From Acclaim to Obscurity—and Back Again

Paulding Farnham, Tiffany & Co.’s head jewelry designer from the 1890s through the early years of the 20th century, was a pivotal figure in the history of jewelry design. He established Tiffany as a world-class jewelry house, winning gold medals at international exhibitions in the 1890s and early 1900s. Working with Tiffany’s renowned gemologist, George Frederick Kunz, Farnham created pieces that showcased American gems never before used in jewelry, pushing the field in new directions and changing the public’s taste in the process. René Lalique, among others, was clearly influenced by his style.

In addition to his jewelry creations, Farnham designed silver pieces and hollowware for Tiffany and sculpted the prestigious Belmont Stakes horseracing trophy and the Adams Vase, housed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Yet until the 1990s, Farnham was hardly a household name, even among jewelry connoisseurs. Many collectors who had purchased his pieces didn’t know who the designer was. After 1908, the year Farnham resigned from Tiffany & Co., items documenting his work were tucked into a corner of the company’s archives. Thereafter, his status as an innovator in jewelry design went largely unrecognized.

A lavishly illustrated new book by John Loring, Tiffany’s design director, draws Farnham back into the spotlight by showcasing his spectacular creations along with watercolor-and-ink drawings from his sketchbooks and a history of his brief but brilliant career. Paulding Farnham: Tiffany’s Lost Genius (Harry N. Abrams Inc., 160 pages, $49.50), the first book about the designer, includes family photographs, Tiffany’s original black-and-white photos of Farnham’s pieces, and quotes from reviews of his collections in jewelry publications of the period.

Loring, Tiffany’s design director since 1979, has been perusing the more than 3 million documents in the company’s archives for over two decades and has written nine other books, including Tiffany Jewels and Tiffany’s 20th Century: A Portrait of American Style. Amid the extensive collection, Farnham’s drawings stood out, Loring says.

“His preliminary drawings are vigorous and stylish as those of no other jewelry designer,” he writes in the preface to his book. “His range was extraordinary, and his adroit use of Native American and Orientalist design vocabulary unique in the history of jewelry. He was a consummate colorist, and his floral jewels have no equal. He was, without contest, the greatest native-born jewelry designer our country has produced.”

Prized collections. Neil Lane of Neil Lane Estate Jewelry, Los Angeles, has amassed an extensive collection of Tiffany jewelry over the years, including a number of Farnham pieces. Several items in Lane’s collection are illustrated in Loring’s book. “It was exciting to see the original sketches” for pieces he owns, Lane says. “I didn’t know drawings existed.”

Lane notes that when he first started buying jewelry at flea markets and antique shows years ago, he could take home a Farnham piece for $1,800; today, Farnham’s jewelry fetches hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Audrey Friedman, co-owner of the Primavera Gallery in New York, has two Farnham pieces, including a pink tourmaline and green garnet iris brooch. Farnham made the brooch, pictured in Loring’s book, for his wife after she admired a Montana sapphire and green garnet brooch he had made for the Paris exhibition. “Not only is it a really beautiful piece of jewelry, but it’s a historically important piece of jewelry,” Friedman says. Because it was a gift to the artist’s wife, it’s signed with Farnham’s name instead of Tiffany’s.

Unlike other jewelry houses, Tiffany has promoted the names of its individual designers, like Jean Schlumberger and Elsa Perretti, notes Friedman. “It was inevitable that they would work their way back to Farnham. The time is ripe for him to get the credit that he so richly deserves.”

A family connection. George Paulding Farnham was born in New York City in 1859. Both his parents’ families had come to America in the 1600s. His mother’s sister, Eleanor M. Paulding, was married to Charles Thomas Cook, vice president and later president of Tiffany & Co., and the right-hand man to Tiffany founder and president Charles Lewis Tiffany.

Through Cook, Farnham obtained an apprenticeship at the studio of Tiffany’s chief designer, Edward C. Moore. Known as the “Tiffany School,” the training program stressed drawing and modeling from nature. The program enabled Farnham to hone his considerable skills. “His drawings are on the level of major artists,” says Loring. “There was no need for a renderer or drafting people to interpret them.”

In 1885, Farnham completed his apprenticeship and became a general assistant to Moore in Tiffany’s design department.

At age 27, Farnham was asked to create Tiffany’s jewelry collection for the Exposition Universelle, the world’s fair to be held in Paris in 1889 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. It took him two years to finish the collection, which included about 200 designs. Among them were 24 enameled and jeweled gold orchids, which were lauded by the press and won the gold medal for jewelry. Orchids, which had been introduced in North America around the 1830s, were a symbol of wealth, Loring notes in his book.

In response to the public’s enthusiasm for Farnham’s orchids, 15 more were produced in 1890. On Oct. 20, 1993, one of Farnham’s 1890 series of enameled orchids sold at Sotheby’s New York for $415,000.

“His enameled orchids signaled the beginning of American jewelry design,” says jewelry historian Janet Zapata, the former archivist for Tiffany & Co. Zapata wrote articles on Farnham’s jewelry and silver in the March and April 1991 issues of Antiques magazine; these articles first introduced the designer’s work to a wide audience. They attracted the attention of Farnham’s granddaughter Sheila Tinsley, who provided access to family papers that were the source of a follow-up article by Zapata in the March 1999 issue of Antiques. Tinsley also provided information for Loring’s book.

Along with his orchids, Farnham’s Native American pieces in the 1889 Paris exhibit received rave reviews. The Jeweler’s Circular and Horological Review—the precursor to JCK—reported in April 1890 that “Not only did the artisans whose hands wrought these beautiful objects receive their training in the Tiffany shops, but the designs of the principal part of the collection are of pure American character, being a refinement to the point of perfection of the graceful and quaint forms which have been unearthed among the rude implements made by the native American Indians. The chief designer, George P. Farnham, to whose genius the country is indebted for the collection, is as much American as it is possible to be.”

The Native American jewelry—simple, yet chic—was astonishing to Europeans, Loring says. “It was a whole new approach to making jewelry that this young man had come up with based on Native American design,” he says. “It was totally unexpected.”

The international exhibitions of the day weren’t just quaint showcases for jewelry companies’ work. “Whoever won the gold medals would get the business,” Loring explains. Farnham’s 1889 achievement was all the more remarkable because he won the medal on French turf for his uniquely American collection.

Gold medals galore. After his Paris success, Farnham immediately started on a collection to be displayed at the World’s Columbian Exposition, scheduled to open in 1893 in Chicago. Moore, his mentor, became ill and died in 1891. Upon Moore’s death, Farnham was appointed secretary and transfer clerk, as well as head of the jewelry department, by Tiffany’s board. Farnham oversaw the silver as well as the jewelry collections for the Chicago exhibition. He created a jewelry collection that focused on Louis XV and Louis XVI Revival styles, including important aquamarine and pink topaz parures. His Chicago jewelry collection also included floral and nature-themed jewels and pieces influenced by Islamic and Orientalist art, featuring vibrantly colored semiprecious gems supplied by Kunz. Tiffany’s exhibits won 56 medals in Chicago.

At the time of the Chicago exposition, the American economy was falling into a recession, Loring explains. Farnham’s use of semiprecious gems made the pieces affordable. “It was proto-fashion jewelry,” Loring says.

Although Farnham was inspired by Oriental culture, he developed the themes in a way that was uniquely his own, Lane notes. “It was à la mode in the late 19th century to have a fascination with things ancient and Eastern and a little bit mysterious. But he incorporated them in a very American way.”

In her March 1991 article, Zapata noted that each of the pieces Tiffany displayed in Chicago was stamped with a mark created exclusively for the exhibition—a globe with “Tiffany & Co.” across the center, superimposed over a “T.” Lane, who owns a Farnham “Cupid and Dove” chatelaine watch made of carved moonstone with gold and diamond ribbons made for the Chicago exhibition, recalls having “no clue” about the meaning of the mark when he acquired the piece. “It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” Lane says. “I thought it was French.”

At the time of the Chicago exposition, Farnham was also working on the gold Adams Vase, commissioned by the American Cotton Oil Co. to honor its chairman, Edward Dean Adams. The agreement stipulated that the vase be “produced from materials exclusively American.” Farnham created it from yellow-green gold mined in Forest City, Calif., and adorned it with quartz, spessartite, amethyst, tourmaline, and freshwater pearls from the United States. Farnham completed the vase in 1895; Adams gave it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1904.

In 1896, Farnham finished the August Belmont Memorial Challenge Cup. The trophy, done in the art nouveau style, represented a stylistic departure for Farnham, who worked from photos of horses in Belmont’s stables to sculpt three horses standing under a stylized oak tree, with another horse forming the handle of the lid.

That year, Farnham married Sarah (“Sally”) Welles James, who later became a sculptor; her best-known work is the statue of Simón Bolívar that stands at the Avenue of the Americas entrance to New York’s Central Park.

In 1898, Farnham also designed a gold sword presented to Admiral George Dewey to honor the victory at Manila Bay. (The sword is now in the U.S. Naval Academy Museum.)

The French organized another Exposition Universelle in 1900 to celebrate the turn of the century. For this exposition, Farnham—who in 1899 had replaced John T. Curran as Tiffany’s chief silver designer—created a jewelry collection focusing on floral designs, Native American motifs, and Orientalism. They featured gems and pearls provided by Kunz, primarily from American sources. Pieces receiving the most attention included the “Aztec” necklace of Mexican fire opals and red tourmalines. Farnham’s jewelry and silver displays took home gold medals at the exposition, and Tiffany won the grand prize for jewelry.

The whereabouts of most of Farnham’s Native American jewelry are unknown today. One of the few items that Loring was able to locate and include in his book was the Aztec necklace. After Tiffany’s 20th Century was published, a woman walked into Tiffany’s Zurich, Switzerland, store and announced that the necklace was in her safe-deposit box. Loring describes the experience of seeing a piece he had known only through 100-year-old sketches and photos as “absolutely thrilling.”

“You don’t even think you will ever see the real object,” he says.

A pair of Mexican fire opal bracelets designed to accompany the Aztec necklace also was located. Burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee received the bracelets as a 40th birthday gift from her second husband, William Alexander Kirkland. Today, they are kept in a Philadelphia bank vault.

Right after the Paris exposition came the Pan-American Exposition, held in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1901. Farnham created a collection of Renaissance Revival pieces. His jewelry for the exposition featured colored gems and colored pearls and included pieces inspired by East Indian and other styles as well. He also created a “Viking” coffee service in silver. A bird-of-paradise corsage ornament created by Farnham for the Buffalo exposition was illustrated on the cover of the Jeweler’s Circular issue of Sept. 9, 1908, eight years after the fair.

In 1902, Charles Lewis Tiffany died, and his son, Louis Comfort Tiffany, appointed himself the design director and acquired artistic control of the company. Louis Tiffany’s artistic vision was at odds with Farnham’s, and the role of the company’s former head designer decreased significantly. “There was no room for two geniuses of the decorative arts in any house, even at Tiffany & Co., and Louis Comfort Tiffany was its largest shareholder,” Loring writes in his preface. “The total eclipse of Farnham’s career at Tiffany’s was inevitable and rapid.”

At the Turin International Exposition of Modern Decorative Arts in 1902, no Farnham jewelry was included; only his coffee service and vases from Buffalo and a dressing-table set that had been shown in Paris and Buffalo were exhibited.

At the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904, Farnham contributed only one piece of jewelry, a Renaissance revival enameled gold and diamond necklace; some of his silver, timepieces, and objets d’art also were included in the Tiffany exhibit. Farnham’s last Native American-style object, the “Aztec” bowl made of sterling silver and copper and set with semiprecious stones, was completed too late for the exposition.

A drawing for a souvenir spoon by Farnham found in Tiffany’s archives and dated May 17, 1907, has a slash through one of the elements and the notation, “Leave figures off. This change was ORDERED by Mr. L.C. Tiffany.”

Cook, Farnham’s uncle, who had become Tiffany’s president upon the death of Charles Lewis Tiffany, died in 1907. That year, Farnham began to sell his stock in the company, according to Zapata. In 1908, Farnham, then 48, left Tiffany and never designed jewelry or silver again. Farnham worked as a sculptor in New York until 1912, when he left the city—and his wife—to travel throughout the Western United States and California on various “wildcat gold-mining ventures,” Loring says. “They were very misguided; he was taken to the cleaners from gold-mining deals.”

The fact that Farnham achieved international renown at a very young age and produced a large number of extraordinary pieces in rapid succession probably contributed to the fizzling of his creative spark, Loring says. “The sad part was that it all was just like a comet that flashed through the sky and burned out very quickly.”

Paulding and Sally Farnham divorced in 1915. The former jewelry designer, fed up with the decorative arts, took up painting and produced a historical marine series. Zapata’s April 1991 article notes that Farnham’s 1924 résumé doesn’t even mention his career at Tiffany’s. “It’s astonishing that he never returned to jewelry design,” Loring says. “He knew perfectly well that he was the most famous jewelry designer in the world.”

In 1927, Paulding Farnham died at age 68 at Agnew State Hospital in Santa Clara County, Calif. “In the twenty-two and one-half years he spent with Tiffany & Co.,” Loring writes, “Farnham’s work won more honors both at home and abroad than any other jewelry designer of his time and brought Tiffany & Co. and the United States international respect as the undisputed leader in jewelry design during the last decade of the nineteenth century.”