Sunday, November 15, 2015

206. Tiffany

     A large, darkened room with 132 Tiffany lamps on display, each having its own space, each illuminated and casting a soft glow.  Reddish or brown bronze bases topped by polychrome shades of glass, mosaics of small pieces of luminous red, yellow, blue, green, purple, and pink: miracles of glass, of color, of light.  Looking closely at one lamp, one sees a ring of dragonflies with red bodies, their yellow wings extended horizontally, and above them on the shade, a band of green and blue that could be the water they are darting over, and at the very top of the shade, a patch of blue that might be sky.  Another lamp suggests purple wisteria drooping languorously, and another, the wings of a peacock with eyespots of red and green.  Other shades are geometrical, with triangles and squares and ovals of many colors, still others show daffodils or peonies or poppies, or spiders with webs, or butterflies: nature enhanced, transformed.  This room is magic; to leave it is jolting, dispiriting, sad.

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     The room just described exists only in my imagination, but it or something like it will exist on the fourth floor of the New York Historical Society in 2017, when their new installation is completed and opens to the public.  In the meantime I have to settle for whatever my imagination can cook up.

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A wisteria lamp.
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A dragonfly lamp, plus pigeons.

     “Tiffany”: the name suggests luxury, quality, style.  There are no Tiffany lamps in the West Village apartment shared by me and my partner Bob, but we do possess two genuine Tiffany products.  One is a sterling silver letter opener that Bob once gave his mother and then repossessed after her death; he uses it daily to open mail. 

     Our other Tiffany possession is a small vase that was given to Bob by a friend who inherited it from his mother.  Round-shaped with a narrow mouth, it is two and a half inches in diameter and serves no practical purpose, nor should it, given its exquisite fragility.  To my eye it is silverish, and to Bob’s eye golden, but in either case it emits a soft luster to be marveled at.  Bob keeps it on top of his dresser in a little glass case that he bought specifically to shelter it, and there it sits, asking only to be looked at and admired.

     Our friend John, while serving as co-executor of the estate of a mutual friend, came into possession of a genuine Tiffany lamp lacking a few small pieces of glass.  He and his fellow executor spent $2800 to have it repaired, so they could sell it through Christie’s.  Christie’s estimated its value at $20,000 to $30,000, but at auction it drew not a single bidder.  Undismayed, Christie’s decided to hold off for six months and offer it again.  At the second auction it was sold for $18,000; after Christie’s fee and other expenses were subtracted, the two executors netted $12,000, which as heirs they split evenly.  All of which shows the value of genuine Tiffany lamps today, for which there is an ongoing market.  Because Tiffany’s, to put it bluntly, has class.

     It also has a long and interesting history.  Charles Lewis Tiffany, the founder, and his partner John P. Young opened the first Tiffany’s as a “stationary and fancy goods emporium” in 1837, with the intention of selling not to the moneyed few, but to the masses.  Located at 259 Broadway, opposite City Hall Park, it netted all of $4.98 on the first day, which hardly suggested success.  But the partners persevered, offering umbrellas, Chinese carvings, portfolio cases, fans, gloves, and stationery, and on New Year’s Eve, the peak of the holiday shopping season, they rang up sales of $679. 

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Charles Lewis Tiffany in his store, circa 1887.

     In the years that followed, Charles Lewis Tiffany roamed the docks for unusual imports, bargained with sea captains for exotic items, and acquired a reputation for selling such curiosities as dog whips, Venetian-glass writing implements, Native American artifacts, Chinese novelties, “seegar” boxes, and “ne plus ultras” (garters). 

      Jewelry was not at first a significant item, but that changed in 1848, when aristocrats fleeing the revolution in Paris dumped their diamonds on the market, and Tiffany’s partner Young, just arriving in the city, snapped them up.  Arrested as a royalist conspirator, Young talked his way out of it and survived to forward his trove to Tiffany, who publicized his partner’s adventures; ironically, it was Tiffany himself whom the press then christened the “King of Diamonds.” 

     In 1850 Tiffany opened a Paris branch, thus acquiring access to European jewelry markets that no American competitor could match.  Years later Charles Lewis Tiffany would acknowledge that the firm had also acquired the girdle of diamonds of Marie Antoinette, which had disappeared when the 1848 revolutionaries looted the Tuileries palace.  Breaking the girdle up into pieces to sell, Tiffany claimed that its authenticity could not be proven, and thus avoided any awkward revelations about how the item had migrated from the royal vaults of the Tuileries into his own welcoming palms, a mystery that remains unsolved today.

     His reputation for scrupulosity, his ready cash, and his swift judgment made Tiffany the city’s leading dealer in jewelry and Oriental pearls.   Always on the lookout for rarities, in 1856 he bought a perfect pink pearl from a New Jersey farmer who had found it in his dinner mussels.  He promptly sold it to the Empress Eugénie of France, news of which precipitated a mass combing of the waterways of America in hopes of finding another huge triple p: perfect pink pearl.  (None was found.)  And when a Montana prospector unearthed some sapphires and mailed them to him for appraisal, Tiffany appraised them and immediately sent him a check for $12,000.  But in his store haggling over prices was not allowed; one paid the tagged price, however astronomical, and that was that.

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Isabella II, before she lost her jewels.
    The tottering monarchies of Europe continued to transfer Old World wealth to the New via Tiffany & Co.  In 1868, when a revolution deposed Queen Isabella II of Spain, the firm acquired her gems for $1.6 million and sold most of them to railroad tycoon Leland Stanford, so they could adorn his spouse.  And in 1887, when the remaining French crown jewels were auctioned off by the very anti-monarchical Third Republic, Tiffany’s agent was of course on hand to acquire them; soon afterward, the necklace of the ex-Empress Eugénie (yes, that same Eugénie, now ousted), consisting of 222 diamonds in four rows, was seen at a ball gracing the neck and shoulders of Mrs. Joseph Pulitzer, the consort of the renowned newspaper publisher. 

     Not that Charles Lewis Tiffany was infallible.  In 1872 word of a discovery of diamonds in a mine in Arizona reached New York, and a clutch of speculators, eager to buy stock in the mine, consulted him.  Shown the diamonds in the rough, he announced, “They are worth at least $150,000.”  The speculators then invested four times that in the mine, but subsequently a government geologist went to the site, which was in fact in Utah, and discovered that it had been “salted” with poor-quality stones from South Africa.  Informed of the fraud, Tiffany confessed, “I had never seen a rough diamond before.”  And he lost $80,000 in the swindle himself.   

     As the city spread northward and the affluent middle class migrated uptown to more fashionable districts, Tiffany & Co. migrated with them.  By the 1860s the firm was at 552 Broadway, occupying an ornate five-story building with round-arched windows and, over the main entrance, a nine-foot carved-wood Atlas shouldering a huge clock that was said to have stopped at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865, the exact moment of Abraham Lincoln’s death.  (Painted to look bronze, Atlas would accompany the firm on its migrations thereafter and overlooks the Tiffany entrance on Fifth Avenue today.)

     And what did one see in Tiffany’s window in those days?  A mishmash of cluttered objects, some made by Tiffany and some imported: bronze figurines, vases and cups and goblets, fancy lace fans, jeweled clocks and caskets, ornate silver picture frames, and draped over everything in profusion, strings of pearls.  Such was the bric-a-brac that the Victorians used to clutter up themselves and their parlors; one can well imagine the smaller items clustered on the shelves of a whatnot, next to a daguerreotype of young Danny in his Civil War uniform and, in a fancy frame, a lock of Aunt Millie’s hair.

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Tiffany's, circa 1887.

     Probably not on display was the famous Tiffany Diamond, weighing 287.42 carats, discovered in South Africa in 1877 and purchased by the firm for $18,000.  The young gemologist whom Tiffany entrusted with cutting it down studied the diamond for a year before starting work.  He then carefully cut it down to 128.54 carats, adding 32 facets for a total of 90, and thus created a dazzling multifaceted gem that, never sold, has highlighted Tiffany exhibits throughout the world ever since.  Only two women have ever worn it: Mrs. Sheldon Whitehouse at a Tiffany ball in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1957, and Audrey Hepburn in 1961 publicity photographs for the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  The film helped refurbish Tiffany’s then sagging reputation, and for years afterward visitors coming to the store would ask where breakfast was served.  Today the diamond is displayed on the main floor of Tiffany’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue at 57th Street.

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The Tiffany diamond, topped by a bird.

     But Charles Lewis Tiffany marketed any rarity that he thought might sell.  In 1858, when the Atlantic cable at last reached Ireland and established a transatlantic telegraph link, he acquired 20 miles of the cable salvaged from unsuccessful earlier attempts to lay it, and sold four-inch snippets for fifty cents apiece, as well cable-adorned canes, umbrellas, paperweights, watch fobs, and lapel pins that the public snapped up eagerly – so eagerly that the police had to restrain the crowds.

     In the late nineteenth century Tiffany’s produced fine silverware that won international prizes, and in 1894 built a huge factory in Newark to make such luxury items as the silver plate favored by Delmonico’s, as well as exotic leather goods and engraved stationary.  By now, obviously, the firm was catering to the rich and famous.

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Tiffany no. 2, circa 1908.
     When Charles Lewis Tiffany died in 1902, his son, Louis Comfort Tiffany, became vice-president, but Tiffany no. 2 was more of a painter than a merchant.  The major contribution of his Tiffany Studios was the Tiffany lamp, a costly handcrafted item marketed to the wealthy.  Recent scholarship has revealed that it was not no. 2  but an artist named Clara Driscoll who designed many of the most famous lamps, which were turned out by her team of “Tiffany Girls.” Introduced to the public at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, the lamps became very popular on both sides of the Atlantic.  The New York Historical Society’s collection of 132 Tiffany Lamps was the gift in 1984 of a single collector, Dr. Egon Neustadt, an Austrian-born New York City orthodontist and real estate developer who had been collecting them since 1935, when he and his wife bought their first lamp in a Greenwich Village antique store.

     The successors of the Tiffany family abhorred publicity, and under their direction the firm produced staid and predictable merchandise.  By the 1950s sales had shrunk to half the level of the generation before, and the firm risked bankruptcy.  Whether the general public was aware of this is uncertain, since when I came to New York in the 1950s the name “Tiffany’s” still had cachet, suggesting fine products for the elite who were willing to pay accordingly.  Things changed for the better with the coming of Walter Hoving, the Swedish-born American businessman who became president of Tiffany & Co. in 1955 and held that post until 1980. 

     A tall and distinguished-looking man, impeccably tailored, Hoving began by getting rid of everything in the store that did not meet his standards, marking down silver matchbook covers to $6.75 and emerald brooches to a mere $29,700.  Hoving has been called a snob, but under his guidance the quality of the merchandise improved and customers flocked.  Among the shoppers on several occasions was President John F. Kennedy, whom Hoving dealt with personally in private, and who bought items for his wife.  When Kennedy asked if the President got a discount, Hoving pointed to a portrait of Mary Lincoln wearing a strand of Tiffany pearls and replied, “Well, President Lincoln didn’t receive one.”  So Kennedy paid full price.

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The Trump Tower (the tall one, of course).
     Hoving was a shrewd businessman, but Donald Trump was shrewder.  Wanting the Bonwit Teller site at 727 Fifth Avenue, next door to Tiffany’s, to build his Trump Tower, The Donald also coveted Tiffany’s air rights, which would let him build a structure that would otherwise exceed regulations.  So he presented to Hoving a sketch of a hideous building that he knew the fastidious Hoving would abhor, so that Trump could then offer to build a far more attractive building if Hoving sold him the air rights.  Dreading the prospect of an ugly building right next door that would devalue his beloved Tiffany’s, Hoving agreed, and Trump got the air rights.  The Bonwit Teller store was then carefully demolished – in this exclusive neighborhood, no wrecking balls or explosives allowed – and the 62-story Trump Tower went up.

     Hoving left in 1980 because Tiffany’s had been acquired by Avon Products in 1979.  A buyout by management followed, and in 1987 Tiffany’s became a public company and raised $103 million through the sale of its common stock.  During the 1990-1991 recession it turned to mass merchandising, presented itself as affordable to all, and advertised diamond engagement rings starting at $850.  A brochure entitled “How to Buy a Diamond” went out to 40,000 people who had dialed a toll-free number.  The founder, Charles Lewis Tiffany, was adept at publicizing his wares, but what he would have thought of these modern expedients I leave to the viewers’ imagination.

     One thing is clear today: genuine Tiffany lamps are still prized items that sell for tens of thousands.  But plenty of imitations are on the market, since they are advertised online for as little as $64.78.  So how does one tell the authentic lamp from the knockoffs?  Some clues are very technical; here are several simpler things to look for:

·      A bronze base.  Not wood, plastic, brass, or zinc.
·      The color of the glass changes when the lamp is lit.
·      A Tiffany Studios stamp and a number on the base.
·      Signs of age; it won’t look brand new.  (But some fakes mimic age on the base.)
·      A ring of grayish lead in the hollow base.
·      The glass shade, if knocked gently, should rattle.

Also, a buyer should ask for a money-back guarantee and beware of any  shop that won’t give one.  Not that there’s anything wrong with cheapie Tiffany lamps that don’t claim to be authentic; they have their place in the market.  It’s the ones that are deliberately made to look like and sell as authentic ones that cause trouble.

     One almost final note: in 2013 a former Tiffany vice-president was arrested and charged with stealing more than $1.3 million in jewelry.  This development, for sure, would make founder Charles Lewis Tiffany turn over in his Green-Wood Cemetery grave in Brooklyn.

Tiffany's today.
David Shankbone

     Since 1940 Tiffany & Co. has occupied a granite and limestone building on Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, with a grandiose stainless-steel entrance overlooked by the nine-foot near-naked Atlas that has been shouldering a clock for Tiffany’s since 1853.  And what does Tiffany’s offer today?  Their website promises free shipping on orders of $150 or more, and advertises gifts under $500.  Clearly, they want to appeal, if not to the masses, at least to the modestly affluent.  But modest they themselves aren’t, claiming to be “the world’s premier jeweler and America’s house of design since 1837.”  Among their offerings is an item labeled “quintessential Tiffany,” a dazzling sixteen-stone ring in 18-karat gold with diamonds from Parisian designer Jean Schlumberger, a marvel whose “timeless perfection … deserves a place of honor in every stylish woman’s jewelry box.”  The price?  $9,000, which is reasonable indeed when compared to Schlumberger’s Croisillon bracelet in 18-karat gold for $30,000.  And remember, no haggling.

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Atlas still holds the clock today.
Meg Lessard

     A bulletin from the health-care front.  My eye doctor, a very no-nonsense type who wastes no time on small talk, wanted me to get an eye-drop refill immediately from the pharmacy on the ground-floor of the clinic.  One of her assistants phoned the clinic to order the refill, then informed me, “The pharmacy needs a twenty-four notice to –”  Hearing this, my doctor seized the phone, jabbered fiercely, then hung up and announced, “You can pick it up downstairs now.”  Her two assistants who witnessed this were smiling already.  “We all know where the power is,” I said softly to them, and they grinned from ear to ear.

     End of story?  No way.  When I went down to the pharmacy, the pharmacist informed me that if I got the refill now, my insurance wouldn’t cover it, so it would cost $120.  But if I waited two days, the refill would be covered and cost only $35.  So I chose to wait.  Moral of the story:  In the health-care universe doctors are gods, but insurance companies are super gods.  So it goes.

     Coming soon:  The rich of today, who make those rags-to-riches nineteenth-century types look absolutely quaint.  We’ll get with it with hedge fund managers, corporate raiders, and the like.  And guess who is the richest New Yorker?  You may – or may not – be surprised.  (Clue: it isn’t Donald Trump.)

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder

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