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History of Tiffany & Co: The Most Famous Jewelry Store

I've been running an e-commerce store for jewelry for quite a while, so I know my way around gemstones.

Audrey Hepburn as the fabulous Holly Golightly in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

Audrey Hepburn as the fabulous Holly Golightly in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

Breakfast at Tiffany's

"It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it. Nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets."

Those are the famous words spoken by Audrey Hepburn as the fabulous Holly Golightly in the iconic 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany's. They are the admiring words of just one of the many legions of admirers of the "fancy goods" store founded by Charles Lewis Tiffany and John Young in New York in 1837.

What began as an enterprise selling everything from umbrellas, fine stationery, and paper-mache grew into an international legend, one that represents both the finest standards and quality of American design and the best of American ingenuity. This is the rich and intriguing history of America's first famous jewelry store, Tiffany & Co.

1812: Small Beginnings

Charles Lewis Tiffany was born in 1812 in Connecticut. He grew up in retail, helping to run his father's general store by the time he was fifteen. Only ten years later, at the age of 25, Charles Tiffany took a $1000 loan from his father to open a small shop in lower Manhattan with his friend John Young. Originally called Tiffany and Young, the store sold a whopping $4.98 worth of merchandise on its first day of business.

However, business grew at the "stationery and fancy goods emporium," thanks to the company's emphasis on quality merchandise and innovative marketing. Tiffany and Young was one of the first stores to institute a system of set pricing. At the time, stores did not have fixed prices; they charged as much as they thought each client would be willing to pay, so the equitable pricing at the fledgling business was a major improvement for customers.

Business was brisk at Tiffany and Young, and within two years, they moved their operation to a larger store. The shop focused its inventory on glassware, clocks, and the jewelry for which Tiffany would eventually become famous. As sales grew, the firm took on a new partner, and changed their name to Tiffany, Young, and Ellis in 1841.

Big Changes in the 1840s

This was a watershed year for the retailer in another way; in 1841 Young traveled to Europe to procure fine household goods and jewelry for his growing clientele. One of the things that Mr. Young brought home to New York was jewelry made with faux diamonds. The pieces sold so well that the partners were encouraged to try their hand in selling the real thing, a move that history shows was a very astute one. By 1845, Tiffany sold only real diamonds, and their reputation as a purveyor of top quality merchandise continued to build.

Charles Tiffany was as clever a merchandiser as he was a retailer. He introduced America's first mail order catalog in 1847. The catalog, which featured items such as jewelry, clocks, stationery, tea sets, and parasols, allowed Tiffany to extend its reach well beyond its home store in New York. Wealthy Victorians were no doubt thrilled to have access to the one of the country's best selections of the fine goods they needed to furnish their homes and adorn themselves in high style.

1848: Gems From the French Revolution

Never content to rest on previous success, in 1848, the firm made another trip to Europe that was to help cement their reputation in the public eye. When Young went on a buying expedition to Paris, it coincided with the rise of the French Revolution. The French nobility were starting to realize that their position was precarious, and they saw that what they needed was plenty cash on hand in case they needed to make a quick escape.

Mr. Young was in the happy position of being able to help them out by liquidating their fabulous collections of gems and jewelry in exchange for the cash the noble people needed to guard against uncertain times. Tiffany, Young, and Ellis was able to procure an impressive collection of gems, including pieces that had belonged to the French Crown Jewels.

1851: Tiffany Helps Develop the Sterling Silver Standard

Ever the master marketer, Charles Tiffany made a big deal of the Tiffany acquisitions in the New York press, and before long he was being called "The King of Diamonds". Things only got better as the wealth from the California gold rush began to make its way back East. Tiffany was waiting there to help the newly rich buy the trappings to show off their new found wealth. Of course, it was more than mere reputation that made Tiffany so successful; it was the company's dedication to quality and innovation.

They took a particular interest in sterling silver, especially for household items such as cutlery, pitchers, and vases. In 1850, the firm developed the "Tiffany-Moore" technique to mass produce fine silver jewelry pieces that are then hand finished. The technique was so useful that it is still used by Tiffany and Co. to this day. In 1851, Tiffany was the first American silversmith to use the 925/1000 formula that would later be established as "United States Sterling Standard."

A Tiffany pitcher.

A Tiffany pitcher.

1853: A New Name

The middle of the 19th Century was an interesting time at Tiffany. In 1853, the partnership was dissolved, and Charles Tiffany became the sole owner, prompting him to rename the business Tiffany and Company, as it is known now. Although most people think of Tiffany's as just a jewelry store, they have produced a multitude of items over their 172-year history, some of the most interesting in the Antebellum and Civil War periods.

Civil War Era: Gifts for Lincoln and Swords for the Union Army

In 1861, Tiffany was given the honor of designing a pitcher in commemoration of the inauguration of President Lincoln. Tiffany also designed a suite of gold and pearl jewelry that was given by President Lincoln as a gift to his wife Mary Todd Lincoln to wear to the Inaugural Ball, showing how prominent the firm had become with the most powerful people in the nation.

Even more interestingly, Tiffany and Co. got into the business of making world class swords and other military goods for the Union Army during the Civil War. Remember that from day one, Charles Tiffany was a very astute businessman. When he saw which way the wind was blowing in the years leading up to the outbreak of war, he made connections with the finest swordmakers in Europe, particularly those in Solingen, Germany, who have always been renowned for the quality of their blades.

During the war, Tiffany purchased blades from Europe which were assembled into top notch swords in New York. One of their best known pieces was an elaborate presentation sword given to General Ulysses S. Grant. It just goes to show that a really smart marketer can succeed at selling almost anything!

1870s–1880s: Gaining International Recognition

After the Civil War, Charles Tiffany set about enhancing his company's reputation in new ways. To gain more international acclaim and prestige, he entered his jewelry in competitions, such as the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 and the Paris Exposition of 1878. At both venues, Tiffany jewelry won top honors, taking home a gold metal in 1876, as well as a grand prize (for silver) and a gold prize (for jewelry) in 1878. Tiffany's strategy was wise, and by the 1880s, Tiffany and Company was truly the most revered jewelry store in the entire world.

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Proof of Tiffany's status can be found in his 1883 appointment as the designated jeweler to Queen Victoria. That seal of approval quickly led to his appointment as the crown jeweler to most of the other royal heads of states, including those in Russia, Austria, Italy, Spain, Egypt, and Persia, to name but a few. American heads of state also put their faith in Tiffany and Co., commissioning the firm to redesign the Great Seal of the United States in 1885.

The diamond bird brooch.

The diamond bird brooch.

The "Ribbons Necklace."

The "Ribbons Necklace."

1877: The Tiffany Diamond

Along the way, Tiffany continued to add to his collection of gems as well as expanding his company's expertise and influence in the field. A landmark moment in the company's history came in 1877, when the fancy yellow Tiffany diamond was discovered in the Kimberly Mines of South Africa. Cut to 128.54 carats in 1878, the Tiffany diamond is one of the premier holdings of the company, and is often on display in the flagship store now located at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street in New York.

The impressive yellow diamond has had some remarkable pieces of jewelry created around it, particularly by Tiffany designer Jean Schlumberger. One was a remarkable diamond bird brooch, and the another was the "Ribbons Necklace" which was designed by Mr. Schlumberger in 1960, and was famously worn by Audrey Hepburn while promoting Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Late 1800s: The Tiffany Engagement Ring

The latter years of the 19th Century were extremely profitable for Charles Tiffany and his jewelry store, which was christened the "Temple of Fancy" by the New York Evening Express in 1875. The ultra wealthy families that were at the forefront of the Gilded Age were all patrons of Tiffany's. They needed grand and ostentatious diamonds to display their immense wealth, and Tiffany was more than able to meet their needs.

His diamonds and colored gems graced many of the best known Gilded Age millionaires, people with names like Astor, Vanderbilt, Post, Hutton, and Morgan. Tiffany and Company established itself as the place that could literally meet its clients' needs from birth until death, featuring everything from silver baby gifts to bridal jewelry to mourning brooches. It was in this time period that Tiffany's introduced the iconic six prong diamond solitaire engagement ring that has since become legendary.

1902: Louis Comfort Tiffany Takes Over the Family Business

Founder Charles Tiffany died in 1902, and his son Louis Comfort Tiffany took over the company as the chief designer until his own death in 1933. Louis Tiffany is chiefly known for his incredible artistry as a stained glass designer, but he was also responsible for designing much of the jewelry produced by Tiffany and Company in the early 20th Century.

It was under his reign that mineralologist George Kuntz, hired by Charles Tiffany in 1879, helped to establish the metric carat as the international weight measure for gems. Kuntz was regarded as the foremost gem expert in the world, and he traveled the globe looking for unique new specimens not only for Tiffany, but also for prestigious clients such as J.P. Morgan, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the American Museum of Natural History.

1930s–1940s: Changes During the Great Depression and WWII

The Great Depression brought an end to the continuous growth experienced by Tiffany and Company since its 1837 founding. For the first time in company history, money was being lost instead of made, and the firm's recovery after the Depression and World War II was not swift.

Although profits had inched back up to $1 million by 1946 (still a far cry from their peak during the Gilded Age), by 1949, the venerable jeweler was in serious trouble, showing profits of only $20,000 for the year. The Tiffany legend endured through the down times, however, and a number of investors were interested in acquiring the company.

1955: Walter Hoving Takes Over

Times started to turn around when entrepreneur Walter Hoving took over Tiffany and Company in 1955. Hoving spearheaded a highly successful revitalization of the firm over the next decade and a half, opening branches in upscale markets like Beverly Hills, San Francisco, Houston, and Chicago.

Mr Hoving also did something that had never before been tried in the long history of Tiffany, which was to bring in a well-known jewelry designer and hire him to create pieces under his own name. French artist Jean Schlumberger was lured to New York by Hoving in 1956, which marked the beginning of a wildly successful collaboration.

Tiffany blue box birthday cake.

Tiffany blue box birthday cake.

The second half of the 20th century saw the Tiffany and Company reputation and prestige grow even more, sealing its place as a legend in the canons of popular culture. There are many references to Tiffany in pop culture, from the iconic "Tiffany Blue box", which was invented in 1837 when the firm was founded, to movies, to songs; Tiffany's is everywhere.

Surely the most famous example is Breakfast at Tiffany's, which was a 1950 Truman Capote novel before being made into the legendary Audrey Hepburn film in 1961. And who can forget Marilyn Monroe singing about Tiffany in "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" in her 1953 movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? Or Eartha Kitt crooning, "Come and trim my Christmas tree...with some decorations bought at Tiffany's" in her 1953 hit "Santa Baby"?

The Enduring Popularity of Tiffany Blue

Tiffany is no less revered by average American women. One only needs to witness the immense popularity of "Tiffany Blue" as a wedding or party theme, complete with custom cakes that resemble the famous little blue box. Of course, the actual Tiffany and Company jewelry is just as iconic, dating back to their invention of the diamond solitaire engagement ring. Many pieces have followed that have become just as entrenched in the pantheon of modern jewelry classics

Tiffany-style silver heart bracelet.

Tiffany-style silver heart bracelet.

1970s–2000s: Notable Artists and Designers

Some of the best known pieces of jewelry have been designed by the three other high profile artists who design under their own names for Tiffany and Company. Building on the success of Jean Schlumberger for Tiffany creations, Elsa Peretti was brought aboard in 1974, Paloma Picasso (daughter of artist Pablo Picasso) in 1980, and most recently, famous architect Frank Gehry in 2006. Elsa Peretti's Diamonds by the Yard, Bean, and Open Heart collections have become especially popular on a mass scale.

Today, Tiffany's Is Still the Foremost American Jewelry Store

Tiffany's has never gotten away from its origins as a purveyor of fine silver, both in jewelry, flatwear, and decorative accessories (engraved sterling silver telephone dialer, anyone?). Always clever in its marketing, many of the pieces designed by Tiffany's featured designers like Peretti are available in entry level versions in sterling.

An Aspirational Brand

Tiffany is well aware of its image as an aspirational brand, and has certain collections in silver that are priced to allow a young woman just starting her jewelry collection to own a little piece of Tiffany and Company. The truth is that the blue box and the Tiffany and Co. stamp definitely allow for a hefty mark up on what are otherwise fairly classic silver pieces. Many of the classic sterling pieces like the silver heart bracelets and silver bead necklaces have found widespread popularity in Tiffany-inspired versions which offer the same stylish design at lower price points, minus the brand name.

As with the diamond solitaire engagement ring, there comes a point when something becomes such a part of the fabric of popular culture that it can no longer be held aside as a proprietary design, as long as no false claims are made regarding who is the manufacturer. (And certainly, Tiffany has also faced problems with blatant counterfeiting, although it has not experienced success so far with its lawsuits against internet auction sites like ebay).

The American Dream Come to Life

In many ways, Tiffany and Company can be seen as an example of the American Dream come to life. A small "fancy goods" store started with a $1000 loan has become an international powerhouse, with revenue that topped $2.9 billion in 2007. (Sales dipped to a little under that mark with in 2008 with the global economic slowdown.)

In addition to making impeccable jewelry and home goods, Tiffany continues to take on interesting commissions (it makes the Vince Lombardi trophies for the Super Bowl winners, for example). The company that Charles Tiffany founded 172 years ago shows no signs of slowing down as it approaches its 175th anniversary in just a few years.

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