Tiffany’s is probably the place that first springs to mind, along with Cartier, when seriously sparkly diamonds are mentioned. But the firm’s real charm is that, although it will always be the mesmerising window full of jewels into which a penniless Holly Golightly gazes, it also offers the kind of accessible, timeless silver jewellery that won’t break the bank.
For, of all the great jewellers, Tiffany is one of the most democratic and historic – this year, it celebrates 175 years in business. What few people know, though, is that behind the pretty packaging and sparkling rocks, is the story of a man with a brilliant business mind.
The company’s founder, Charles Lewis Tiffany, was a cotton mill owner’s son from Connecticut. He was just 25 years old when he moved to New York and, with $1,000 from his father, teamed up with John B Young to open Tiffany & Young, a stationery and fancy goods emporium.
A canny businessman, he outmanoeuvred competitors by buying the best Chinese porcelain and Indian curiosities directly from ships arriving in New York, and soon established a reputation as the go-to place for quality products.
The move into jewellery
The company’s turning point came in the late 1840s, when Tiffany spotted an amazing opportunity. Political upheaval in Europe had caused the price of diamonds from European brokers to plummet, so he bought up the precious stones, including some of the French crown jewels.
Diamonds of this quality had scarcely been available commercially in America before. With this impressive haul, the shop became primarily a jeweller’s. In 1853, Charles assumed overall control, the firm was renamed Tiffany & Co. – and a legend was born.
Tiffany’s eldest son, Louis Comfort Tiffany, became art director after his father’s death in 1902 and espoused Art Nouveau style. Art Deco followed in the 1920s, based on the architecture of America’s new skyscrapers.
By then, well-known outside designers were contributing – first Paulding Farnham and Jean Schlumberger, followed more recently by luminaries such as Elsa Peretti, Paloma Picasso and Frank Gehry. Often, these designers contribute the smaller, silver-based items – despite its success, Tiffany has never forgotten its heritage in small gifts or its role as a silversmith.
Innovation remains the buzzword at Tiffany
Today, the firm is as innovative as it ever was, and lately scored two exciting firsts. One is a new precious metal, a unique alloy called Rubedo, which has a soft, dawn-pink glow and is already being used for jewellery such as wide cuffs.
The other is a first ever tie-up between high jewellery and cinema – the extraordinary one-off Art Deco diamond pieces that have been created for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. The link is appropriate. According to the film’s costume designer, Catherine Martin, “F Scott Fitzgerald was a Tiffany customer, and Louis Comfort Tiffany mixed in the Long Island circles Fitzgerald describes. The house archives really helped to recreate the period.”
Did you know?
The dazzling Tiffany Diamond weighed 287.42 carats when it was discovered in Kimberley Mines in South Africa in 1877. Charles bought the yellow stone the following year and, with the help of gemologist Dr George Frederick Kunz, had it cut into a 128.54-carat stone with 90 facets.
It has only been worn on two occasions, one of those being by Audrey Hepburn in publicity photos for Breakfast At Tiffany’s. It has recently been reset in a stunning necklace and takes pride of place on the main sales floor of Tiffany’s Fifth Avenue store.