To many the name Tiffany is synonymous with the showiest means of displaying wealth – Diamonds. Founded in 1837 Tiffany, Young and Ellis went from strength to strength by catering to the tastes of New York nobility. The new captains of industry (and their wives and daughters) wanted to flaunt their success.
By the time Truman Capote wrote his novella ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ the company’s reputation was beyond question. The business had been founded on the promise – Fixed Price & No Returns. Capote wrote the part of Holly Golightly for Marilyn Monroe – whose sultry rendition of ‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’ seemed to epitomise his muse. But Miss Monroe refused the role in the 1961 screen-play and, against the author’s wishes, Audrey Hepburn was cast. But I wonder if the author realised how much Tiffany’s road to riches reflected the rise of Miss Golightly?
Roll back the clock to mid 1800s France. Think Les Miserables. Of a country torn by turmoil following the fall of Louis Philippe. Even those canny citizens who’d survived the First Revolution were suddenly made destitute. Into this chaos came John Young and Thomas Banks with a remit to purchase fancy goods for Tiffany and Co. They were hoping to make a deal for exclusive rights to ‘French-paste’ (a form of crystal glass cut to imitate diamonds), an essential requisite for their company’s range of fashionable and affordable jewellery. While the metalwork could be manufactured in their New York workshops ‘imitation’ diamonds could only be sourced in Paris.
Young and Banks were determined. In pursuing their business they were arrested on a number of occasions but still managed to collaborate with Royalist supporters desperate to sell their jewels – as long as they were paid in cash. When the two men returned to New York they’d managed to purchase a generous slice of the French Crown Jewels. Although details of the acquisition have always remained uncertain it was known that a number of important jewels were missing after the mob surged through the Tuilleries Palace.
Whatever the truth Tiffany’s learned a lesson. When the Second Empire collapsed in 1870 the royal collection had been restored to its former glory. But Empress Eugenie was determined it wasn’t left behind when she fled the country. Sensing trouble she had most of her jewels crated and dispatched to the port of Brest, ready to ship to London, but a number of crates had to be left behind and these were eventually claimed by the new French government and returned to Paris. After long and careful deliberation they decided to sell the bulk of the collection in 1887, in a sale held in the Hall of State, in Paris. Tiffany’s practically swept the board, buying all the most important pieces.
The 1880’s and 1890’s were the heyday of American society and the new millionaires of industry and commerce displayed their wealth with the kind of opulence which had formally been reserved for royalty. Tiffany’s reputation soared by catering to the new elite and diamonds ransacked from the royal treasury soon adorned the wives of New World millionaires. Although the purchase was dubious the American Press loved the story and the resulting publicity secured Tiffany’s position as America’s foremost jewellery store.
When the new Metropolitan Opera House opened in New York in 1883 the first tier was quickly dubbed the ‘diamond horseshoe’ because the diamond jewellery worn by its patrons outshone the house lights. Buying the French Crown Jewels gave Charles Tiffany the opportunity to transform his Lower Manhattan store into a ‘palace of jewels’ (according to The New York Times).