“God has given our talents, not to copy the talents of others, but rather to use our brains and imagination in order obtain the revelation of true beauty.”
– Charles Lewis Tiffany
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Born in Connecticut in 1812, Charles Tiffany went to New York City in 1837 with his friend John B. Young. Together they opened a stationery/merchandise store and soon began offering items such as jewelry and silverware. As legend has it, the store brought in only $4.94 in sales on the first day of business. In 1941, J.L. Ellis came on board as a partner and the business took on the name Tiffany, Young & Ellis. Seven years later, the partners started manufacturing jewelry, and they opened a location in Paris two years after that.
Tiffany became known for his relentless quest to obtain one-of-a-kind objects for his jewelry, which made his wares exceedingly popular with the upper echelon of New York society. In 1851, he adopted the standards of English silver, which established the term sterling in the United States and initiated a new way of looking at silver in the American jewelry market.
Two years later, Tiffany bought out his partners and established sole control of the firm, renaming it Tiffany & Co. Still in the merchandising business as much as the jewelry business, in 1858 the ever-entrepreneurial Tiffany obtained a leftover section of the Atlantic Cable, which he cut into pieces and sold as souvenirs. As the Civil War loomed, Tiffany began to realize that the market for fine jewelry might wane, so he turned his attention to making swords, medals, light armor and other items for the war. In 1867, Tiffany & Co. won the Award of Merit at the Paris Exposition Universelle, the first time an American company had been so honored by a European jury. The next year, Tiffany & Co. was incorporated, and London, Geneva and Paris soon had Tiffany branches.
By the end of the 1870s, Tiffany & Co. was an established name, able to make outsized purchases and influence the industry. In that context, in 1877 Tiffany bought what is now called the “Tiffany diamond” for $18,000. The gem is a yellow South African diamond that was 287 carats in its uncut state and was painstakingly cut down to 128.54 carats over a nearly a year. The diamond was on display at the Smithsonian for an extended period and was worn by Audrey Hepburn in publicity stills for the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Ten years after purchasing the Tiffany diamond, Tiffany & Co. obtained some of the French crown jewels, and Tiffany’s reputation in the jewelry industry grew even more.
Beyond his influential use of sterling silver, Charles Tiffany can take credit for other innovations. He is responsible for the first retail catalog and for the “Tiffany setting,” the six-prong configuration that became the company’s signature engagement-ring setting. Another aspect of his legacy comes in the form of his son, designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, who succeeded him as the firm’s director and became equally famous for his work with glass and lamps.
As of 2013, Tiffany & Co. was a multi-pronged international corporation worth more than $8 billion.