In 1837 an ambitious young man called Charles Tiffany borrowed $1000 from his father and set up shop with his friend John B. Young selling “stationary and fancy goods”. Today his name is synonymous with American style and luxury and Tiffany jewellery is worn by the world’s most elegant women.
Born in 1812, Charles Lewis Tiffany was just 25 when he and John Young opened the doors to their store ‘Tiffany and Young’ at 259 Broadway in New York City in 1837. Within a few years they were selling jewellery, predominantly gold pieces imported from Europe but also some diamonds which were still relatively rare at this time. Their first catalogue was printed in 1845, and advertised a wide range of goods which were available via mail order, a concept previously unknown in America. Various partners came and went allowing the business to expand rapidly, this included the opening of an office in Paris, the acquisition of a silversmiths firm and the manufacturing of their own jewellery designs. When both existing partners retired in 1853, Charles Tiffany assumed full control of the company and renamed it Tiffany & Co., he was a brilliant entrepreneur and promoted his company at every opportunity both at home and abroad.
Exhibiting at World Fairs exposed Tiffany & Co. to an ever increasingly wide audience and they won many accolades and awards for both their silver ware and jewellery. As his interest in diamonds grew and the success of the business fuelled his spending power Charles Tiffany was able to acquire more important stones. One of his most splendid purchases came in 1878 when he bought a 287.42ct canary yellow diamond discovered in South Africa; it was cut in Paris into a stunning 128.54ct cushion shaped gem christened the Tiffany Diamond which the company still owns today. In 1886 he introduced a new style of setting for solitaire diamond rings called the ‘Tiffany Setting’. The weight of metal in earlier styles had been removed and the diamond lifted up away from the shank and held in elongated claws, this allowed more light into the stone thereby creating more life and sparkle. Several years later, he cemented his reputation as ‘the Diamond King’ when he outbid his competitors to take home a total of 24 lots from the auction of the French Crown Jewels, spending an extraordinary $480,000 – a sum greater than the next nine largest buyers combined. Many of the gems sold quickly in their original settings but some were remounted and displayed two years later at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle including a beautiful 25ct diamond set to the centre of a necklace.
Alongside these diamonds the Tiffany stand also featured a stunning collection of twenty five naturalistic, enamelled orchids designed by Paulding Farnham all suspended from the top of the display case forming a beautiful floral canopy. Beneath this, nestled amongst the jewels was a collection of native American gemstones including sapphires, opals, tourmalines and beryls compiled by the now legendary gemmologist George Frederick Kunz. Known as the Tiffany Collection, the gems were purchased by the American financier J.P.Morgan who would go on to donate both this and another Kunz curated collection to the American Museum of Natural History where they are still on display. G.F.Kunz had joined Tiffany in 1879 and travelled the world in search of beautiful gems and pearls for the company to transform into jewellery.
The 1900 Paris Exposition was another great success for the company and Farnham, who by this time was the chief designer, received two gold medals in acknowledgement of his wonderful creations, not least of which was a magnificent 9 ½ inch Iris brooch set throughout with Montana sapphires. When Charles Tiffany died in 1902, his son Louis Comfort Tiffany took the reigns as Vice President and Art Director. His interest in art permeated his designs which were often kaleidoscopic in colour and combined a wide variety of gemstones with yellow gold, enamel and glass. He was acknowledged as a world leader of the Art Nouveau movement, and in 1907 Tiffany & Co. opened a dedicated ‘Art Jewelry’ department for the manufacture and sale of his work including lamps, pottery, jewellery and glassware.
In 1939 Tiffany was one of few jewellers to exhibit at the New York World Fair in the specially built House of Jewels. Their display was described in the press as “outstanding” and featured Art Deco style jewellery that reflected the machine age aesthetics of the period including “a great ruby and diamond comet brooch and a ‘fireworks’ diamond clip honoring the advent of the aeronautic age. There was a ruby and diamond orchid brooch and there was metallic jewelry in a new style of scrolling gold accented with gemstones that would lead jewelry design into the 1940s.” The following year saw the firm move for the final time into new flagship premises on the corner of 5th Avenue and 57th Street where they remain today.
The Parisian jewellery designer Jean Schlumberger joined Tiffany & Co. in 1956 and immediately caught the attention of jewellery connoisseurs with his bold, three dimensional pieces inspired by the natural world. Favoured by stylish women such as Elizabeth Taylor, Babe Paley and Jackie Kennedy his creations were vibrant, joyful and full of life. His iconic ‘Bird on a Rock’ brooches and brightly coloured paillonné enamel bangles are perfect examples of his design ethos and the attention to detail which, coupled with Tiffany craftsmanship, resulted in some of the periods most fabulous jewels. His design for the Ribbon Rosette necklace set with the Tiffany Diamond received international acclaim when it was worn by Audrey Hepburn whilst she promoted the 1961 film ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’.
Since then the company has welcomed many other designers with two of the most significant being Elsa Peretti in 1974 who created organic, sensual forms and championed the use of silver as well as gold and Paloma Picasso in 1980 whose bold vibrant designs provided a colourful contrast to classic Tiffany jewels.
Over the last thirty years the company has opened hundreds of branches across America and throughout the world as they continue to create pieces that epitomise a luxury American aesthetic.