It might be hard to imagine, if you try to picture him in your mind, the founder and namesake of Tiffany & Co. – a Mr. Charles Lewis Tiffany. He was born in Connecticut in 1812, just four months before the outbreak of our second war with Great Britain, and less than thirty years after the end of our first. His family history in the New World dated back to Humphrey Tiffany, who arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1660 – about three hundred years before Audrey Hepburn would take to the screen and wax poetic about the charming store that Charles would open in 1837 in downtown Manhattan. The story of Tiffany & Co. is as long as the story of America, and their fates and fortunes have always been inexorably linked. This year they celebrate their 175th Anniversary, and we lookback on some of their remarkable achievements, their works of art, and the legacy on which they continue to build today.
In 1837, Charles Lewis Tiffany and his business partner John Young borrowed about one thousand dollars from Charles’s father to open a store on Broadway across from City Hall Park, selling stationery and “fancy goods.” Tiffany and Young had radical notions about how stores should operate, and in an era when prices were something you determined after lengthy negotiation and payment was something often settled later on, they offered clearly priced merchandise and accepted only cash. They called the store Tiffany & Young, and it was straightforward and fundamental, a new more American style of retail business, distanced from the crowded and unreliable markets of the old world. Theirs was a shop of repute and reliability from the start – and these qualities, as well as their guarantee, was embodied in the now-famous Tiffany Blue Box, which could not be bought but only received with the purchase of any of their wares. Over time the shop grew in both size and stature, and they began filling those iconic boxes with less stationery and more porcelain, Bohemian glass, and perhaps most importantly jewelry. They took on a third partner in 1841, a Mr. J. L. Ellis, and the store became Tiffany, Young and Ellis.
In 1845, the store offered its first mail-order catalog, the Tiffany Blue Book, a tradition that continues today. The Blue Book and the Blue Box were both signs of something bigger on the horizon, a new concept in the world of retail sales – the notion that a brand might have an identity, a personality, and carry a seal of quality instantly recognizable by anyone who sees it. Eight years after the release of the first catalog, Charles Lewis Tiffany took control of the company, and renamed it Tiffany & Co. – a name that has stood for excellence, craftsmanship, and design for the last one hundred and fifty-nine years. From that moment, the legend of Tiffany, and its role in American society has grown so vast it can be shocking to find out how many historical occasions they’ve been involved in. In 1862, they supplied the Union Army with swords and surgical equipment, and in 1877 they designed a stylized “NY” logo for a NYPD medal that would later become the symbol of the New York Yankees. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, Tiffany & Co. solidified their reputation as the finest jewelers and craftsmen in the United States.
In 1870, Tiffany & Co. opened a breathtaking store in Union Square, a palace of jewels and finery. Seeking to further develop the reputation of his company, Charles Lewis Tiffany sent his partner John Young to the continent to make a very special purchase. Young purchased and returned with the lion’s share of the French Crown Jewels, a major coup. Shortly thereafter, they acquired what would come to be called the Tiffany Diamond, a yellow diamond more than twice as large as the Hope diamond. This magnificent gemstone has been a symbol of the company ever since. The French Crown Jewels were destined for Astors, Rockefellers, and Vanderbilts – and in this milieu the prestige of Charles’s company reached new heights. As for the yellow diamond – its journey to public view would involve the world of two legendary Tiffany & Co. figures: George Frederick Kunz and Jean Schlumberger. Each would play a crucial role in bringing the Tiffany Diamond into the public eye. Kunz was a wunderkind, and Tiffany’s expert gemologist; he reportedly spent one year studying the stone before he cut it into its brilliant, multi-faceted shape. This stone would later be magnificently set by Jean Schlumberger, master jeweler and protégé of Elsa Sciaparelli, into the brooch “Bird on a Rock.” Schlumberger’s magnificent nature- inspired designs would win many awards in his lifetime. (Note: the Tiffany Diamond has been reset on the occasion of the 175th anniversary and will travel to Tokyo, Beijing, Dubai and New York, where it will remain on permanent exhibition.
Around the turn of the century Charles Lewis Tiffany’s son Louis Comfort Tiffany would be named the company’s first art director. Louis was a world-renowned designer, master of stained glass, and one of the leaders of the Art Novueau movement. His artistic direction would shape the company into a major player in the world of fine jewelry design, and would attract many legendary designers like Schlumberger into the fold. The twentieth century was a heady time at Tiffany & Co. as their notoriety and prestige grew enormously along with the nation’s prosperity. They collaborated with the likes of Andy Warhol, Lady Bird Johnson (on tableware for the White House), and Frank Gehry. They continue to elevate jewelry to the highest possible level of art today, working with designers like Elsa Peretti and Paloma Picasso.
In 1961, Tiffany & Co. and their flagship Manhattan store were thrust even further into the public eye and the collective consciousness of America when Blake Edward’s silver screen adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s hit theatres. Jean Schlumberger’s now-famous Ribbon Rosette necklace, adorned with many sparkling diamonds, appeared around Audrey Hepburn’s neck in publicity photos for the film. Furthermore, the film highlights and mythologizes the Tiffany flagship store in the minds of American moviegoers for generations. The company’s cinematic legacy was cemented in 2009 by the film Bride Wars, which features a stunning the Tiffany & Co. engagement ring. By the end of the twentieth century, the Tiffany & Co. reputation had become near legendary, and their legacy was inexorably tied to the notion of luxury in America.
Whether you are interested in a perfectly set diamond engagement ring (the Tiffany setting is among the most popular in the world), a sterling silver bracelet (they spearheaded the initiative to mark silver as such to guarantee quality), or just to take in the many glamorous, one-of-a- kind designer pieces, a visit to a Tiffany & Co. store is an experience like no other.