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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

(continued from page 2)

Little more than a year later, the United States entered the war. The new store waited in vain for customers. For the next decade and a half, Tiffany marked time, making precision goods for the war effort and selling modestly priced jewelry and silver. The war closed down the pipeline for gems, while platinum was being diverted for use in war matériel. For years after the war, bold, big "architectural" designs dominated Tiffany's jewelry, as expensive gemstones remained scarce. "This was the machine-age look that was taken from the design of the New York 1939 World's Fair," says John Loring, Tifffany's current design director, who takes a dim view of the jewelry of the postwar period. "It remained the style of the period, and it took the world time to recover." Ornate scrolls, which characterized the jewelry, were more suitable for architecture than ornaments. Yet, those designs were being made by all the major firms.  

By 1955, Tiffany's fortunes had declined to a postwar low. The white knight who rode in to save the store, Walter Hoving, was then the head of the company that controlled Tiffany's next-door neighbor, the upscale Bonwit Teller department store. Hoving's first move in 1955 as chairman was to hold a "white elephant" sale at greatly reduced prices to clean out merchandise that had languished on the shelves for years. But Hoving saw another problem--the store's merchandise had no direction. Loring says, "Hoving looked back and saw that name designers were part of that great Tiffany history." Within the first year of his stewardship, he took two significant steps toward reestablishing that preeminence.  

What was missing, first of all, was a design director. No one had served in that position since Louis Comfort Tiffany. In 1956, Hoving turned to Van Day Truex, a former president of Parsons School of Design, who would firmly guide and influence the look of all the store's merchandise until 1979. His introduction of themes from nature ran through the departments, including the specially commissioned dinner service made for the Johnson White House in 1968. The set perfectly reflected the style of Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson, taking American wildflowers, one of her passions, as its theme.  

Immediately after arriving at Tiffany, Truex suggested hiring the French-born jewelry designer Jean Schlumberger. Hoving not only hired the Frenchman, he bought the assets that Schlumberger had used in his jewelry business. The arrival of Schlumberger at the store inaugurated a look of fiercely original jewelry based on mythological creatures from the sea and the forest. Schlumberger was a prolific designer, with an imagination to match, who continued to design into the 1980s. Although he died in 1987, his work remains a prominent part of the company's offerings. Indeed, Loring says, "There are hundreds of drawings of his we have not made yet."  

Then, to make sure everyone knew that something new was taking place inside the store, Hoving hired Gene Moore to dress the windows. From 1955 until 1995, Moore transformed the windows into miniature stages that reflected events and holidays, always with a fresh point of view. When New York City suffered a drought in 1965 and the city was under strict water rationing, Moore installed tiny circulating fountains in the windows with a sign noting that the clear liquid was gin, not water, in keeping with the guidelines.  

With the renewed emphasis on design and the importance placed on the look of the store, Tiffany & Co. was well on its way to reclaiming the original vision of cofounder Charles Tiffany. In the 1960s, the company's long-standing affection for colored gemstones entered a new phase with the introduction of a blue gemstone that was found in Tanzania. The stone, discovered in 1968, was dubbed tanzanite by its most enthusiastic promoter, Henry Platt, a great-grandson of Louis Comfort Tiffany. Platt, who became the president of Tiffany in 1974, was instrumental in gaining acceptance for the new stone, whch rivals blue sapphire in the intensity of its color.  

Tiffany would soon benefit from another gemstone discovery. In 1971, Scottish geologist Campbell Bridges followed a hunch, searching for an intense green garnet that he had previously found in Tanzania. He set his sights on the area of Tsavo National Park, in neighboring Kenya, basing his decision to mine there on its geologic similarity to a site in Tanzania. The hunch paid off. Bridges found the biggest source for the beautiful green gem whose color echoes that of the finest emerald, but without the inclusions, or flaws, usually found in emeralds. Once again, Platt came up with a name: tsavorite, in honor of the Tsavo reserve where it was found. The name stuck, although Tiffany decided not to promote the stone as it had tanzanite; the supply was too small to guarantee a consistent flow of material to the store.  

During the 1960s and '70s, the store turned to more name designers. Donald Claflin's whimsical brooches were a hallmark of Tiffany design, and Aldo Cipullo, Angela Cummings and others designed for the store as well. But it was in 1974 that Tiffany hit the mother lode when it hired a young designer named Elsa Peretti. Her designs were simple and sensuous, curving and organic. She had the Midas touch: even when she worked in silver, she produced gold for Tiffany. Through the years, Peretti's elegant creations, many with a European flair, made her one of Tiffany's most valuable designers; in 1998, sales of her pieces reached $175 million, 17 percent of the company's total sales of just over $1 billion.  

In 1979, Tiffany hired John Loring as its design director--only the third in the company's history--and he has been responsible for the Tiffany look ever since. He, too, has the Tiffany touch. He brought another designer to the store, an old friend with a rather well-known name, Picasso. She is Paloma Picasso, the youngest daughter of the great painter. In 1980, her first collection of bold designs set with both traditional and exotic colored gemstones was introduced, offering a wholly different look from those of Peretti and answering the needs of the more traditional customer. She also introduced her Graffiti collection and Scribbles, jewelry that looked as if it had just been doodled into existence.  

During the 1980s, Tiffany began a concerted effort to reach more customers outside the United States. Although it had opened a boutique in Tokyo in 1972, in the Mitsukoshi department store, it was only when William Chaney took over as chairman in 1984 that the company began an aggressive expansion campaign. Chaney, the former president of Avon Corp., had led a group that purchased Tiffany from Hoving in 1979. One of his primary goals after becoming chairman was to take the venerable jeweler public, which he did on May 5, 1987. That year, Tiffany opened its first European flagship store, in London, and over the next dozen years more than a hundred shops sprouted worldwide, including outlets in Singapore, Hong Kong, Sydney, Munich and Milan. The expansion continued on the domestic front as well, with 37 stores in America by the end of the '90s.  

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