Bejewelled By Tiffany At The Gilbert Collection, London

By Caroline Lewis | 02 August 2006
cameo portrait of a bearded man with a frame of gold wet with precious stones

Cameo portrait of Charles Lewis Tiffany (1812-1902), founder of Tiffany & Co., circa 1900. Gold, shell, sardonyx, sapphires, diamonds. © Tiffany & Co.

Jewels, jewels and more jewels are on show at the Gilbert Collection in Somerset House, London, for the most comprehensive exhibition of Tiffany jewellery ever mounted.

Running until November 26 2006, Bejewelled by Tiffany: 1837-1987 includes 180 pieces from the Tiffany & Co. archive, and a selection from private collections – many never seen before on public display.

Charles Lewis Tiffany founded his ‘fancy goods’ store on New York’s Broadway in 1837, and before long it had risen to international fame due to excellent design and craftsmanship, plus the owner’s good sense of publicity.

The unique brand was known for combining European fashions with a distinctive American twist, often reflecting the zeitgeist and capturing the popular imagination. The first section of the exhibition, ‘The Rise of an American Institution’, looks at the qualities behind Tiffany’s early prominence, including souvenirs such as a mounted section of steel cable commemorating the laying of the first transatlantic cable in 1858.

gold brooch featuring nymphs, set with pearls

Naiad Brooch by G. Paulding Farnham, circa 1901. Gold, American fresh-water pearls, emeralds, rubies, diamond. © Tiffany & Co.

A large brooch of the American flag, in rubies, sapphires and diamonds, also captures the patriotism and pride of the day, while nearby are examples of jewels bought from royal European collections such as an emerald and diamond brooch adapted from Empress Eugenie’s girdle!

The ‘Temple of Fancy’ section illustrates the range of jewellery available at Tiffany’s to suit every occasion, from baby bracelets to mourning jewellery.

A gold bracelet copied from an ancient Greek one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an excellent example of the company’s archaeological-inspired work, which won a gold medal at the Paris Exposition on 1878.

Diamonds and pearls are the real focus of the next section, ‘Such stuff as dreams are made on…’, covering the period from the 1870s to the start of the First World War.

photo of an ornate diamond necklace

The Wade Necklace, circa 1900, formerly owned by Mrs Ellen Garretson Wade (1860-1917). Gold, platinum, diamonds. © Tiffany & Co.

America was getting richer, and spectacular diamond jewellery was the accessory of the day. The showstopping Tiffany Diamond – a great 128-carat yellow stone – was acquired by Charles Tiffany, nicknamed the ‘King of Diamonds’, while the garland style necklace of the wife of a Cleveland industrialist typifies the hunger of the rich for dazzling diamond jewellery.

Pearls then equalled diamonds in prestige, and the pearl pieces collected in the exhibition, featuring soft pink ones from conch shells and the irregular, tinted fresh pearls found in American rivers, are seductively beautiful.

Canes, parasols, purses, scent bottles, smoking kit and watches were all a must for the well-dressed man or woman at the turn of the century. Tiffany designers and craftsmen turned these functional objects into tiny works of art of the greatest beauty, as visitors will see in ‘Opulent Accessories’.

broach in the shape of an orchid flower

Orchid Brooch, by G Paulding Farnham. Current scholarship identifies the flower as an Odontoglossum wyattianum, native to mountainous regions of Ecuador and Peru. Gold, diamonds and enamel. Photo: Jan Van Pak

Seven enamelled and diamond orchids, exquisitely crafted and botanically accurate, take the limelight in ‘Nature’, where pieces inspired by the natural world are collected.

The designer of the orchids, G Paulding Farnham, is celebrated in the next section, with piece created for the Paris Exposition of 1900. A collar of fire opals and tourmalines set in gold, featured here, were reported at the time to be that finest collection of Mexican opals in the world.

Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of Charles, is a defining figure in the Tiffany story and the largest number of his works ever exhibited together is on show.

On the death of his father, the designer – already known for his innovative glass and interiors – became closely involved with the company. He introduced a more lyrical, aesthetic, notable for its original colour combinations. A ‘grapevine’ fringe necklace of amethysts and jade and a dragonfly in opal and garnet with platinum lace wings stand out in the section devoted to Louis.

photo of a large yellow diamond with a gold and diamond bird perched atop it

The Tiffany Yellow Diamond Brooch (cut 1878, 128.54 carats), setting by Jean Schlumberger (1907-1987). Gold, platinum, diamonds, ruby. Photo: Craig Cutler

Tiffany, ever at the forefront of design, moved confidently from Art Nouveau’s naturalism to the abstract geometry of Art Deco – as can be seen in the platinum and diamond ‘skyscraper’ necklace. The 1940s also saw a concentration on strong abstract forms, as well as patriotic symbols. Gold earrings in the form of B-25 bomber planes feature in the exhibition.

Post-war, Tiffany boldly backed new designers, such as witty Frenchman Jean Schlumberger. Hired in 1956, he brought a quirkiness to the Tiffany diamond by setting a bird upon it.

Elsa Peretti and Paloma Picasso took the company into the late 20th century, with sleek, minimal elegance and bold, colourful modern style. Picasso’s 1980s gold cuff bracelet, with a zig-zag of tourmalines, nevertheless demonstrates the continuity of glittering luxury that has been a hallmark of Tiffany’s since its inception 150 years before.

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