A guide to Tiffany & Co. — an American institution
The history of the world’s oldest major jewellery brand, including its four main designers, historic pieces sold at Christie’s, and iconic Tiffany rings, bracelets, necklaces, pendants and earrings
Tiffany & Co. — the early history
The story of Tiffany & Co., the world’s oldest major jewellery brand, begins in 1837 at 259 Broadway, New York. Founded by schoolfriends Charles Lewis Tiffany and John Barnett Young, Tiffany and Young, as the company was then known, set out selling small fancy goods. Charles Tiffany would marry Young’s sister, Harriet, and in 1853 he bought out his partners and renamed the company Tiffany & Co.
Beyond jewellery, Charles Tiffany responded to the growing desire for luxury goods by selling bouquet holders, purses, Guerlain soaps and fine stationery, some imported from Paris. By 1845 he was advertising ‘French Jewellery’, including items in gold, as well as a wide selection of imitation jewellery aimed at reaching a wider audience.
A Paris branch was opened in 1850, and a year later the firm started a long relationship with Patek Philippe of Geneva. When Mr. Patek visited Tiffany’s in 1855, he left with an order for 129 watches.
In 1878 one of the most famous sales of royal jewellery took place, when the jewels of Isabella II, Queen of Spain, came to market. Tiffany & Co. was one of the main buyers. It may well be that some or all of the emeralds in the magnificent necklace shown above originated from that historic sale.
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In the same year Tiffany acquired the 128.54 carat Tiffany Yellow Diamond for $18,000, as well as a third of the French crown jewels. Also in 1878, at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, Tiffany & Co. became the first American jeweller to be awarded the Grand Prix for its display of Japanese-influenced silver.
The firm continued to be a major buyer of royal jewels and spent $487,459 in May 1887 when the French Crown Jewels were sold in Paris. These spectacular historic jewels were eagerly purchased by the new American tycoons who had made fortunes building American industry and finance over the last quarter of the 19th century.
America’s coming of age
As America prospered during the mid-19th century, Tiffany & Co. expanded, opening a larger shop on Union Square in 1870. As national pride grew in the quality of American workmanship, so did demand for American-sourced gems and pearls.
By the time of the Californian Gold Rush (1848-1855), Tiffany was able to source all of its gold and silver from within the United States — something that appealed to its patriotic customers.
The greater use of native gemstones started with freshwater pearls being purchased in large quantities in the 1850s. Tourmalines had been discovered at Mount Mica in Maine as early as 1820, while the quality of America’s lapis lazuli and amethyst led to these stones being exported to Paris, the jewellery capital of the world. Colorado was the source of gemstones such as aquamarine, topaz, rose-quartz and zircon, while in the Little Belt mountains of Montana, the ‘blue pebbles’ spotted alongside gold nuggets in Yogo Creek were finally recognised as being sapphires in 1894.
For the Paris Exposition of 1889, Tiffany’s designer George Paulding Farnham was awarded a gold medal for a series of 24 life-size orchids made from gold and enamel, usually with a central pendent diamond. As the Art Nouveau movement gained traction in the succeeding decade, Louis Comfort Tiffany — the son of founder Charles Tiffany — became one of its foremost exponents in the United States.
Louis Comfort Tiffany
Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) began life as a painter before becoming interested in glass in his late twenties. In the latter part of the 1870s he worked for several different glass manufacturers, before joining forces with three other artists. Determined to improve the quality of contemporary glass, he set up on his own in 1883, and, with his father’s encouragement, the new business prospered.
President Chester Arthur commissioned Louis Tiffany in 1882 to redecorate several rooms in the White House, to include new glass windows and a floor-to-ceiling glass screen in the entrance hall. In 1885, he established his own glassmaking firm called Tiffany Glass Company, which in 1902 became known as Tiffany Studios. From 1895, Louis Comfort Tiffany’s famous lamps were being produced commercially, with Clara Driscoll featuring among the firm’s group of talented designers.
Louis Tiffany moved into designing jewellery quite late in his career, and it was only in the first few years of the 20th century that he began exhibiting his own creations with those of Tiffany & Co. Concentrating on nature, he made pieces referencing wild flowers, berries, dandelions and dragonflies.
The 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, proved to be Charles Tiffany’s swansong; he died the following year aged 90. Louis Tiffany began giving more of his time to the family firm, and by the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, he was making an indelible impression on the artistic direction of the firm. In 1907 Louis Tiffany sold his own jewellery business to Tiffany & Co. for $35,000.
In his jewellery Louis Tiffany used sapphires from Montana and tourmalines from Maine in combination with his own ‘favrile’ glass and enamel. His lasting memorial was to be as the creator of jewelled works of art that were appreciated in their own right without any consideration to their intrinsic value.
Tiffany’s post-war renaissance
The Great Depression and World War Two hit Tiffany & Co. hard, and recovery was slow. In 1955, however, the firm was taken over by Walter Hoving, who sparked a turnaround in its fortunes. A year later, Parisian jewellery designer Jean Schlumberger opened his salon at Tiffany’s, and when Breakfast at Tiffany’s, starring Audrey Hepburn, was released in 1961, it proved a powerful advertisement for the company.
Jean Schlumberger (1907-1987) started his career in Paris in the 1930s as a designer of costume jewellery for the renowned couturier Elsa Schiaparelli. By the end of the decade he was creating fine jewellery for a discerning clientele.
In 1939 he joined forces with Nicholas Bongard (1900-1982), and together they opened a jewellery shop at 745 Fifth Avenue. Like many jewellery designers, Schlumberger looked to nature for inspiration, focusing particularly on maritime life in the form of sea urchins and barnacles.
In 1955, with new owner Walter Hoving feeling that Tiffany & Co. was in need of a fresh look, he recruited Schlumberger and Bongard to the company, offering the two designers scope to express their artistic talents on a much larger scale.
Jacqueline Kennedy became a regular client and is best remembered for her purchase of the Two Fruit clip in rubies and diamonds. Other notable customers included Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and Paul Mellon.
‘Schlumberger brings to his art classic design principles of the Renaissance,’ reported The Blue Book of 1986. Diana Vreeland, the respected editor of Vogue, wrote that Schlumberger appreciated ‘the miracle of jewels, which for him are the ways and means to the realisation of his dreams’.
Who else but Schlumberger, one of only four jewellers that Tiffany has allowed to sign their work, would have had the imagination to mount the famous Tiffany Yellow Diamond using a jewelled bird, above, standing on top of the 128-carat stone?
Tiffany for everyone
In 1980, Paloma Picasso joined the company and brought a fresh look to its designs. Seven years later, Tiffany & Co. became a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange. Today, there are more than 300 stores worldwide, selling $4 billion worth of jewellery and accessories every year.
Paloma Picasso was born in 1949, the youngest of Pablo Picasso’s four children; her mother, Françoise Gilot, was a talented painter and writer in her own right. In 1968, Paloma became a costume designer in Paris, and her early success led to her doing a formal course in jewellery design. Just a year later, she was commissioned by Yves Saint-Laurent to design accessories.
John Loring, who became Tiffany’s Director of Design in 1979, had first met Paloma at Peggy Guggenheim’s house in Venice when she was 16 years old. They became friends and Loring acted as her mentor, taking a keen interest in her development as a jewellery designer. In 1980 he made the brave move to appoint Paloma Picasso, now aged 30, as Tiffany’s next named designer.
At Tiffany & Co. the young designer had access to a huge variety of gemstones, and she created jewels that used large, colourful stones and bold mountings. In 1982 Paloma Picasso created a series of pendants that included a Ceylon sapphire weighing 159 carats, and a peridot that weighed 284 carats, both of which were set in large pavé-set diamond frames. The pieces are seen as emblematic of the 1980s power-dressing trend.
Born in Florence in 1940 and educated in Rome and Switzerland, Elsa Peretti became a fashion model and moved to Barcelona. In 1969 her first silver jewels were shown in New York alongside the collection of a friend, Giorgio di Sant’Angelo. Her jewellery was modern and tactile, often with sensual overtones.
Peretti began her career at Tiffany’s in 1974, and five years later became the firm’s principal designer. Her silver pieces had the desired effect of attracting a younger clientele, who wanted amusing jewellery at more affordable prices.
Peretti went on to design more than 30 collections. She travelled extensively to China and Japan, which led to the creation of such designs as the Bean, the Open Heart and the Zodiac. In 2012 Tiffany and Peretti signed a 20-year contract, and within three years her trademarked Elsa Peretti designs represented nearly 10 per cent of Tiffany’s net sales.
Tiffany Blue is the name given to the characteristic ‘robin’s egg’ colour associated with the company. The distinctive colour was initially used on the cover of Tiffany’s Blue Book, an annual publication that was launched in 1845, and which became the first mail-order catalogue to be distributed in America.
The colour has been used on all Tiffany & Co. promotional materials ever since, with Pantone listing Tiffany Blue as a private custom colour — PMS (Pantone Matching System) No. 1837. The number references the year of Tiffany’s foundation.
The enduring glamour of Tiffany’s
Famous clients have endorsed Tiffany’s since the very beginning. In 1876, Mrs Leland Stanford of San Francisco, a great collector of gems, paid $80,000 for a superb rivière of 37 Golconda diamonds. Charles Lewis Tiffany
was always keen to buy jewellery with imperial provenance which particularly appealed to his wealthy clientele who loved to buy jewellery that had previously been owned by royalty. President Andrew Johnson’s daughter-in-law bought a Mazarin diamond, and Tiffany’s ledgers were filled with famous names such as Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Gould and Astor.
In the run-up to the release of Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961, Audrey Hepburn posed for publicity photographs with the famous 128-carat Tiffany Yellow Diamond, set in a Ribbon Rosette necklace designed by Jean Schlumberger. The jewel, however, never actually appeared in the movie itself.
Richard Burton bought his wife Elizabeth Taylor a diamond sapphire and emerald ‘Dolphin Brooch’ by Jean Schlumberger for the premiere of the film The Night of the Iguana in August 1964. When her collection was offered for sale by Christie’s in New York in December 2011, the brooch realised $1.2 million.
Also in 2011, Christie’s sold The Rockefeller Sapphire — a 62.02 carat Burmese gemstone that had been mounted by Tiffany & Co. — for $3 million. Originally in the collection of the Nizam of Hyderabad, it was purchased in 1937 by John D. Rockefeller, in whose possession it remained for the next 34 years.
More recently, in June 2018, the sale of The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller included a Schlumberger Tiffany sapphire and diamond Sea Shells bracelet, above, that sold for $250,000 in New York.