185 years ago today, September 18, 1837, Charles Lewis Tiffany and John B. Young opened a new establishment, a “stationery and fancy goods emporium.” That covered a lot of possibilities but was a sign that the merchants were aiming squarely for the deep pockets of the carriage trade. They set up shop in Lower Manhattan and after some initial struggles were soon doing very well, thank you. After picking up another partner were operating successfully as Tiffany, Young and Ellis and expanded their line to include such luxury items as Bohemian glass and porcelain, fine clocks, cutlery, and, oh, Jewelry.
Charles Tiffany was born on February 12, 1815 to successful cotton mill owner in Killingly, Connecticut. Educated at a public district school and then at a private academy in nearby Plainfield the boy got his start in retail helping to manage a small grocery his father owned to sell to his mill workers. Just seven years later with school chum Young and $1000 borrowed from their parents he went into business at just 22 years old.
Two years later he married his partner’s sister, Harriet Olivia Avery Young with whom he would have six children including his second son Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Under Tiffany’s astute management the company was thriving, especially after it began designing and manufacturing its own jewelry employing the finest European craftsmen. In 1850 the company became the first American luxury goods seller to open a branch in Paris, France, an enormous boost in prestige.
In 1853 Tiffany bought out his partners and re-named the enterprise Tiffany & Co. and shortly after moved operations uptown to newly fashionable Fifth Avenue. Establishing a complete line of fine silver and silver plate, he introduced the English standard of sterling silver to the U.S. for the first time.The Blue Book catalog--the first of its kind--in 1845.
Tiffany was innovative in many ways. The company’s Blue Book became America’s first catalogue. Noting the perils of selling very expensive merchandise when he discovered that the rich don’t always pay their bills—Donald Trump was hardly the first gold plated deadbeat. Some were never as rich as the pretended and others could be wiped out overnight in the reoccurring financial panics that were a feature of 19th Century life. So he broke with the English tradition of allowing customers to receive items on credit and be discretely billed. Tiffany made his store strictly cash and carry. His wealthy customers at first objected but when they saw that the policy kept the riff raft and social climbers away and that paying cash was an effective way to flaunt their status, they came to embrace it. To be seen entering Tiffany’s and emerging with a finely wrapped package became a statement.
During the Civil War Tiffany diversified his fine cutlery line and produced swords, notably the classic Model 1840 Cavalry Saber for the Union Army as well as often elaborate and ornate swords for officers and presentation swords.
When the War was over the Company began a new period of expansion and growing international prestige. In 1867, Tiffany & Co. was the first US firm to win an award for the excellence in silverware at the Exposition universelle d’art et d’industrie in Paris alongside long established and famous French, British, and German makers. On the strength of that achievement a London branch was established the next year. To this day all Tiffany boxes proudly but discretely proclaim “New York-Paris-London” under the company logo. The company incorporated the same year.
In 1870, the company built a new store building at 15 Union Square West designed by John Kellum and costing a then jaw dropping $500,000 which was described by The New York Times as a “palace of jewels”Charles Lewis Tiffany and staff in his New York store in 1887. That looks like Andrew Carnegie in the top hat. Could the thrifty Scott actually be buying a bauble?
Tiffany won the Gold Medal for jewelry and a Grand Prize for silverware at the Paris Exposition universelle de 1878. In 1887, Tiffany bought the French Crown Jewels, which attracted publicity and further solidified the Tiffany brand’s association with high-quality diamonds. The store became an official purveyor to the Russian Tsars. The company revised the Great Seal of the United States in 1885.
No one was more gilded in the Gilded Age than Charles Lewis Tiffany. He could even survive a potentially reputation bruising 1872 diamond and gemstone hoax involving salting gems at Western Mines and selling worthless stock in mining companies. Tiffany not only appraised the salted stones, but the founder even invested his own money in the swindle.
Despite that set back in 1878 Tiffany became one of the rare Americans made a chevalier of the French Légion d’honneur.A classic Art Nouveau broach displaying the company's sill with gemstones, including colored stones, delicate gold work, and incorporating porcelain. Probably designed by or under the guidance of Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Tiffany personally had wide interests. He collaborated with Thomas Edison in designing and creating electric foot lights and other theatrical lighting that revolutionized stage production from Broadway to provincial vaudeville houses. He was a patron of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and one of the founders of the New York Society of Fine Arts.
Tiffany maintained a personal role in managing his company right up to his death on February 18, 1902 at the age of 90. His son Louis Comfort Tiffany, his right hand man and a creative force in his own right was designated as the company’s first official Design Director after his father passed. The son also led his own Tiffany Glass Company which became Tiffany Studios the same year he took the position in the family company. Louis Comfort was a world famous designer of stained glass windows, art glass, porcelain, and of course all those elaborate Art Nouveau lamps that are a mainstay of Antiques Roadshow.
Louis Comfort Tiffany in 1908.
Since 1940, Tiffany & Co.’s flagship store has been at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. Its somewhat austere polished gray granite façade shows off the famous display windows featuring jaw dropping jewelry. The building has been featured in films and TV shows most famously in the Audrey Hepburn classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Tiffany's iconic New York flagship store today.
The company has changed ownership a couple of times, most disastrously when it was purchased by Avon cosmetics in 1978 which cheapened the brand. The company went public again in 1987. After some bumpy times caused by the 2008 Financial Crisis the company is now valued at around $5.33 billion and operates, as of January 2019, operated 326 stores in North and Latin America, Asia-Pacific, Japan, Europe and in emerging markets.