Charles Lewis Tiffany
Behind the luster and renown of Tiffany & Co. is a moving story of risk-taking, thrilling discoveries and staunch dedication to quality and craftsmanship. It is also the story of the rise of American wealth and society, whose ideal of luxury was shaped by one man, Charles Lewis Tiffany (1812–1902).
Born in Killingly, Connecticut to a prosperous textile manufacturer, this visionary merchant was 25 years old when he and John B. Young, with $1,000 borrowed from Tiffany’s father, started a stationery and fancy goods store at 259 Broadway in New York City. On opening day, September 14, 1837, sales totaled $4.98.
However humble the first day’s total, Tiffany & Young prospered as New Yorkers vied for the merchants’ rare and exotic finds, including bronze curiosities from ancient India, delicate Chinese porcelains and the latest French accessories. Mr. Tiffany outmaneuvered the competition by purchasing these coveted goods directly from ships returning to New York and Boston from foreign ports.
Charles Tiffany embraced the philosophy “good design is good business,” and would soon discover publicity was good for business, too. With the fall of Louis Philippe’s regime in the 1840s, French aristocrats fleeing the political turmoil were eager to exchange their diamonds for cash. Charles Tiffany saw a golden buying opportunity and risked the profits of his fledgling enterprise on a cache of splendid diamonds, marking the first appearance of major gemstones in the U.S. The press took note and crowned Charles Tiffany “King of Diamonds.” Thereafter, Tiffany took its place as the greatest of America’s jewelers.
Tiffany masterminded a second publicity coup in 1858 with the laying of the Atlantic telegraph cable. He bought 20 miles of extra cable from Cyrus W. Field, the project’s originator, and cut it into four-inch lengths finished with brass. Other parts were made into paperweights, canes, umbrella handles and watch charms. On the day the souvenirs were put on sale, the police had to be called to control the crowds clamoring for a piece of history.
By the 1850s, the company was well on its way to becoming one of the world's leading silversmiths. To meet Victorian society's demand for silver goods, Charles Tiffany purchased the operation of prominent New York silversmith John C. Moore, which established the company’s design and silver manufacturing heritage. Tiffany instructed Moore to make the silverware on par with English sterling—92.5% silver and 7.5% base metals—a standard the United States eventually adopted.
After John Young retired in 1853, Charles Tiffany assumed control of the company and looked for new worlds to conquer. Tiffany & Co. had established its dominance over the American silver market, but was as yet little known in Europe. At the Paris World’s Fair of 1867, the company challenged the Europeans and received the grand prize for silver, the first time an American design house had been so honored by a foreign jury.
Now a master merchant without peer, Tiffany built grander emporiums befitting his reputation and ever more lavish collections. In 1870 Tiffany & Co. relocated to palatial surroundings on Union Square. It was said at the time that Charles Tiffany was as brisk and quick as he had been in his youth. In the city he always dressed in a cutaway coat and high silk hat. He walked to work, and never, in his long life, missed a day through illness.
His openness to new ideas resulted in innovations that defined Tiffany’s, as well as America’s, sense of taste and style. One such innovation was the introduction of colored gemstones in fine jewelry. In 1876 Tiffany purchased an exceptional tourmaline from acclaimed gemologist George Frederick Kunz. Soon after, Dr. Kunz joined the company and collaborated with Charles Tiffany in sourcing the finest gemstones in America and the world for Tiffany's clientele.
In 1877 one of the world's largest and finest fancy yellow diamonds was discovered in the Kimberley diamond mines of South Africa. Charles Tiffany purchased the 287.42-carat stone for $18,000. Under the guidance of Dr. Kunz, the diamond was cut into a cushion-shaped brilliant weighing 128.54 carats with an unprecedented 82 facets, creating a gem that sparkled as if lit by an inner flame. The Tiffany Diamond, as it is famously known, set a company precedent of cutting for brilliance rather than size, a standard Tiffany & Co. maintains today.
One of the greatest tributes to Charles Tiffany’s pursuit of excellence is the unprecedented recognition the company received at the great world's fairs. At the 1878 Paris fair, Tiffany received the top awards for silver and jewelry, and Charles Tiffany was awarded the Cross of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. As a result of these achievements, Tiffany & Co. became the imperial jeweler and royal jeweler to the crowned heads of Europe, as well as the Ottoman emperor, the czar and czarina of Russia and the shah of Iran. At the 1889 Paris fair, Tiffany again received grand prize gold medals for a spectacular collection of jeweled orchid brooches praised by the judges and the press for their lifelike quality.
In the last 30 years of the 19th century, Tiffany & Co. was the premier source for the luxuries and unlimited extravagance that defined the Gilded Age, which was fueled by the fortunes created during the Industrial Revolution. Prominent American families, including the Goulds, Astors, Vanderbilts, Havemeyers and Whitneys, as well as the era’s leading artists and politicians, came to Tiffany & Co. for their invitations, silver patterns, solid gold services and dazzling jewels. Tiffany also created the magnificent trophies that captured the pageantry of the great yacht and thoroughbred horse races of the period.
While Charles Tiffany built his company into a palace of merchandising, his son and heir to the business forged his own path to the pinnacle of American design. Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933), recognized as the leading American designer working in the Art Nouveau style, celebrated nature and exotic cultures in stained glass and handcrafted jewelry that shaped the younger Tiffany’s legacy as a distinguished American artist.
Louis Comfort Tiffany was appointed design director at the death of his father in 1902. Charles Tiffany left an estate of $35 million, but his most lasting achievement is the founding of Tiffany & Co., an American institution that stands for the highest quality and legendary style throughout the world.