Few companies in American history bear the distinction of being synonymous with elegance, style and refinement. Tiffany & Co. is one of those companies whose very name conjures up images of opulence, wealth and good taste. And, while their mark on the history of decorative arts is monumental, their beginning was much more humble. In this article, we are going to review Tiffany silver and how it impacted the jewelry and silverware industry as a whole.
On September 18, 1837, Charles Lewis Tiffany (1812-1902) and his partner John B. Young began the business Tiffany & Young. The narrow storefront of this fancy goods shop at 259 Broadway specialized in an assortment of imports including bronze statuettes, Japanese lacquer ware, writing implements and stationary. Its first-day's sales totaled only $4.98 and seemed to presage the worst for this fledgling business. Little did these young entrepreneurs realize the indelible mark their company would leave on the history of American craftsmanship.
By 1841, Tiffany & Young had established itself as a successful business and the pair took on a third partner, J.L. Ellis. From 1847 to 1851, Tiffany, Young & Ellis became recognized for the silver works it retailed from a number of New York's prestigious silversmiths, including the famed John C. Moore. The great increase in demand for both presentation and household silver led Tiffany and his partners to open their own silversmithing shop. In 1851, John C. Moore began to create exclusively for the company.
Within a matter of a few years, Tiffany was recognized as the leader of American silver for the company’s quality precious metal collection. Soon after this new partnership, Moore retired from the business and turned over control to his son, Edward C. Moore (1827-1891), a decision Tiffany, Young and Ellis emphatically approved. By the time Edward joined forces with Tiffany, he was established as a seasoned silversmith, with over a decade of experience working in partnership with his father. This proved to be the beginning of an association that was to last 40 years during which Moore was the guiding genius of Tiffany's silver business.
Charles Lewis Tiffany gained complete control of the firm when Young and Ellis decided to retire in 1853, officially changing the name of the company to Tiffany & Co. By this time, Tiffany had already achieved worldwide acclaim for its extraordinary silver design. Tiffany’s reputation was one of the greatest during this time period.
Under Moore's reign, which lasted until his death in 1891, Tiffany & Co. became the first American company to adopt the 925/1000 silver standard. The silver workshops grew from a handful of artisans to over 500 and adopted the latest innovations in the trade of this precious metal.
Moore's designs during this early period were largely influenced by the Classical Revival and Rococo styles. Tiffany's Classical Revival pieces were characterized by full, simple forms accented with Greek key or elegant beaded-edge borders. The impact of European tastes (through Tiffany's Paris store, Tiffany & Reed) are reflected in the robust Rococo examples, which display scrolling feet and restrained repoussé ornamentation with naturalistic components such as leaf and vine handles and animal finials.
After the Civil War, Tiffany directed his business interests to a more international market. He had already established Tiffany & Reed in Paris but knew the vehicle that would propel the firm's reputation was the international expositions. Tiffany's first showing was at the 1867 Paris Exposition. The exhibit was relatively modest by European standards, showing regular items from their stock such as tea and coffee sets, pitchers and a creamer that is now owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The exhibit was a success, earning Tiffany & Co. an honorable prize and marking the first time an American silver company was so honored by a foreign jury. In 1878, the company became the only American silver firm to ever win a Gold Medal at the Paris Exhibition.
In an era when Europeans belittled the work of New World artisans, Tiffany's made it their business to hire the best of the silversmiths emigrating from Europe, and they repeatedly carried off the honors at international expositions, establishing its silversmiths as the peers, if not the betters, of any, anywhere.
Moore's personal love for art, especially Oriental art (an important precursor to Art Nouveau), became apparent during the time between the end of the Civil War until around the late 1880s. It was during this time that Tiffany began to capitalize on the Victorian taste for extravagant dining and living. Complete, matched sets of flatware became the vogue and any family of any social position owned a flatware service. While they had long carried flatware lines of other manufacturers, Tiffany began to design and manufacture their own flatware services.
Often referred to as the "golden age" of Tiffany silver, the emergence of the great flatware sets and hollowware patterns occurred during this period. Between the years 1868 and 1872 alone, Tiffany introduced 13 sterling silver flatware patterns, not to mention numerous variations of those patterns. Recognized for their innovation in both design and manufacture, Tiffany & Co. became the premier manufacturer of fine sterling flatware, a reputation they proudly uphold today.
By the late 1870s and into the 1880s, Tiffany was in full swing, producing some of their most popular and enduring patterns including Chrysanthemum (1880), Lap over Edge (1880), Wave Edge (1884) and King (later known as English King, 1885). Many of these patterns are still in production today and remain among Tiffany's top sellers. These patterns were subsequently carried over into incredible hollowware pieces and tea services that rivaled any produced in the world.
Charles Tiffany's son, Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), became vice-president and the first Design Director after his father's death in 1902. While his father and Tiffany & Co. had become a prominent force in the world of silver, Louis was finding his own way with his revolutionary glassmaking through his own company, Tiffany Studios. Louis Comfort Tiffany's influence on the production of Tiffany silver is apparent in the Art Nouveau patterns that flourished during his tenure. Silver, as an art form, did not appeal much to the young Tiffany, who instead concentrated on his innovative jewelry designs and glasswares. The jewelry was designed in classic Tiffany style, using stunning silver craftsmanship and precious stones.
Leadership of Tiffany & Co. silver manufacture would pass through several hands between 1902 and 1965. Through the 20th century, the styles of Tiffany & Co. silver also changed to reflect the en vogue styles of their respected periods. From the naturalistic elements of Art Nouveau to Colonial Revival, Art Deco and today's Modern motifs, Tiffany & Co. has been regarded as the standard measure of American taste.
Tiffany & Co. continues to be an enduring force in the manufacture of important American silver and fine jewelry. Its list of distinguished commissions includes the Olympic medals, the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Super Bowl's Vince Lombardi Trophy. For over 165 years, the silver masterworks produced by Tiffany & Co. remain symbols of style and elegance as well as an endearing testament to the vision and skill of the American silversmith. Browse our selection of Tiffany & Co. antique sterling silver or contact one of our specialists for more information today about our silverware and stunning Tiffany jewelry.