A guide to Tiffany & Co. — an American institution

The history of the world’s oldest major jewellery brand, including its four main designers, historic pieces sold at Christie’s, and iconic Tiffany necklaces, rings, bracelets, pendants and earrings

A selection of  jewellery by the iconic American jewellery Tiffany & Co

Tiffany & Co. — the early history

The story of Tiffany & Co., the world’s oldest major jewellery brand, begins in 1837 at 259 Broadway, New York. Founded by school friends Charles Lewis Tiffany and John Barnett Young, Tiffany and Young, as the company was then known, set out selling small fancy goods. Charles Tiffany would marry Young’s sister, Harriet, and in 1853 he bought out his partners and renamed the company Tiffany & Co.

Beyond jewellery, Charles Tiffany responded to the growing desire for luxury goods by selling bouquet holders, purses, Guerlain soaps and fine stationery, some imported from Paris. By 1845 he was advertising ‘French Jewellery’, including items in gold, as well as a wide selection of imitation jewellery aimed at reaching a wider audience.

Important late-19th-century emerald and diamond necklace, by Tiffany & Co. Thirteen graduated circular-cut emeralds from approximately 7.19 to 1.70 carats each, old-cut diamonds, gold, 1880s, signed Tiffany & Co. Sold for CHF 1,572,500 on 16 May 2018 at Christie’s in Geneva

A Paris branch opened in 1850, and a year later the firm started a long relationship with Patek Philippe of Geneva. When Antoni Patek visited Tiffany’s in 1855, he left with an order for 129 watches.

In 1878 one of the most famous sales of royal jewellery took place, when the jewels of Isabella II, Queen of Spain, came to market. Tiffany & Co. was one of the main buyers. It may well be that some or all of the emeralds in the magnificent necklace shown above originated from that historic sale.

An antique diamond ‘Feuilles de Groseillier’ brooch by Alfred Bapst, circa 1855

An antique diamond ‘Feuilles de Groseillier’ brooch by Alfred Bapst, circa 1855. Sold for CHF2,285,000 on 11 November 2004 at Christie’s in Geneva. This was bought by Tiffany in 1887 from the sale of the French Crown Jewels

In the same year, the company acquired the 128.54 carat Tiffany Yellow Diamond for $18,000. Also in 1878, at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, Tiffany & Co. became the first American jeweller to be awarded the Grand Prix for its display of Japanese-influenced silver.

The firm continued to be a major buyer of royal jewels and spent $487,459 in May 1887 when the French Crown Jewels were sold in Paris. These spectacular historic treasures were eagerly acquired by the new American tycoons who had made fortunes building empires of industry and finance in the last quarter of the 19th century.

America’s coming of age

As America prospered during the mid-19th century, Tiffany & Co. expanded, opening a larger shop on Union Square in 1870. As national pride grew in the quality of American workmanship, so did demand for US-sourced gems and pearls.

By the time of the Californian Gold Rush (1848-1855), Tiffany was able to source all of its gold and silver from within the United States — something that appealed to its patriotic customers. 

The increased use of native gemstones started with freshwater pearls being purchased in large quantities in the 1850s. Tourmalines had been discovered at Mount Mica in Maine as early as 1820, and America’s lapis lazuli and amethyst were deemed to be of such high quality that these stones were exported to Paris, the jewellery capital of the world. Colorado was the source of gemstones such as aquamarine, topaz, rose-quartz and zircon, while in the Little Belt Mountains of Montana, the ‘blue pebbles’ spotted alongside gold nuggets in Yogo Creek were finally recognised as sapphires in 1894. 

At the Paris Exposition of 1889, Tiffany’s designer George Paulding Farnham was awarded a gold medal for a series of 24 life-size orchids made from gold and enamel, usually with a central pendant diamond. As the Art Nouveau movement gained traction in the succeeding decade, Louis Comfort Tiffany — the son of founder Charles Tiffany — became one of its foremost exponents in the United States.

Louis Comfort Tiffany

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) began life as a painter before becoming interested in glass in his late twenties. In the latter part of the 1870s he worked for several different glass manufacturers, before setting up on his own in 1883. He was determined to improve the quality of contemporary glass and, with his father’s encouragement, the new business prospered.

President Chester Arthur commissioned Louis Tiffany in 1882 to redecorate several rooms in the White House, to include new glass windows and a floor-to-ceiling glass screen in the entrance hall.

In 1885, Louis established his own glassmaking firm, the Tiffany Glass Company, which in 1902 became Tiffany Studios. From 1895, Louis Comfort Tiffany’s famous lamps were being produced commercially, with Clara Driscoll among the firm’s group of talented designers.

Louis Tiffany moved into designing jewellery quite late in his career, and it was only in the first few years of the 20th century that he began exhibiting his own creations with those of Tiffany & Co. Focusing on the natural world, he made pieces referencing wild flowers, berries, dandelions and dragonflies.

The 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, proved to be Charles Tiffany’s swansong; he died the following year aged 90. Louis Tiffany began devoting more of his time to the family firm, and by the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St Louis, he was making an indelible impression on the artistic direction of the firm. In 1907, Louis Tiffany sold his own jewellery business to Tiffany & Co. for $35,000.

To create his jewellery, Louis Tiffany used sapphires from Montana and tourmalines from Maine in combination with his own ‘favrile’ glass and enamel. His lasting memorial was to be as the creator of jewelled works of art that were appreciated in their own right without any consideration as to their intrinsic value.

Tiffany’s post-war renaissance

The Great Depression and Second World War hit Tiffany & Co. hard, and recovery was slow. In 1955, however, the firm was taken over by Walter Hoving, who sparked a turnaround in its fortunes. A year later, Parisian jewellery designer Jean Schlumberger opened his salon at Tiffany’s, and when Breakfast at Tiffany’s, starring Audrey Hepburn, was released in 1961, it proved a powerful advertisement for the brand.

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The Berlin ruby and diamond ring, by Tiffany & Co., was presented by Irving Berlin to his wife Ellin on their 40th wedding anniversary in 1966. Sold for $1,152,500 on 12 June 2018 at Christie’s in New York

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A diamond, ruby and sapphire American flag brooch, by Tiffany & Co. Sold for $20,000 in December 2009 at Christie’s in New York

Jean Schlumberger

Jean Schlumberger (1907-1987) started his career in Paris in the 1930s as a designer of costume jewellery for the renowned couturier Elsa Schiaparelli. By the end of the decade he was creating fine jewellery for a discerning clientele.

In 1939 he joined forces with Nicholas Bongard (1900-1982), and together they opened a jewellery shop at 745 Fifth Avenue. Like many jewellery designers, Schlumberger looked to nature for inspiration, particularly marine life in the form of sea urchins and barnacles.

In 1955, new owner Walter Hoving felt that Tiffany & Co. was in need of a fresh look, so he recruited Schlumberger and Bongard to the company, offering the two designers scope to express their artistic talents on a much larger scale.

Jacqueline Kennedy became a regular client and is best remembered for her purchase of the Two Fruit clip in rubies and diamonds. Other notable customers included Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and Paul Mellon.

‘Schlumberger brings to his art classic design principles of the Renaissance,’ reported the Blue Book (Tiffany’s catalogue) of 1986. Diana Vreeland, the respected former editor of Vogue, wrote that Schlumberger appreciated ‘the miracle of jewels, which for him are the ways and means to the realisation of his dreams’.

Who else but Schlumberger — one of only four jewellers that Tiffany has allowed to sign their work — would have had the imagination to mount the famous Tiffany Yellow Diamond using a jewelled bird, above, standing on top of the 128-carat stone?

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Paloma Picasso

In 1980, Paloma Picasso joined the company and brought a fresh look to its designs. Born in 1949, she was the youngest of Pablo Picasso’s four children; her mother, Françoise Gilot, was a talented painter and writer in her own right. In 1968, Paloma became a costume designer in Paris, and her early success led to her doing a formal course in jewellery design. Just a year later, she was commissioned by Yves Saint-Laurent to design accessories.

John Loring, who became Tiffany’s Director of Design in 1979, had first met Paloma at Peggy Guggenheim’s house in Venice when she was 16 years old. They became friends and Loring acted as her mentor, taking a keen interest in her development as a jewellery designer. In 1980 he made the brave move to appoint Paloma, now aged 30, as Tiffany’s next named designer.

At Tiffany & Co. the young designer had access to a huge variety of gemstones, and she created jewels that used large, colourful stones and bold mountings. In 1982 she created a series of pendants that included a Ceylon sapphire weighing 159 carats, and a peridot that weighed 284 carats, both of which were set in large pavé-set diamond frames. The pieces are seen as emblematic of the 1980s power-dressing trend.

Elsa Peretti

Born in Florence in 1940 and educated in Rome and Switzerland, Elsa Peretti became a fashion model and moved to Barcelona. In 1969 her first silver jewels were shown in New York alongside the collection of a friend, the fashion designer Giorgio di Sant’Angelo. Her jewellery was modern and tactile, often with sensual overtones.

Peretti began her career at Tiffany’s in 1974, and five years later became the firm’s principal designer. Her silver pieces had the desired effect of attracting a younger clientele, who wanted eye-catching jewellery at more affordable prices.

Peretti went on to design more than 30 collections. She travelled extensively, including trips to China and Japan, which led to the creation of such designs as the Bean, the Open Heart and the Zodiac. In 2012, Tiffany and Peretti signed a 20-year contract, and within three years her trademarked Elsa Peretti designs represented nearly 10 per cent of Tiffany’s net sales.

Tiffany Blue

Tiffany Blue is the name given to the characteristic ‘robin’s egg’ colour associated with the company. The distinctive colour was initially used on the cover of Tiffany’s Blue Book, an annual publication that was launched in 1845, and which became the first mail-order catalogue to be distributed in America.

The colour has been used on all Tiffany & Co. promotional materials ever since, with Pantone listing Tiffany Blue as a private custom colour — PMS (Pantone Matching System) No. 1837. The number references the year of Tiffany’s foundation.

The enduring glamour of Tiffany’s

Famous clients have endorsed Tiffany’s since the very beginning. In 1876, Mrs Leland Stanford of San Francisco, a great collector of gems, paid $80,000 for a superb rivière of 37 Golconda diamonds. Charles Lewis Tiffany was always keen to acquire jewellery with imperial provenance; his wealthy clientele loved jewels that had previously been owned by royalty.

President Andrew Johnson’s daughter-in-law bought a Mazarin diamond, and Tiffany’s ledgers were filled with famous names such as Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Gould and Astor.

In the run-up to the release of Breakfast at Tiffany’s  in 1961, Audrey Hepburn posed for publicity photographs with the famous 128-carat Tiffany Yellow Diamond, set in a Ribbon Rosette necklace designed by Jean Schlumberger. The jewel, however, never actually appeared in the movie itself. 

Richard Burton bought his wife Elizabeth Taylor a diamond, sapphire and emerald ‘Dolphin Brooch’ by Jean Schlumberger for the premiere of the film The Night of the Iguana  in August 1964. When her collection was offered for sale by Christie’s in New York in December 2011, the brooch realised $1.2 million.

Also in 2011, Christie’s sold The Rockefeller Sapphire — a 62.02 carat Burmese gemstone that had been mounted by Tiffany & Co. — for $3 million. Originally in the collection of the Nizam of Hyderabad, it was purchased in 1937 by John D. Rockefeller, in whose possession it remained for the next 34 years. 

In June 2018, the sale of The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller in New York included a Schlumberger Tiffany sapphire and diamond ‘Sea Shells’ bracelet, above, which sold for $250,000.

Tiffany for everyone

It was in 1987 that Tiffany & Co. became a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange. Today, it has more than 300 stores worldwide, selling around $4 billion worth of jewellery and accessories every year.

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