Luncheon for the Rise School of Austin, which provides education for gifted, traditional and developmentally delayed children.
She works often with antique pieces and nurtures relationships with select dealers and artists.
“I acquire piece by piece,” she says about her deliberate yet impassioned process. “The only things I want them to send me — other than the easy things to sell that people need for something like graduation — only the piece they like the most that they made or designed that maybe somebody else doesn’t like, but they love. That tells me a lot about it.”
An uncharted course
Hancock’s father, Curtis Robert Kayem, took over the Houston steel business that his father started. Her mother, Carol O’Kelly Keyem, a homemaker, grew up in Arlington. Her sister, Stacey Caroline Kayem, runs a nonprofit in partnership with the Texas Children’s Hospital, and her brother, Christopher Kayem, works with their dad’s enterprises.
An outgoing person who claims to be a closet nerd, Hancock attended the private Kinkaid School and pretty much set her own course.
“I am who I am, and I can’t alter who I am with my environment,” she says. “The wasn’t helpful growing up, but I feel it has served me well in my course in life.”
After business school at UT, she brainstormed with her family about a career path. The prospect of learning more about jewelry in London proved a bit scary.
“There wasn’t another American — or anyone my age — in my class at Sotheby’s,” she says. “But there was a wonderful Italian teacher — Amanda Triossi. I was drooling over every word she said. I could feel it in my soul. It was overpowering.”
That mentor is now one of the chief experts at Bulgari, the luxury firm.
While at Sotheby’s, Hancock had access to rare private collections and the contents of museum vaults. After London, she headed to New York City for more scientific gemology training.
“We looked closely at every aspect of gemstones, from things that look like dirt to the most fascinating colored diamonds,” she recalls. “There was a 20-stone exam at the end, and I passed it with flying colors the first time.”
Next she worked all over New York for three years and spent a lot of time talking to jewelers and dealers.
“I made a ton of contacts that I still do business with today,” she says. “I have to have a good, honest relationship with the dealer I’m selling for. It’s really easy for me to sell if I can believe in it. If it’s someone nasty, it doesn’t work so well.”
Back in Texas, Hancock worked for antique dealers but found herself always behind the counter. So she started a small appraisal business in 1999.
“What I do now organically grew out of my customers’ needs and wants,” she says. “Now it has a life of its own.”
With husband John William Hancock III, who manages a branch of the Stifle Nicholas investment firm, the businesswoman is raising two children.
At RSK as at home, everything is personal. When a dealer from anywhere in the world offers her a piece, she will look it over carefully, evaluating its origin and history.
“I’m all on gut when I meet someone,” she says. “I think I’m very good at deciphering people. Our relationships are strong and deep and good. They are all people who are my friends.”
She shows this reporter a cryptic art deco piece made of platinum that could have been worn in “The Great Gatsby.”
“You see this little beautiful thing?” she coos. “It’s extremely well made. And it’s a lorgnette. You can put your prescription lenses in them! Women would hang them on a chain and use them for ‘readers.’ It’s got a serpent style that snaps out of it. It’s a nugget of fabulousness. I have not looked for marks, but I have a feeling it could be French. All the old diamonds are hand cut, not machine cut. The big one is a marquis cut.”
Many of the styles she has always loved — Victorian, Georgian, Edwardian — are coming back into fashion.
“Things that customers can wear but are different from what everybody else has,” she says of her strongest selling suit. “The smallest things are the ones that I go bananas for. I match people to pieces. They kinda can’t stay away after they get a history lesson and a taste of it.”