One hundred and seventy-five years ago, a young entrepreneur and his partner established a stationery and fancy goods store in New York City. The year was 1837, and the new country was still in the throes of establishing its identity, eager to prove that there were Americans of style and taste.
To many minds, Europe was still the arbiter of all things elegant, while America was a much younger country cousin who didn’t know which fork to use. Sensing this bias, the entrepreneur was eager to elevate his American store to the standards of Europe, but interpreted by the more natural aesthetic of America. He wanted to sell the best, but in an entirely new, innovative way. When some expatriate French aristocrats, eager for funds, offered to sell him a cache of exquisite diamonds, he seized the opportunity to transform his store from “fancy goods” to something even more valuable. Although only in his twenties, Charles Lewis Tiffany’s big gamble paid off.
Throngs flocked to see the diamonds, which at the time were the most expensive gemstones for sale in America. The New York press crowned him the “King of Diamonds” and lauded his initiative. His purchase of a prominent silver works added to the cachet, as did the establishment of an apprentice program known as the Tiffany School, the first design school in America.
By mid-century, Tiffany and Company was considered one of the premier American purveyors of luxury goods. President Lincoln purchased a suite of seed pearls for his wife to wear to his Inaugural Ball. Ulysses S. Grant commissioned a ceremonial sword shortly thereafter. The Tiffany stamp became de rigeur on racing trophies, significant medals, and other commemorative pieces of chased and wrought sterling silver. Tiffany created a special suite of jewels to celebrate the American Centennial in 1976, including the first version of the diamond, ruby and sapphire flag brooch that has been widely emulated.
But the greatest coup was the 1880’s commission from the U.S. government to redesign the Great Seal of the United States. The familiar medallion of an eagle clutching arrows and olive branches appears on nearly every document, but is most familiar on the back of the one dollar bill. Tiffany’s origins in copperplate stationery engraving, combined with its emphasis on classical design, came together on a commission that is literally seen and touched by millions of Americans every day.
The 1880’s were also important for Tiffany’s diamond business. The acquisition of a rare fancy yellow diamond cut to a dazzling 126 carats caused an enormous stir, as it does to this day, where it still can be seen in the New York flagship.
Tiffany also worked with smaller diamonds, mounting them in solitaire in a higher six-prong setting to create the engagement ring as we know it. By lifting the stone off the band into the light, Tiffany was able to enhance the brilliance and appeal of diamonds of every size.
By the time of its centennial, Tiffany and Company was well known throughout the world. Commissions from the Ottoman Emperor, the Czar of Russian, and many crowned heads of Europe created an international demand for gems and luxury goods designed and made in America, a striking contrast from the company’s early days.
When the founder’s son, Louis Comfort Tiffany, took over the reins as art director at the turn of the century, he brought another infusion of innovation to the already famous company. Already a world leader in the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements, his focus on the natural world in design assured Tiffany’s prominence as an indigenous American brand.
He believed that the inspiration of flowers and insects restored the human spirit, and he made liberal use of colored metals, enamels and stones in his prodigious catalog of designs, calling each of his pieces, “a little missionary of art.” He was also influenced by ancient cultures, borrowing and juxtaposing Etruscan, Greek, Egyptian, Indian, and Moorish motifs. He believe that creating beautiful, useful objects brought refinement to the ordinary tasks of life.
That design mantle was carried forward in the twentieth century by Frenchman Jean Schlumberger, whose Paris and New York salons were patronized by Diana Vreeland and an extremely chic clientele of starlets and socialites.
When Schlumberger joined Tiffany in 1956, he had access to an unlimited supply of precious stones with which to create his fantastical exotic creatures, flowers, and birds. He revived the interest in enamel bracelets, which became known as “Jackie bracelets” after their most famous aficionado, Jacqueline Kennedy. His signature designs are still in production, and widely recognized today for their charming juxtaposition of gold, diamonds, and vibrant gems.
The next generation of Tiffany designers continues to create distinctive jewelry that spans the decades. Elsa Peretti’s fluid heart, bean, starfish, and bone designs are synonymous with the brand, and variations continue to be best-sellers decades after their introduction.
Paloma Picasso’s distinctive and bold designs have established her as an artist in her own right, and continue to evolve with time and taste.
Architect Frank Gehry’s bold and angular approach has taken jewelry in a new direction, creating a new vernacular with his streamlined aesthetic.
And leather designers Richard Lambertson and John Truex continue to create handbags, totes, scarves, and accessories with luxe materials, timeless shapes, jewel-like hardware, all lined in distinctive, desirable Tiffany blue.
Surviving 175 years as a respected, admired American enterprise is no small feat. Celebrating 175 years as a brand that evokes delight, joy, excitement, and awe is something even greater. Happy Glittering, Shining, Glorious Birthday, Tiffany!
You can read more from Jennifer Raiser at SFWire.com, Nob Hill Gazette, San Francisco Chronicle, Huffingtonpost.com.