The exotic jewels of Louis Comfort Tiffany

Louis Comfort Tiffany is best known for his gorgeous lamps, but his unique jewellery — characterised by intense colours, unusual stones and exotic motifs — has also become highly prized by collectors. Illustrated with pieces formerly in the Louis C. Tiffany Garden Museum Collection in Japan


A garnet, seed pearl and enamel brooch, by Louis Comfort Tiffany, Tiffany & Co. Estimate: $7,000-10,000. This lot is offered in Magnificent Jewels & the Rockefeller Emerald on 20 June 2017, at Christie’s in New York

The early influences

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) was the son of Charles Tiffany, founder of Tiffany and Co. His training in design began at an early age and at 17 he left home for Europe, the first of many travels abroad.

His trips to North Africa and the Near East had a particular impact on his life’s work, because it was here that he became consumed by an interest in colour, light and hues that were rarely seen in the palette of mainstream American artists. Naturalism and exoticism became key themes, and he took his inspiration from plants and flowers, as well as foreign cultures and his own expansive art collection.

Tiffany was a Renaissance man who turned his artistic talents to many mediums, including painting, furniture, textiles, pottery and book design. In the late 1870s he became fascinated by the decorative possibilities of glass, taking inspiration from Gothic stained-glass windows, and inventing new methods resulting in iridescent finishes, lava glass, and his most important innovation, Favrile glass. Then, as an interior designer, he created homes for such prominent figures as Mark Twain and President Chester Arthur. 

It was not until the death of his father in 1902, however, that Louis Comfort began to manufacture his own jewellery designs. It is possible that he felt intimidated by the fact that Tiffany and Co. had defined American taste and style in jewellery for so many decades.

The Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904

Production was begun in secret by Louis Comfort and his team of craftsmen in anticipation of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition to be held in St. Louis in 1904. It was at this St. Louis World’s Fair, as the exposition was also known, that Louis Comfort showcased 27 pieces of jewellery, much in the ‘hand-wrought’ or Arts and Crafts style.

An enamelled Queen Anne Lace brooch, a grape cluster necklace, a gold and opal pendant in the form of a Medusa jellyfish, a silver Etruscan-style collar necklace and even a bronze necklace with favrile glass-ball fringe were all displayed and received international acclaim.

The team that Louis Comfort had established to prepare for the Exposition was supervised by Julia Munson. Munson worked closely with Louis Comfort for 12 years, and together they created jewels with the same vibrantly coloured elements that were the hallmark of his glassware.

In 1907 Tiffany and Co. purchased the enamelling and jewellery-making departments of Louis Comfort’s Tiffany Furnaces for the sum of $35,000, after which all jewellery production was completed in-house with the name ‘Tiffany & Co.’ stamped on each piece. Only those pieces produced before this date bear the mark ‘Louis C. Tiffany, Artist’.

The Belle Époque style of the time was very much in contrast to the Arts and Crafts aesthetic of Louis Comfort. White was the fashionable colour, defined by the use of platinum, diamonds and natural pearls with small coloured stones, such as demantoid garnets, used for accent. Experimenting with platinum, jewellers discovered that they could produce intricate yet delicate openwork filigree jewellery that was extremely durable.

Louis Comfort, however, was not preoccupied with the traditional choice of important diamonds and pearls, the widespread utilisation of platinum or even with a gemstone’s quality. His primary consideration was with how a gemstone, given its colour and ability to diffuse and transform light, could convey the design and feeling he was trying to achieve.

A champion of American gemstones

Louis Comfort collaborated with George Frederick Kunz, the head of gemology at Tiffany & Co., and arguably the greatest gemologist in American history. Kunz supplied Louis Comfort with key materials that would transform his designs.

Louis Comfort and Kunz shared a fascination for unusual and unconventional stones. Tourmalines from the state of Maine and sapphires from the Yogo Gulch Mine in Montana displayed the colour and brilliance that Louis Comfort was seeking. Dense lapis lazuli and turquoise, moonstones with adularescence and opals, coupled with vari-coloured enamelling, can be seen as continuations of his pioneering work in glass and windows. The symbolism of stones was also taken into consideration: black opals, representing the feathers of peacocks, were the sign of immortality in Far Eastern cultures.

In the exploration of naturalism and exoticism using these gemstones, Julia Munson remained a key designer for Louis Comfort. When Munson left the firm in 1914, Louis Comfort hired Margreta ‘Meta’ Katherine Overbeck as her replacement.

Meta Overbeck had a preference for faceted gemstones and developed designs to incorporate these larger gems. Her jewels differed from those designed by her predecessor, and while the overall aesthetic had shifted, Louis Comfort presumably approved her designs. Overbeck remained with the firm until the art-jewellery department closed six months after Louis Comfort’s death in 1933, officially concluding the Louis Comfort Tiffany era of jewellery design.

Louis Comfort continued to work right up until his death, producing approximately 5,500 individual pieces of jewellery whose focus on colour and themes of nature and exoticism tested the limits of conventional style.

Takeo Horiuchi and his Louis C. Tiffany Garden Museum

In 1992 Takeo Horiuchi of Nagoya, Japan, began to build a comprehensive collection of artworks in every medium in which Louis C. Tiffany had applied himself, a 20-year odyssey that led him to the market’s foremost collectors, dealers, and auction rooms in the US. He went on to build the Louis C. Tiffany Garden Museum in Matsue, a town bordering the China Sea, to house his collection, and expressed his ideals and vision for the collection in the massive 2004 publication, Louis C. Tiffany: The Garden Museum Collection, by Alastair Duncan.

‘What interested me was the Japanese connection,’ the collector explained. ‘I determined to try to contribute to the two cultures, to East and West, by collecting Tiffany’s works.’ Once his Tiffany pursuit was underway, Horiuchi expanded his search to acquire furnishings and objets d’art by Tiffany’s counterpart artist designer-craftsmen in the French Art Nouveau movement.

When Horiuchi began to focus on Louis C. Tiffany’s jewellery production from the mid-1990s, this was a largely unchartered field among collectors of Tiffany Studios’ standard artworks. Whereas the firm’s other disciplines, such as its lamps, windows, and glassware, had by then well-established guidelines in terms of rarity, beauty and market value, the same did not apply to his jewellery.

Mr. Horiuchi made his final acquisition in a New York auction in March 2011, a week after one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded, and the subsequent tsunami, devastated the Pacific coast of Honshu. The subsequent seismology report issued by the Japanese government brought an abrupt halt to Horiuchi’s plans for an expanded new museum at the foot of Mt. Fuji, where it was predicted that three major earthquakes would occur within the next three decades. A museum primarily dedicated to the world’s premier Tiffany glassware was unthinkable under the weight of such a forecast, and it brought Horiuchi’s long and single-minded treasure hunt to a close. In March 2012 he sold his entire collection, some 620 works of art, including the jewellery featured in this story.

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