Tiffany, Charles Lewis
Tiffany, Charles Lewis
Tiffany & Co.
Charles Lewis Tiffany built his "fancy goods" company into what became the nation's preeminent jeweler for over fifty years and a uniquely American symbol of elegance and style. Tiffany pioneered what would become a classic engagement ring style, the raised solitaire diamond, six–prong "Tiffany Setting." Dubbed by the press in his day as the "King of Diamonds," Tiffany has catered to everyone from the likes of presidents including Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy; European royalty; preeminent American families, including the Vanderbilts and the Astors; and celebrities in droves. Tiffany was honored for his dedication to excellence in his day and his trademarked Tiffany Blue Boxes and shopping bags have become familiar and enduring American icons of wealth and luxury to this day.
Tiffany was born on February 15, 1812 in Killingly, Connecticut, to Comfort Tiffany, a cotton goods manufacturer, and Chloe Draper. He married his partner's sister, Harriet Olivia Young on November 30, 1841 and had six children. Son Louis Comfort Tiffany became world renowned for his Tiffany glass. He died of pneumonia on February 18, 1902, in Yonkers, New York.
Tiffany was a founder of the New York Society of Fine Arts, patron of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and member of the National Academy of Design. He was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by France in 1878 and was bestowed the medal Praemia Digno by the Czar of Russia.
Educated at a school in nearby Danielsonville, Tiffany later spent two years at the Plainfield Academy in Connecticut. At the age of fifteen, Charles' father, a pioneer in the cotton goods industry, put him to work as a manager of a general store near the family's mill. Intermittently schooled in between work, Tiffany ran the store for ten years. He then joined his father's company, which was then christened, C. Tiffany & Son, after Charles' father bought out his partners.
On September 18, 1837, with a thousand dollars borrowed from his father, Tiffany and friend John B. Young opened Tiffany & Young at 259 Broadway in New York City. The store originally sold stationery supplies and fancy goods, including costume jewelry. Business conditions were less than ideal at the time with the Panic of 1837, and some thought the company's uptown location would be bad for patronage. The first three days of sales totaled $4.98, but after that rocky start the business soon took off. Tiffany's store was unique for its time, offering fixed prices on items, thus removing the bartering process. The company also refused to extend credit to customers, which had become a problem for many businesses of the day. By 1839 Tiffany added glassware, cutlery, porcelain, and clocks to the company's line of products.
By the time Tiffany married his wife Harriet in 1841, the company had a new partner, J. L. Ellis and became known as Tiffany, Young & Ellis. With the funds Ellis brought to the firm, the company was able to rent the adjoining room, doubling its floor space. Ellis, who brought strong experience in the European jewelry market, became the company's chief overseas operator after his buying trip to Europe. In 1844 the company was importing quality Italian and English jewelry, adding to its already well–respected reputation. That year the company discontinued its costume jewelry line as demand for the imported gems escalated along with their reputation for offering expensive, quality pieces. The company, which focused very little on gems at the time, published its first catalogue in 1845 that some speculate was the country's first mail–order catalogue.
The company's trademark shade of robin's egg blue was also established during the early years of the company and appeared on all company catalogues, shopping bags, boxes, and promotional materials. Regarding the now familiar Tiffany Blue boxes, the company's web site quoted a 1906 article in the New York Sun: "Tiffany has one thing in stock that you cannot buy of him for as much money as you may offer; he will only give it to you. And that is one of his boxes. The rule of the establishment is ironclad, never to allow a box bearing the name of the firm to be taken out of the building except with an article which has been sold by them and for which they are responsible." The tradition has continued to this day, with the Tiffany Blue boxes becoming a symbol of elegance and sophistication.
In 1847 the company also began selling silverware. The following year, the company benefited from revolutionary movements in Europe, enabling Tiffany's to acquire historic European jewels from important aristocrats over the next several decades, including some of crown jewels from the French Empire in 1887, when the press dubbed Tiffany the "King of Diamonds." After the European acquisitions, the company's reputation greatly broadened. In 1850 Tiffany opened another store in Paris and hired John C. Moore, a silversmith, to craft silverware exclusive to Tiffany's and also began manufacturing gold jewelry, aided by the California gold strike in 1850. Tiffany was the first U.S. company to use the 925 parts silver per thousand standard for sterling that later became the United States Sterling Standard. The company underwent another reorganization when Tiffany's partners, Young and Ellis, retired, and in 1853 the company was renamed Charles L. Tiffany & Company. Tiffany had a huge statue of Atlas beneath a clock installed at the company's new headquarters at 550 Broadway. The statue, which moved three more times, may still be seen above the company's Fifth Avenue store entrance.
Tiffany was skilled in promotion and steered the company to further growth throughout the rest of the 1850s. Tiffany was able to generate publicity for his company in association with P. T. Barnum on several occasions. Once he crafted a special jeweled horse and carriage as a wedding gift for the marriage of Barnum's Tom Thumb. The most publicized promotional event occurred in 1858, when Tiffany's sold sections of the first transatlantic cable as souvenirs, which generated so much interest that the police were called to keep frenzied buyers in line. In 1861 Tiffany was hired to design a presentational pitcher for the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln later gifted his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, with a seed–pearl jewelry suite from Tiffany's.
In support of the Union forces during the ensuing Civil War, Tiffany's manufactured patriotic items including flags, medals, surgical implements, and swords, and he allowed his store to serve as a depot for military supplies. Tiffany also designed jewel–encrusted presentation swords for Generals Grant and Sherman. After the war, the company, which was incorporated in 1868, opened a London store that same year. Tiffany, who served as the company's president and treasurer, also found a building for its New York operations on Fifth Avenue after several other sites were tried. In addition to jewelry, the company began producing clocks and watches.
As the company's reputation for quality and excellence grew, Tiffany's attracted more than twenty crowned heads of state among its worldwide range of customers. In 1867 Tiffany's was the first American company to win the gold medal for jewelry and the grand prize for silverware at the Paris Exposition. The company opened a factory in Newark, New Jersey, which produced Tiffany's silverware, stationery, and leather goods. Tiffany–designed copper, silver, and niello pitchers were acquired by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the first of many of the company's designs currently in museum collections worldwide. Tiffany continued to enhance his company's reputation by acquiring the 128.54 carat fancy yellow Tiffany Diamond in 1878, one of the largest diamonds of its kind in the world. It was later worn by Audrey Hepburn in publicity photos for the movie classic, Breakfast at Tiffany's. The gem can be seen to this day on the first floor of Tiffany's Fifth Avenue store.
Innovative jewelry design became a Tiffany trademark early on. The six–prong diamond solitaire engagement ring was created using the "Tiffany Setting," which raised the stone up from the setting, thus allowing the maximum amount of light to set off the diamond's brilliance. Tiffany's son, Louis Comfort Tiffany, established a special department within the company called Tiffany Art Jewelry in 1902.
Tiffany died of pneumonia on February 18, 1902, in Yonkers, New York. At the time of his death, his personal fortune was valued at $35 million and the company was capitalized at $2.4 million. Son Louis took the position of vice president and artistic director of Tiffany & Co. after his father's death and became an accomplished jeweler in addition to the fame he would later acquire for designing stained glass.
In 1905 the store moved again to a sixteenth–century Venetian–style building on Fifth Avenue at 37th, which became a National Landmark in 1978. In 1940 the company moved its New York headquarters to its own building, designed by Cross & Cross, on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, where it exists today. The company, which went public on the New York Stock Exchange in 1986, continued after Tiffany's death to set standards in the jewelry industry: In 1926 Tiffany's platinum became the official standard for all platinum in the United States: the company introduced tanzanite, a unique blue gemstone, to the world in 1969; and the company innovated a new engagement ring, the Lucida, with a patented cut in 1999.
Chronology: Charles Lewis Tiffany
1837: Charles Lewis Tiffany and John Young established Tiffany & Young.
1845: Tiffany's published its first catalogue.
1850: Began making silverware exclusive to Tiffany's.
1853: Company renamed Tiffany & Co. after his partners retire.
1867: First American firm to win an award for its silverware at the Paris Exposition.
1878: Purchased the 128.54 carat Tiffany Diamond.
1886: Introduced the "Tiffany Setting."
1887: Acquired some of the French Crown jewels.
Social and Economic Impact
Charles Lewis Tiffany created more than just the most well–known jewelry store in the country; he created an enduring American symbol for luxury and elegance. With his early innovative business practices and dedication to excellence in jewelry and fine silver, Tiffany & Co. was the pre–eminent jeweler in the United States for over fifty years. Winning numerous prizes for his silver and jewels from international exhibitions, Tiffany proved to Europeans and others that his American artisans were among the best in the world. His famous acquisitions of some of the world's most desirable gems, including the Tiffany Yellow Diamond and the French Crown Jewels, built his worldwide reputation and attracted many of the country's most prominent citizens to seek out his treasures. From heads of state, celebrities, and royalty, to everyday people, Tiffany's continues to offer something for everyone.
Over a century and a half after opening his "fancy goods" store in New York, the Tiffany's empire has grown to include 225 stores worldwide, its famous catalog, and a Web site. Tiffany's employed nearly 6,000 people and rang up more than $1.6 billion in sales in 2001, with 78 percent of that figure derived from the sales of its legendary jewelry. His company and work are immortalized in such modern–day works as Truman Capote's 1950 novel, Breakfast at Tiffany's and the classic 1961 Audrey Hepburn movie of the same name.
Sources of Information
"About Tiffany." Tiffany & Co, 2001. Available at http://www.tiffany.com.
American Business Leaders From Colonial Times to the Present. ABC–CLIO, 1999.
American National Biography. Oxford University Press, 1999.
"Charles Tiffany's 'Fancy Goods' Shop and How it Grew." Smithsonian, December 1987.
Dictionary of American Biography. Base Set. American Council of Leaned Societies, 1928–1936.
"Jewelry Made By a Tiffany Who Chose A Life of Art." New York Times, 9 August 1998.
The National Cyclopedia of American Biography. Vol. 2. James T. White & Company, 1892.
"Tiffany & Co." Hoover's, November 2001. Available at http://www.hoovers.com.
"Tiffany's Sparkles After 150 Years." Seattle Times, 18 September 1987.
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