Thursday, June 29, 2006

A 128-Carat Diamond, but No Sterling Telephone Dialer at London Tiffany Show

LONDON — The impetus for "Bejewelled by Tiffany: 1837-1987," a show encompassing 150 years of Tiffany creativity that opened here at Somerset House on Saturday, began four years ago in Manhattan. It took root when Fernanda Kellogg, president of the Tiffany & Company Foundation, sat next to Lord Rothschild of England at a board meeting of the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts.

"He said the history of Tiffany's was so unknown in the United Kingdom, he thought it would be fascinating to do something on it," Ms. Kellogg said.

Lord Rothschild, the former chairman of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Britain and now honorary president of the Gilbert Collection Trust at Somerset House, shared his idea with Timothy Stevens, the director of the Gilbert Collection. Mr. Stevens suggested an outsider to organize the show: Clare Phillips, a curator who specializes in jewelry at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which has one of the world's largest jewelry collections.

"The Gilbert Collection had to assemble the team for the Tiffany show, and Clare had a fresh viewpoint," Ms. Kellogg said. Ms. Phillips wrote the chapters on jewelry for the V & A's recent exhibitions on Art Nouveau, Art Deco and International Arts and Crafts.

The Tiffany show, which runs through Nov. 26 and is sponsored by Tiffany & Company, is full of revelations. The world may be familiar with Tiffany's signature blue box and Audrey Hepburn's role as Holly Golightly in the film "Breakfast at Tiffany's," but even few Americans know that the New York store originated as a modest "fancy goods" emporium on lower Broadway.

In 1837 Charles Lewis Tiffany (1812-1902) and his school chum John Burnett Young opened a store to sell fine stationery, soap, parasols, a bit of jewelry and novelties, mostly European imports. By 1845 they had created "Blue Books," catalogs that allowed people all over the country to order goods.

"Tiffany created the earliest known mail-order catalogs," Ms. Phillips said.

By 1850 Tiffany had established a Paris branch under the leadership of a Boston shareholder and jeweler, Gideon Reed. He cleverly bought up heaps of diamonds from panic-stricken aristocrats after the abdication of King Louis-Philippe in 1848.

The New York shop also sold souvenirs, including one in the show: a tiny section of steel cable that commemorated the laying of the first trans-Atlantic cable in 1858. Cost? 50 cents.

"Charles Lewis Tiffany was a real entrepreneur, a great merchant prince," said Annamarie Sandecki, director of the archives at Tiffany & Company. "In the 1830's, for the first time, Americans had disposable income and a great thirst for luxury goods. He was able to anticipate people's needs and desires before they knew what they were."

What Americans wanted then were diamonds. In the exhibition catalog, John Loring, design director at Tiffany, writes about a spectacular ball staged for the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, at the Academy of Music in New York in 1860. He quotes from a newspaper account of the event, with Mrs. Edwin D. Morgan, wife of the governor of New York, opening the ball "in a cloud of crepe alive with diamonds" from Tiffany.

During the Civil War, as a supporter of the Union, Tiffany supplied regiments with badges, swords, guns and surgical instruments. The show includes a magnificent diamond-encrusted presentation sword made by Tiffany for a war hero.

Charles Tiffany, nicknamed "the king of diamonds," naturally was the one who acquired the fancy-yellow 128-carat Tiffany Diamond that is still at Tiffany. It is shown in London with a small, bejeweled bird sitting on top.

By the 1870's, Tiffany had fallen under the spell of japonaiserie, along with most of Europe. With input from its chief designer, Edward C. Moore, Tiffany produced a hand-hammered triangular sterling-silver tray in the Japanese style with an engraved spider's web and applied dragonfly, spider and leaf decorations in variously colored metal alloys. The tray, also in the show, contributed to the company's winning the Grand Prix for silverware at the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris.

"Both in silver and jewelry, Tiffany extracted from Japanese works of art the best Japanese techniques and use of inlay," said Katherine Purcell, director of the London firm Wartski and a jewelry historian who contributed to the catalog. "It was for silver work, not jewelry, that Tiffany won its first prize at an international exposition; the scale of the mixed-metal pieces at the Paris fair in 1878 took people by surprise."

Certain 19th-century Americans were seduced by the aristocratic provenance of items at Tiffany. "In 1887, when the French crown jewels came up for sale, Tiffany bought a third of them," Ms. Phillips said. "Just as it had in 1878, when Tiffany bought some of the Spanish crown jewels, including a parure set with yellow diamonds that Isabella II once owned. It was all about the provenances for the stones, not just the size."

In the 1890's Tiffany decided to design more "all-American" jewelry by incorporating materials native to the United States. The show boasts one of a handful of chrysanthemum brooches that Tiffany made using a spray of irregular white dog-tooth pearls from Mississippi.

"They are incredibly rare," Ms. Purcell said, noting that at that time pearls were as precious as diamonds. "Lillian Russell had one," she added, referring to the actress and singer.

Tiffany's great advantage was its gemologist, George Frederick Kunz, who sought out unusual colored stones all over North America: emeralds and rock crystal from North Carolina, diamonds from Virginia, topaz from Colorado, sapphires from Montana, yellow beryl from Connecticut and fire opals from Mexico. The American pink stone called kunzite was named in his honor in 1902. "Kunz personally went to the mines to buy the best stones for Tiffany," Ms. Phillips said.

Nature also became a theme in Tiffany jewelry. There is a bottle in the shape of a squid with a diamond eye; an iris brooch drenched with sapphires; and pins that resemble lilac blossoms and daisies.

Most famous are the enameled orchid pins from the 1880's and 90's by Tiffany's in-house designer G. Paulding Farnham. "Each orchid was based on a fine botanical watercolor," Ms. Phillips said. "Farnham was working from life."

But these orchids have diamonds set into them. Like all Tiffany creations "after nature," they were never to be confused with the real thing.