The History of Tiffany & Co.
October 20, 2015
The 1830s in New York City were a time of dynamic growth and golden opportunity for anyone with a little capital and an abundance of imagination. In 1837 New York became the proving ground for 25-year-old Charles Lewis Tiffany and John B. Young, who opened a “stationery and fancy goods” store with a $1,000 advance from Tiffany’s father.
On their way to the new emporium at 259 Broadway, fashionable ladies in silks, satins and beribboned bonnets faced a gauntlet of narrow streets teeming with horses and carriages. At Tiffany & Co. they discovered a newly emerging “American style” that departed from the European design aesthetic, which was rooted in ceremonial patterns and the Victorian era’s mannered opulence. The young entrepreneurs were inspired by the natural world, which they interpreted in patterns of simplicity, harmony and clarity.
Tiffany first achieved international recognition at the 1867 Paris World’s fair. The company was awarded the grand prize for silver craftsmanship, the first time that an American design house had been so honored by a foreign jury. Tiffany was the first American company to employ the British silver standard (92% pure). Largely through the efforts of Charles Lewis Tiffany, this standard was adopted by the U.S. Government.
The Tiffany & Co. silver studio was the first American school of design. Apprentices were encouraged to observe and sketch nature, and to explore the vast collections of sketches and artwork assembled by Edward C. Moore, the celebrated silversmith and head of the studio. By 1870 Tiffany & Co. had become the America’s premier silversmith and purveyor of jewels and timepieces. At the turn of the 20th century the company had more than one thousand employees and branches in London, Paris, and Geneva.
In 1878 Tiffany acquired one of the world’s largest and finest fancy yellow diamonds from the Kimberley diamond mines in South Africa. Under the guidance of Tiffany’s eminent gemologist, Dr. George Frederick Kunz, the diamond was cut from 287.42 carats to 128.54 carats with 82 facets, which gave the stone its legendary fire and brilliance. Named the Tiffany Diamond, the stone became an exemplar of Tiffany craftsmanship. The legacy of Tiffany design is richly told in the annual Blue Book Collection, featuring Tiffany’s and the world’s most spectacular jewels. Initially published in 1845, the Tiffany Blue Book was the first such catalogue to be distributed in the U.S. The signature Tiffany Blue® color has distinguished the catalogue’s cover since 1878.
In 1886 Tiffany introduced the engagement ring as we know it today. Previously, diamond rings were set in bezels. But Mr. Tiffany’s ring was designed to highlight brilliant-cut diamonds by lifting the stone off the band into the light. This famous ring was named the Tiffany® Setting. To this day, it is the most sought-after symbol of true love.
Having introduced major gemstones to the United States through purchases of the crown jewels of France and Spain, Mr. Tiffany’s enterprise was now the world’s diamond authority. At the same time, the world had embarked on the Age of Expositions that took place in Europe and America. At every venue, Tiffany won the highest honors. The company’s exhibit at the 1889 Paris fair was heralded as “the most extraordinary collection of jewels ever produced by an American jewelry house.” Tiffany produced an equally praiseworthy collection for the 1900 Paris fair, along with magnificent silver pieces based on Native American designs. This unprecedented number of awards led to Tiffany’s appointment as Royal Jeweler to the crowned heads of Europe, as well as the Ottoman Emperor and the Czar of Russia.
With the death of Charles Lewis Tiffany in 1902, Louis Comfort Tiffany, the founder’s son, became Tiffany’s first art director. His position as America’s leading designer was well established by 1882, when President Chester Arthur invited him to redecorate the White House. By 1900 the younger Tiffany was a world leader in the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements. The famed artist created a remarkable range of designs, from technically brilliant leaded glass to colorful enameled and painterly jewels based on American plants and flowers.
Throughout the jeweler’s history, the most prominent members of American society were Tiffany customers. Vanderbilts, Astors, Whitneys and Havemeyers adorned their evening dress in Tiffany diamonds and commissioned the company to produce gold and silver services. President Lincoln purchased a seed pearl suite for his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, in 1862; and a young Franklin Roosevelt purchased a Tiffany engagement ring in 1904.
As the 20th century progressed, Tiffany designs captured the spirit of the times, from the extravagance of the 1920s to the modernism of the 1930s and the aerodynamic age of the 1940s and 1950s. Tiffany china set the stage for White House dinners and Tiffany jewels accented the elegant clothes of the world’s most glamorous women, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor and Diana Vreeland. Very often Jean Schlumberger created their jewels. This great 20th century jewelry designer arrived at Tiffany in 1956. His bejeweled flowers, birds and ocean life remain the pride of Tiffany & Co.
Throughout Tiffany’s history, the U.S. Government has called upon the company to create commemorative designs. Among them are ceremonial swords for Civil War generals; the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award; and the 1885 redesign of the Great Seal of the United States, which appears on the one-dollar bill.
Business and professional organizations have also commissioned Tiffany to create custom designs. The most well known is the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the National Football League Super Bowl® Championship. Tiffany has created the trophy since the first Super Bowl in 1967.
In addition to Jean Schlumberger, Tiffany welcomed other visionary designers, including Elsa Peretti, who transformed 1970s jewelry design with an elegant simplicity based on natural forms; and Paloma Picasso, who followed in 1980 with jewelry of bold originality. In 2013, Francesca Amfitheatrof joined Tiffany as Design Director and created her first collection for the company, Tiffany T, that captured the power, energy and creativity found in the world’s greatest cities.
Throughout the company’s history, Tiffany designers have drawn on the natural world for inspiration. Nature is also the source of the precious metals and gemstones necessary for creating their designs. Tiffany was an early proponent of obtaining these materials in ways that are socially and environmentally responsible. Tiffany has the opportunity and continued responsibility to set the standard for sustainable luxury. As Tiffany & Co. CEO Frédéric Cumenal, has said, “As a leader in sustainable luxury, Tiffany & Co. has an obligation to protect the natural environment. We need to make sure we honor the earth, which provides us with so much beauty, by doing everything we can to leave it whole.”
In 2012 Tiffany marked its 175th anniversary. In honor of this milestone, the Tiffany Diamond was reset in a magnificent necklace of dazzling white diamonds. After traveling to gala celebrations in Tokyo, Beijing and Dubai, the diamond in its new setting will return to New York City and its permanent place of honor on the Main Floor of Tiffany’s Fifth Avenue store.
This priceless gem is symbolic of a heritage based on the highest standards of quality and design excellence. These standards have made Tiffany & Co. one of America’s great institutions, a world-renowned jeweler with over 300 stores worldwide, and something more: the trusted maker of gifts that will be treasured for a lifetime.
Tiffany & Co.
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