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Luxury: Timeless Tiffany

Long venerated for its exclusive designs, Tiffany now enjoys mass appeal for its expanding stable of luxury goods
Ettagale Blauer
From the Print Edition:
Bo Derek, Jul/Aug 00

Royal-watching began long before Diana, Princess of Wales, stepped into the spotlight. In the eighteenth century, the most watched royal was Queen Marie Antoinette of France, who reigned from 1774 until her abrupt demise during the French Revolution. Beyond the sociopolitical ramifications of her time as queen were the cultural ones that left a lasting mark on our time. Among them was her love of a beautiful, elusive light-blue color known as Nattier blue, named for a contemporary French painter, Jean-Marc Nattier. The future Empress Eugénie, who adored her predecessor, made the hue her favorite color for dresses and upholstery while she and Napoleon III ruled from 1853 to 1870. The empress's preference for Nattier blue inspired the French branch of a young American jewelry and fancy goods outfit called Tiffany & Co. to craft its velvet jewel cases in the same color.  

A century later, Tiffany president Walter Hoving introduced the Nattier-blue cardboard box and turned it into a ubiquitous container for countless diamond rings, jewels and gifts. It was his instinct for marketing that made the box, rather than what was in it, the focus of attention. A shopper walking out of Tiffany with one of those little blue boxes announces to the world that something wonderful is inside. That little blue box has come to symbolize everything desirable about a gift from Tiffany.   Hoving revitalized a company that was nearly down for the count.

By 1955, when Hoving paid $3.7 million for controlling interest in Tiffany, the store's net sales for the year totaled just $172,600. He immediately went to work putting his mark on the company. Hoving had a flair that helped Tiffany capture the public's imagination. When the store with the elegant reputation was asked if it would allow scenes for the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany's to be filmed there, Hoving readily agreed once he learned that the equally elegant Audrey Hepburn would play Holly Golightly. What better publicity could you ask for than to be represented as the place of which Golightly gushes, "Isn't it wonderful? Nothing bad could ever happen to you in a place like this"?  

The efforts of Hoving and later chairman William Chaney, who took the firm public in the 1980s, helped Tiffany become a worldwide marketing juggernaut with sales of more than a billion dollars a year. In the late 1970s, the company had just six stores in the United States and a boutique in Tokyo. Today, Tiffany has more than 100 stores in some 40 countries and has expanded its product lines to appeal to a global audience. The magnificent jewelry creations are now part of an ensemble of leather goods, silk scarves and neckties, fragrances, and table furnishings. Tiffany has distinguished itself not only with exquisite and innovative design during the course of its 163-year-old history, but through its ability to adapt to changing times and to bounce back from adversity.  

The Tiffany empire was built on a very modest beginning. When Charles Tiffany and his brother-in-law John Young set up their "stationery and fancy goods emporium" at 259 Broadway in New York City in 1837, they rang up just $4.98 in sales on their first day in business. Emphasizing quality and service, which would become Tiffany hallmarks, the partners watched their business grow quickly, catering to the style and taste of the times. This was not an era of grand jewelry in the United States.  

In 1848, Charles Tiffany made his first major splash with the purchase of some of the French crown jewels. In a time when America was considered to be the land of cowboys and ruffians, this connection with royalty gave the firm great cachet. Charles was even credited with having purchased a diamond necklace that had belonged to Marie Antoinette. According to John Loring, Tiffany's design director since 1979, the story is just a story. The necklace, though designed, had never been made. So firmly did this imaginary diamond necklace stick to Tiffany, however, that its "purchase" is still cited as one of the firm's great moments.  

Charles Tiffany had a broader vision for his store. In addition to fine jewelry, he offered silverware. In 1851, he brought the firm of John C. Moore under the Tiffany umbrella as an exclusive supplier. Moore's son, Edward, would direct Tiffany's silver shop for 40 years, until his death in 1891. Edward Moore had a love of the objects of the East, objects derived from Islamic and Persian art. He was also a student of Japanese metalwork and brought all these themes and techniques to bear on the silver he made under the Tiffany name.  

During the Civil War, Charles Tiffany reaped a fortune by making swords, rifles, medals and badges for the Union Army. After the war, the younger Moore introduced Japanese metal crafts to silver, giving Tiffany silver its distinctive appearance--a combination of tradition and stylishness that persists to this day. In 1867, Tiffany & Co. won an award for its silverware, the first American firm to be so honored at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. It was in this atmosphere that Louis Comfort Tiffany, Charles Tiffany's son, grew up. Artistic influences were part of his daily bread; he breathed in all the design influences that were swirling around his father and Edward Moore.  

The reputation of Tiffany jewelry stemmed from Charles Tiffany's extraordinary ability to see both the large picture and the small, maintaining attention to the overall look of his store, the jewelry and promotion as well as the gems used. It was in the latter area that he made two significant choices that would bring the most long-lasting benefits to the company. In 1879, he hired a gemologist named George Frederick Kunz, who took over the diamond department when George McClure retired. Kunz was an enthusiastic promoter of American gemstones, just the right man to further Tiffany's love of things American. According to Loring, this may have marked the first time that a major retailer had a resident gemologist.  

The timing could not have been better. In 1877, a magnificent fancy yellow diamond was found at the Kimberley mine in South Africa. In 1878, Charles Tiffany purchased the 287.42-carat rough diamond for $18,000. Under Kunz's supervision, the decision was made to sacrifice more than half the weight to bring out the maximum brilliance and color of the stone. The resulting cushion-shaped stone, named the Tiffany diamond, weighed 128.54 carats. Ninety facets, 32 more than the standard brilliant cut, brought out the remarkable fire of the stone. It is an ideal color, warm and glowing and absolutely pure. The graceful shape and the flawlessly placed facets make this enormous diamond seem quite perfect, devoid of all excess.  

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