The year was 1961, and the camera captured Hepburn gazing in the shop window to create a striking mirror effect, reflecting the harmony between a certain notion of luxury à la française and American youth.

Audrey Hepburn Audrey Hepburn starring as Holly Golightly in "Breakfast at Tiffany's". Image via fabaudrey.com

When the film was released, Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of the well-known jewelry store named after him, had already departed this world 60 years earlier, but he had left his heirs a fortune estimated at 35 million dollars – and the beginnings of an empire partially built up by the sale of France’s Crown Jewels.

Tiffany Founder Charles Lewis Tiffany (1812-1902). Image via Tiffany & Co

In 1887, Charles was already considered the king of diamonds in the United States, but his active bidding at the auction sale at the Louvre – featuring over 70,000 precious stones and pearls dating between France’s Restoration period (1814-1830) and its Second Empire (1852-1870) – secured his reputation, once and for all, as an inimitable businessman and a visionary entrepreneur.

French Crown Jewels A selection of the French Crown Jewels just prior to sale in 1887. Image via angelsmyth.com

French Crown Jewels A diamond, emerald and pearl brooch, one of the French Crown Jewels acquired by Tiffany in 1887. Image via i.pinimg.com

So numerous were the articles listed on the auction catalog that prices failed to soar in the way that the young French Republic hoped they would. The upshot was that Tiffany snatched up the finest stones, which he transformed and capitalized on when he offered them up to American high society: a legendary battle feat!

Upper end

Born on 15 February 1812 in Connecticut, Charles Lewis Tiffany only had 1,000 dollars in his pocket when he opened a stationery and gift store in Manhattan with his childhood friend John B. Young. The times were hard – the era’s economic crisis was aggravated by the bursting of the first speculative bubbles – and giftware wasn’t doing too well.

Tiffany Tiffany opened its doors on September 14, 1837 at 259 Broadway in New York. The first day’s sales total was $4.98. Image via Tiffany & Co

Circumstances that prompted the shop’s three partners (the initial duo was soon joined by Charles’ cousin J.L. Ellis, who knew a thing or two about jewelry) to expand their range to more upmarket goods: Bohemian crystal, Chinese porcelain and Indian silverware for which Charles (already) managed to negotiate good prices at the port of New York.

Tiffany Tiffany, Young & Ellis advertisement. Image via timeandwatches.com

The public approved of this new direction as of 1840, and Tiffany & Co. geared itself further towards the luxury market by creating and distributing the first jewels and jewelry items under its own brand.

The art of mise-en-scène

The development potential of this area of activity, still relatively clear of rivals, was enormous. Charles Lewis Tiffany, who had revealed his keen sense of marketing and advertising at an early age for the benefit of his father’s cotton mill and general store, kept on coming up with memorable events to launch his collections. For example, in 1858 he purchased around twenty kilometers of telegraph cable, which he had cut up into small pieces and set in copper rings to celebrate the first underwater connection between America and Europe – customers literally snatched the rings off one another!

Tiffany Apart from rings made of telegraph cable, Tiffany has also sold commemorative medals, which were engraved with the names of the participants in the cable expedition, as souvenirs. Image via atlantic-cable.com

Similarly, he produced objects to commemorate the nuptials of president Lincoln, and those of General Tom Thumb, a key figure from the Barnum circus… A talented designer, he not only monitored the quality of the stones used in his creations, which were influenced by modern art and Art Deco, but he also paid painstaking attention to detail, even for packaging and mail-order catalogs. The Tiffany Blue, trademarked in 1845, became an inseparable component of the jewelry brand.

Tiffany Tiffany's “Blue Book” was the first mail-order catalog in the U.S. Image via medium.com

In 1851, Tiffany & Co. adopted the .925 sterling-silver standard of purity, an international norm that would only be generalized in the States in 1926.

Bridgehead

The jewelry store moved to Fifth Avenue in 1902 – it would be listed as a “historic monument” in the United States in the 1960s – to welcome more and more buyers from elite families and upper-middle classes who swore only by French-style chic.

Tiffany The outside of Tiffany & Co's flagship store on Fifth Avenue. Image via Tiffany & Co

In Paris, Tiffany has been present since 1850. While Charles focused on creating collections to show the French, Young bought up whole coffers full of family jewels from European aristocrats lured by exile… The Parisian branch became a genuine store in 1868, on the Place de l’Opéra, and in the same year, Tiffany also opened a branch in London. Today, the luxury jewelry brand has around 80 stores in the United States and over 200 in the rest of the world.

Good seed

In 1883, Charles Lewis Tiffany married Harriet Young, the sister of John Young, whose share of the company he took over in 1853, shortly before buying out Ellis as well. Six children were born from this marriage, including Louis Comfort Tiffany, an American artist who would make a name for himself in glassware and Art Nouveau light fittings.

Tiffany Louis Comfort Tiffany (far left) with his parents Charles Tiffany and Harriet Young (seated) and his children, 1888. Image via Wikipedia

Tiffany Louis Comfort Tiffany revolutionized the art of stained glass. Image via jsouthernstudio.com

As the sole man at the helm, Charles would prove to be increasingly imaginative, both creatively – his creations displayed at the 1878 Universal Exposition at the Champ de Mars would win a bronze medal – and in terms of marketing. His busy family life in no way detracted from his business sense, as evidenced by his purchase of French Crown Jewels.

Tiffany Asian-influenced design of Tiffany & Co.'s "Conglomerate vaze" caused a sensation at the 1878 Paris exposition. Image via coma.org

As a patron of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met), he contributed enormously to the founding of New York’s Fine Arts Society in the 1890s along with Howard Russell Butler. Following his death in 1902, several renowned international artists collaborated with Tiffany & Co. to design jewels that would carry on the Tiffany spirit, namely Jean Schlumberger, Paloma Picasso, Frank Gehry and Elsa Peretti. The company is also active in a number of other luxury sectors such as watchmaking, namely teaming up with Swiss group Swatch in the early 2000s.

History would prove that the king of diamonds laid the foundations of an empire.

Treat yourself to Tiffany's jewelry on Barnebys.

 

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