The Blue Box Opens in London

The jewelry of Tiffany & Co. has always been known for quality and originality. From the company’s inception in 1837, Tiffany has embraced the new—whether it was a new gemstone, new design, or new designer.

An exhibit opening in London on June 24 explores that history. Some 180 pieces—many on loan from the Tiffany Archive and on display for the first time—will be shown at the Gilbert Collection, Somerset Hall, until Nov. 26, 2006.

The exhibit, sponsored by Tiffany & Co., was curated by Clare Phillips, curator of the Department of Sculpture, Metalworks, Ceramics and Glass at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Items from the Tiffany archive are accompanied by pieces from private collections. Together they form the most comprehensive exhibition of Tiffany jewels ever mounted.

Organizing an exhibition of this scale was daunting. “For me, the first priority was to immerse myself in Tiffany’s history—to research the company and to become familiar with the jewelry that survives and with the descriptions and photographs of pieces that are no longer traceable,” says Phillips. “Key themes and individuals within this history emerged clearly, and it was then a case of working out how these aspects might best be represented in the jewelry that survives—and in a narrative that would be engaging and understandable for the visitor.”

The roots of Tiffany & Co. date back to 1837, when the founder, Charles Lewis Tiffany, opened a small stationery and fancy-goods store with a partner, John Burnett Young. The shop, called Tiffany & Young, was located on Broadway in Lower Manhattan.

In 1841, a well-off cousin of Tiffany’s, Jabez Lewis Ellis III, joined them, and the firm’s name changed to Tiffany, Young & Ellis. The new infusion of capital from Ellis allowed the business to expand.

John Young began to travel abroad in search of new products. He introduced a line of paste jewelry from Paris whose success encouraged the company to stock more jewelry items. In 1844 it added some gold jewelry. One year later, the company abandoned paste jewelry in favor of quality pieces from London and Paris and in 1848 began manufacturing its own line of gold jewelry.

In Europe, political unrest had caused gem prices to drop by 50 percent, and John Young took advantage. He invested in diamonds as well as items from royal estates, including a diamond girdle supposedly once owned by Marie-Antoinette. Tiffany & Co. design director John Loring, in his book Tiffany Jewels (Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1999), states that these gemstone purchases allowed the company “after a mere 11 years in business, to establish itself as the leading jeweler in America.”

The first two sections of the London exhibit, “Rise of an American Institution” and “Temple of Fancy,” feature items from these early years, including a small section of steel and brass transatlantic cable. The 1858 laying of the first transatlantic telephone cable had set New York alight with excitement, so Tiffany & Co. bought 20 miles of unused cable to sell as souvenirs. According to Loring, a mob scene erupted on the first day of cable sale and police were called in to restore order.

A new partner joined the company in 1850. Gideon F.T. Reed, formerly of the Boston jewelers Lincoln, Reed & Co., was a prominent player in the international jewelry business. He established a Paris branch, Tiffany, Reed & Co., on the Rue Richelieu and continued the company’s quest for gemstones.

George McClure became a partner in 1852. McClure had started in 1845 as a clerk but gradually turned his interest in gemstones into his life’s work. He became the company’s head gemologist in the late 1840s.

The business continued to expand, moving several times to different locations along Broadway. Ellis and Young retired in 1853. Tiffany bought out their interests, and the company assumed the identity that we know today—Tiffany & Co.

In 1868, the firm was incorporated (with Tiffany and Ellis the principal shareholders), and two years later Tiffany & Co. headquarters moved to Union Square in New York. Over the next few years, branches were opened in London and Geneva.

The rise of Tiffany & Co. coincided with the Age of Expositions, as international World’s Fairs grew to prominence. The first—the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations”—was held in 1851 in the Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park. The fairs aimed to display the newest, most wondrous achievements of the world’s nations. Decorative arts, fine arts, agriculture, industry, and weaponry were among the categories, and each fair set out to surpass previous ones. Eventually the exhibitions came to resemble small cities. Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition, held in 1876, installed a train system to transport visitors.

Tiffany & Co. entered the fray in 1853, when the first world’s fair came to America. The “Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations” was held in New York’s Crystal Palace, at the spot now known as Bryant Park.

Tiffany’s display consisted mainly of seed-pearl jewelry and was well received. Tiffany & Co. next exhibited at the Paris Exposition of 1867, which featured 50,000 exhibitors and covered 35 acres. It was a huge success, drawing more than 10 million people. Tiffany & Co. won a bronze medal for its silverware.

Tiffany & Co. was enjoying great success at home. In 1861, President-elect Abraham Lincoln bought a pearl suite for his wife to wear to the inaugural ball. (A similar set of necklace and brooch is on view in the London exhibit.)

In 1876, Tiffany & Co. exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. The company’s display drew attention for showcasing loose colored stones and diamonds.

Janet Zapata, author of the “Tiffany” chapter included in editor A. Kenneth Snowman’s book The Master Jewelers (Thames & Hudson, 1990), notes that the Tiffany display was the first chance many Americans had to view diamonds firsthand. The recent opening of diamond mines in South Africa had greatly increased the volume of stones on the market.

The company also brought down the house with one of its finished pieces of jewelry. A diamond-set aigrette (or hair ornament) in the form of a peacock feather, the piece featured a 30 ct. center diamond, as well as 600 smaller diamonds set in yellow and red gold and platinum. The March 1877 issue of The Jewelers’ Circular noted that the piece “may well be regarded as a masterpiece of diamond-setting.”

Tiffany & Co. won gold medals at the 1878 Paris Exposition Universelle, both for its jewelry and its Japanesque silver, which paired silver with other metal alloys.

The third section of the London exhibit, “Such stuff as dreams are made on … ,” focuses on the company’s history from the 1870s to the start of World War I and includes the Tiffany Diamond. Discovered in 1878 in the Kimberley Mines, the 287.42 ct. rough canary diamond was larger and of better quality than any other known diamond of that color. It was cushion cut in Paris, which increased the brilliancy but reduced the weight to 128.54 cts. The stone is displayed in a setting by Jean Schlumberger, complete with a sparkling little bird of gold, platinum, diamond, and ruby.

The exhibit also notes the 1879 addition of the young gemologist George Frederick Kunz to the company. One of the greatest gemologists of all time—with a stone, kunzite, named after him—Kunz was responsible for the company’s groundbreaking use of unusual or distinctly American gemstones. The 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle featured a spectacular Tiffany & Co. display of colored stones and minerals of American origin, including North Carolina sapphires, Maine tourmalines, and New Mexican garnets—all collected by Kunz.

The display also included jewelry designs inspired by Native American artifacts. These were the work of George Paulding Farnham, another legendary jewelry designer, who began working for Tiffany & Co. in 1885.

The “Nature” section of the exhibit is “exceptional in including seven orchid brooches made around the time of Tiffany’s celebrated orchid display at the Paris Exposition of 1889,” says Clare Phillips. One, which depicts the orchid Odontoglossum wyattianum in gold, diamond, and enamel, has never been exhibited before.

Farnham created 24 of these ultrarealistic matte enamel orchids—meant to be used as hair ornaments—and hung them from fine wire so they hovered over the Paris display. John Loring notes that the pieces were “universally acclaimed as the most original and finest jewels” at the Paris fair, and they garnered the grand-prize gold medal for jewelry.

Tiffany & Co. won numerous prizes at the 1893 Chicago Worlds’ Columbian Exposition. The display included diamonds—the Tiffany Diamond made an appearance—as well as opulent pieces designed by Farnham using colored stones supplied by Kunz. Some used semiprecious stones, offering customers quality jewelry at more affordable prices. It’s a tactic the company still uses, says Phillips. “Tiffany manages to provide excellent design across a very wide price range,” she says, “and to instill a sense of glamour and occasion into both modest and extravagant purchases.”

In 1900, the company went back to Paris again. The “Paul-ding Farnham and the Paris Exposition of 1900” section of the London exhibit brings together eight pieces designed by Farnham for this fair. Montana sapphires were prominently featured in his collections, and one of the brooches on display in London shows them paired with gold, platinum, enamel, diamonds, and American freshwater pearls.

By this point, Tiffany’s reputation for design quality was unsurpassed. The company showed at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1901, and Farnham’s designs—this time with a Renaissance Revival theme—took home the gold.

A change came one year later, however, with the death of Charles Lewis Tiffany. Control of the company shifted to his son, Louis Comfort Tiffany, in 1902. The section devoted to L.C. Tiffany is one of the largest in the London exhibit, encompassing over 20 pieces.

Trained as a painter, L.C. Tiffany had exhibited work in both the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and the 1878 Paris Exposition. He had also formed two companies, one focusing on interior design—he redecorated the White House in 1882—and another on glass. His magnificent collections of iridescent Favrile glass won awards and sales virtually everywhere and collected grand prizes at the 1900 Paris Exposition, the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and the Turin Exposition of Modern Decorative Arts in 1902.

L.C. Tiffany appointed himself design director, ending the prominence of Paulding Farnham. Farnham increasingly took a backseat to his new boss and left the company in 1908. His retirement coincided with the end of the Age of Expositions.

As head designer of Tiffany & Co., L.C. Tiffany followed Farnham’s naturalistic lead, pairing Kunz’s gemstones with colored enamels and his own Favrile glass to create pieces in the art- nouveau style. A standout in the London exhibit is an L.C. Tiffany dragonfly brooch from 1904, with platinum lattice wings and a black opal and demantoid garnet body. L.C. Tiffany continued as design director until 1919.

The “Art Deco” and “New York World’s Fair and the 1940s” sections of the London exhibit showcase pieces from the company’s later collections, which kept in touch with current tastes—as seen in its geometric designs, and later, larger retro-style pieces. Items that provide insight into current affairs are also displayed, including a patriotic gold charm bracelet from 1943, complete with airplane and victory symbol charms.

The jewelry industry was hard hit by World War II. Tiffany & Co.’s more opulent pieces remained unsold, and their branch stores in Paris and London were forced to close. In 1955, the Tiffany family sold its interest in the company to Walter Hoving, the former president of Bonwit Teller. The final section of the London exhibit, “The Return to the Designer,” covers the postwar years.

Hoving, determined to bring the company back to the prominence it enjoyed at the turn of the century, coaxed many exceptional designers into the Tiffany fold, beginning with his 1956 hire of French designer Jean Schlumberger (creator of the gemstone bird setting for the Tiffany Diamond).

Schlumberger had formerly worked for fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli and also ran his own jewelry business. His quirky, opulent, yet elegant pieces delighted the social sets of Paris and New York and quickly brought the Tiffany name back to prominence.

Other designers, such as Donald Claflin (hired in 1967), Elsa Peretti (1974), and Paloma Picasso (1980), helped Tiffany &. Co. continue to appeal to current tastes. Claflin’s whimsical pieces captivated buyers in the 1960s, while Peretti’s sleek minimalist style changed the look of modern jewelry in the ’70s. And Paloma Picasso’s bold forms, huge gemstones, and bright colors became a signature look of the opulent ’80s.

This past spring, Tiffany & Co. introduced another groundbreaking collection. Well-known architect Frank Gehry has collaborated with the company in the design of a jewelry collection that manipulates unusual materials—including exotic woods and black gold—into freeform shapes with sharp angles and contrasting surface textures. The unexpectedness of both the choice of designer and the collection itself is another example of Tiffany & Co.’s willingness to try new things.

“Tiffany jewelry designs have always kept pace with contemporary tastes, and this is one of the most significant reasons for their continuing success,” says Phillips. “[The company’s] commitment to quality is important and contributes to its long-term reputation for excellence.”

As evidenced by this new exhibit, Tiffany quality is a tradition that goes back a long, long way.