Louis Comfort Tiffany, born Feb. 18, 1848, is best known for windows and lamps. While his father, Tiffany & Co. founder Charles Lewis Tiffany, created exquisite jewelry in precious metals with the finest gemstones, Louis spun magic from lead and glass. Few realize, however, that he also was a talented jewelry artist.
Louis was an accomplished painter. As a young man, he was taught by American landscape artists, including George Inness (1825-1894), considered by his contemporaries to be the greatest American landscape artist of his time. Louis Tiffany studied art throughout Europe and developed a vast artistic expertise—his media included paint, photography, textiles, architecture, bronze, interior design, and glass (enamels, mosaics, lamps, and decorative glassware). He became a leader in the art nouveau movement, and his works were sold in the Tiffany & Co. jewelry store on Fifth Avenue and 37th Street in New York (now occupied by a Burger King).
But stained glass made him famous. His vibrantly colored lamps and windows captured nature’s beauty—landscaped lakes, brilliant gardens, lush vineyards—and transferred it to banks, bus terminals, hospitals, and department stores, warming and softening the cold steel and hard concrete of industrialization.
Tiffany Art Jewelry. After his father died in 1902, Louis paid more attention to the operations at Tiffany & Co. He was appointed second vice president and shared the responsibilities of artistic director with G. Paulding Farnham, a jewelry designer who had held the post for nearly two decades. Farnham’s creations, classic for the period, were designed for America’s wealthy.
Louis took a different tack. Even as he was creating his first designs for the company—a series of jeweled perfume flasks made from Tiffany “favrile” glass and enhanced by Farnham’s jeweled crown—he was working on his own jewelry designs, concentrating on works for the masses. After experimenting with enamels and precious metals for a few years, he introduced his jewelry at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis—and won awards. It was time to make jewelry for the store.
In 1907, just as Louis was beginning to create his own jewelry line for the firm, company president Charles Cook died, elevating Louis to first vice president. At that point, Louis felt compelled to increase his involvement in jewelry design. Tiffany & Co. bought the jewelry manufacturing side of Tiffany Furnaces (Louis Tiffany’s glass studio) and moved it to the sixth floor of the jewelry store. More important, Louis became sole artistic director. Despite their past collaborations, Farnham, seeing his work redesigned by Louis, soon resigned from Tiffany & Co.
In 1908, after Farnham’s departure, Louis Tiffany discarded the practice of using only the most expensive gems. He sought stones to match the vibrant colors of Tiffany glass and took advantage of the firm’s gemologist, George Frederick Kunz, to locate a wide range of colored gems. He found Maine tourmalines; Montana sapphires; Utah garnets and topazes; Wisconsin natural pearls; Mexican fire opals; Arizona peridot and turquoise; and moonstones, amethysts, lapis, and coral. He incorporated them into affordable, wearable works of art, and Tiffany Art Jewelry was born.
His experience as an impressionist painter served him well. He was still “painting,” only now his palette consisted of colored gemstones and vibrant enamels. Even fancy colored diamonds took their place next to various “semiprecious” gems—just for the color design. (Colorless diamonds were almost totally neglected.)
Tiffany Art Jewelry was featured in the annual Tiffany & Co. “Blue Book” catalogs. Many pieces highlighted Louis Tiffany’s enamel work. Others featured Tiffany favrile as a jewel in itself; examples include favrile tiles framed in silver and favrile beetles mounted as pendants, stickpins, and cufflinks.
Tiffany Art Jewelry held its own for many years but faded from the “Blue Book” in the late ’20s as the Depression took its toll. In 1933, at the age of 84, Louis Comfort Tiffany died. The international acclaim he earned during his lifetime endures today.
Special thanks to Janet Zapata, jewelry historian, former Tiffany archivist, and author of many publications, including The Jewelry and Enamels of Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Linda Buckley, director, public relations, Tiffany & Co., for their help in providing information and artwork for this article.
Exhibit on Tour
Tiffany & Co. celebrated its jewelry heritage with an exhibition of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s jewelry at a number of Tiffany stores throughout the United States. Although that exhibition has closed, a new one, “An American Design Legacy,” is now on tour. It features works by Louis Tiffany, G. Paulding Farnham (chief designer at Tiffany & Co. during the 19th century), and many other Tiffany designers.