Luxury: Timeless Tiffany
Long venerated for its exclusive designs, Tiffany now enjoys mass appeal for its expanding stable of luxury goods
From the Print Edition:
Bo Derek, Jul/Aug 00
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The Tiffany diamond was displayed at a series of world expositions starting in 1893. Most of the time, however, it has been on permanent display in a showcase in the company's Manhattan store. It has rarely been worn. The first occasion was in 1957, at the Tiffany Ball in Newport, Rhode Island, where Mrs. Sheldon Whitehouse, the honorary chairwoman of the event, wore a necklace that had been made for her featuring the diamond. Three years later, the diamond adorned the neck of Audrey Hepburn in a publicity photo for Breakfast at Tiffany's. In 1965, Jean Schlumberger, the store's jewelry designer, created a contemporary setting known as Bird on a Rock. It features a whimsical bird perched on a corner of the diamond. The Tiffany diamond is beyond price and, in any event, is not for sale.
In 1886, Charles Tiffany made diamond history again, devising a six-prong platinum mount for engagement diamonds that is universally recognized as the Tiffany setting. The simple setting, which quickly became the industry standard, allows the diamond's brilliance to gleam most brightly. Instead of sinking the diamond into a setting, defeating its unique ability to refract light, Tiffany raised the diamond up high for all to see. Of course, only the best diamonds profit from this exposure; an off-color or badly flawed diamond needs some protective covering.
If the company's triumphs at the 1867 Paris exposition and its accomplishments in the diamond industry hadn't already put Tiffany on the map, its showing at the 1900 exposition, also held in Paris, certainly would have. The event, which ushered in a new century, captured the world's imagination and attracted 50 million visitors that year. Tiffany walked off with the grand prize for jewelry and for silverware, as well as nine other medals: six gold, two silver and a bronze. The jewelry designs were the work of Tiffany's least-known designer, Paulding Farnham. His iris brooches, set on slender stems with each detail rendered in colored gemstones, were remarkable in design and execution. Farnham's designs won a fistful of gold and silver medals at the great expositions that took place between 1889 and 1904; these were the major showplaces of their day and brought the firm great renown. But Farnham didn't share in that glory.
Farnham had the misfortune to work at the firm during the reign of Louis Comfort Tiffany, the renowned glass and jewelry designer. Tiffany's talents were matched by his ego: he wanted no name other than his attached to the store's products. While Charles Tiffany was still alive, Louis was kept in check, and Farnham, who had become the head designer in 1891 upon the death of Edward Moore, maintained his prominent role in the firm. When Charles died in 1902, shortly after his 90th birthday, the handwriting was on the wall for Farnham. Louis Comfort Tiffany, then 54 years old, was finally free to make his presence entirely felt; from that time on Farnham's name was suppressed. Tiffany named himself design director and ruled the roost until 1918.
Farnham's opulent, exotic flowers would have given way in any event as tastes changed. Tiffany led the way in the use of American flowers. American motifs were promoted enthusiastically, including American Indian designs and shapes. The ornate belle epoque sensibility of the late nineteenth century gave way to the sensual curves of Art Nouveau, exemplified by Louis's flowing, voluptuous designs.
Louis Comfort Tiffany had long had his own business, Tiffany Studios, where he oversaw production of his brilliant lamp, vase and jewelry designs. From 1881 to 1905, the business was housed in a four-story building at the corner of 25th Street and Park Avenue South, then known as Fourth Avenue, in Manhattan. A true American original, he had created a revolution in design with his naturalistic shapes and motifs, taking his themes from American nature. His work has been much imitated. Although his ornate designs went out of favor in the mid-twentieth century, by the end of the century they had become hot collectibles. In 1998, an all-Tiffany auction was held at Christie's New York to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Louis Comfort Tiffany's birth. One magnificent magnolia leaded-glass gilt-bronze floor lamp fetched a record $1,762,500. The sale totaled $12,336,115.
During Louis Tiffany's lifetime, his output rarely turned a profit for his firm; he subsidized his workshop with money from the vast fortune he had inherited from his father. Even during the heyday of the Art Nouveau era, which he espoused with every fiber of his artistic being, his designs were an acquired taste.
In 1905, Tiffany moved his workshops 20 blocks north and one block over to Madison Avenue. Two years later, he merged Tiffany Studios with the family business, transferring his studio operation to the new building, at Fifth Avenue and 37th Street, that Tiffany & Co. had built two years earlier to accommodate growing demand. All of Louis's designs were sold at Tiffany & Co. But the First World War put an end to his dominance; the Art Deco period that followed was the antithesis of his design aesthetic.
Tiffany prospered during the Roaring Twenties, providing its party-minded customers with jewelry, watches, smoking accessories and other accoutrements, and rode out the Depression in the '30s. By the latter part of the decade, helped in part by a decision to expand its client base to people of more modest means, Tiffany found its jewelry once again in demand. The company made a splash at the 1939 World's Fair in New York and, in spite of the growing threat of another world war, began making preparations to move into another new building, this one at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street.
In the fall of 1940, a year after Germany invaded Poland, Tiffany broke ground on what was destined to become the firm's permanent home, the latest stop on its steady march uptown from lower Broadway. While the timing could not have been worse, the commitment to build had been made earlier and the company went ahead with the plans. The design echoed the look of the streamlined buildings of the World's Fair, serious in demeanor and a complete departure from the company's previous headquarters at Fifth Avenue and 37th Street. The Italianate style of that building, designed by Stanford White, had been a nod to Europe. The new building was nearly 100 percent American in outlook, with the exception of the Atlas clock over the main entrance that Tiffany had brought over from its 37th Street store.
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