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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
| By Ettagale Blauer | From 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.  

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.  

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.  

Though the global expansion has brought Tiffany's wares within the reach of millions, it is the Fifth Avenue store that still provides the most visible symbol of the company's success. Under Chaney, the Manhattan building had been sold during the height of New York's real estate boom. Last fall, the 10-story flagship building was repurchased by Tiffany, from the Daiichi Real Estate Co. of Japan for $94 million ($29 million more than Tiffany got in 1984), and it continues to attract a steady stream of customers and gawkers each year. In its gleaming showcases, the luxury-goods maker has managed the Herculean task of maintaining its name brand while promoting the names of its designers. And in spite of Tiffany's formidable reputation, some of its creations, such as key chains, are very modestly priced, allowing almost anyone to leave the store bearing one of those little blue boxes.    

Ettagale Blauer is the author of African Elegance (Rizzoli).