Notes on an icon: Charles Tiffany

In the run up to Valentine's Day, we explore the glittering story of Charles Lewis Tiffany, the pioneer of American luxury jewellery

 

Tiffany & Co’s robin-egg blue boxes are synonymous with luxury modern jewellery design. But did you know that Charles Lewis Tiffany’s (1812–1902) glittering business is actually over 180 years old? Through years of entrepreneurial graft and creative thinking, Tiffany developed his small New York-based gift business into, arguably, the finest gem-selling emporium.

STATIONARY AND CURIOSITIES

Born in 1812 in Connecticut, USA, Charles Tiffany was the son of a wealthy cotton manufacturer and, from a young age, displayed a natural flair for business. By 15, he was managing a small general store owned by his father and, in 1837 aged 25, with a $1,000 loan, Tiffany opened a stationery and ornamental gift shop in New York with a friend from school. Despite taking a humble $4.98 on the first day, Tiffany swiftly began to expand his stock by buying exotic curiosities directly from the ships arriving in New York from warmer climes, including elegant Chinese porcelain and ancient Indian bronzes. This appealed greatly to his elite and influential American clientele, and the business flourished. 

However, it wasn’t until the fall of Louis Philippe’s regime in the 1840s, when wealthy aristocrats fleeing France were willing to swap their diamonds for hard cash, that Tiffany made an especially glittering purchase. Spying a lucrative opportunity, Tiffany chose to risk the profits of his young business on a cache of beautiful diamonds (rumoured to have been part of Marie Antoinette’s collection). These were some of the earliest and best gemstones to be imported into the USA, and the press pegged Tiffany as the ‘King of Diamonds’. Tiffany went on to create one of the world’s finest jewellery stores, even investing in a priceless 287.42 carat yellow diamond in 1878. Known as the ‘Tiffany Diamond’, the cushion-cut stone still draws hoards of visitors to the flagship store in New York, where it is permanently on display.

MODERN-DAY ICONS

A world leader in the luxury jewellery market, Tiffany & Co’s iconic gems have adorned the world’s most glamorous film stars, including Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and modern-day icons such as Anne Hathaway and Kate Winslet. And they are far from alone: the 1886 Tiffany setting still reigns as the world’s most popular engagement ring. So iconic has the brand become, that Tiffany & Co has even managed to trademark the exact shade of blue used on its packaging (colloquially known as ‘Tiffany Blue’). The latest pioneering move? The lavish Blue Box Cafe located on the 4th floor of the New York flagship store. Now fans can really make like Holly Golightly and enjoy their own breakfast at Tiffany’s.

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