Charming Gentleman: Charles Lewis Tiffany and the History of Tiffany & Co.

“Well, when I get it the only thing that does any good

is to jump in a cab and go to Tiffany’s.

Calms me down right away.

The quietness and the proud look of it;

nothing very bad could happen to you there.”

~Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Charles Lewis Tiffany was born on February 15, 1812 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 Mr. Tiffany’s father, started a stationery and fancy goods store at 259 Broadway in New York, New York. Opening day sales on September 21, 1837 totaled $4.98.

However humble the first day’s total, the firm of Tiffany & Young prospered as New Yorkers vied for the merchants’ rare and exotic finds. These included bronze curiosities from ancient India, delicate Chinese porcelain as well as 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.

On November 30, 1839, he married John B. Young’s sister, Harriet Olivia Avery Young with whom he had six children, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Charles Lewis Tiffany, Jr., Annie Olivia Tiffany, Louise Harriet Tiffany, Henry Charles Tiffany, and Burnett Young Tiffany.

Charles embraced the philosophy, “good design is good business,” and soon discovered that 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 saw a golden buying opportunity and risked the profits of his fledgling enterprise on a cache of splendid diamonds. This purchase marked 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.

Charles 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 of the cable 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 the Victorian era society’s demand for silver goods, Charles purchased the operation of prominent New York silversmith John C. Moore. This established the firm’s design and silver manufacturing heritage. Mr. Tiffany instructed Mr. 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. This is why you see the number “925” on all sterling silver pieces.

After John Young retired in 1853, Charles 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 little known in Europe. At the Paris World’s Fair of 1867, the firm 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, Mr. 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 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-shape 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 and not 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 continued to receive 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.

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, recognized as the leading American designer working in the Art Nouveau style, celebrated nature and exotic cultures in stained glass, Tiffany Favrile 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 upon his death on February 18, 1902 in Yonkers, New York, but his most lasting achievement is the founding of Tiffany & Co. as an American institution whose name stands for the highest quality throughout the world.

 “I don’t want to own anything until I find a place

where me and things go together.

I’m not sure where that is but I know what it is like.

It’s like Tiffany’s.”

~Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s

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