In London, Treasured Jewelry From the Tiffany Archive

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LONDON — With the Tiffany & Company flagship store in New York undergoing an extensive (and delayed) remodeling, Christopher Young, the person responsible for overseeing the company’s archive, saw an opportunity in all the disruption. It was a chance, he said, to share more than 400 pieces from its collection with the public — not in Manhattan but in a London gallery known more for contemporary art than iconic jewels.

The result is “Vision & Virtuosity,” an exhibition that runs through Aug. 19 at the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea, curated by Mr. Young, whose official title is vice president/creative director of creative visual merchandising and the Tiffany archives. Admission to the show is free, but you have to download the Tiffany app for iOS or Android to book a slot.

One highlight, along with items from the company’s long-established archive, is the 128.54-carat Tiffany Diamond, a yellow cushion-cut gem. It was seen mounted in a white diamond necklace on Beyoncé in a Tiffany ad campaign last year and on Lady Gaga at the Oscars in 2019, but the gem is normally kept on display in the Fifth Avenue shop.

The archive itself contains around 5,000 items, the company said, including roughly 1,800 pieces of jewelry, documenting the legacy of Tiffany’s founder, Charles Lewis Tiffany, and works by his son Louis Comfort Tiffany, along with creations by pre-eminent designers including Jean Schlumberger, Elsa Peretti and Paloma Picasso.

But why would Tiffany, acquired for $15.8 billion last year by the French luxury conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, tuck so many valuable pieces away in an archive? Mr. Young explained the reasoning during a recent video interview from the gallery, just after escorting Ms. Picasso around the exhibition. (The conversation has been edited and condensed.)

Tiffany is in the business of selling. So why hang onto such a huge archive?

Ever since the company was founded, we have always maintained records, certainly designs. The oldest object in the archive is a cash book from Day 1 in 1837. The balance sheet of what was invested into the company and the goods that were sold would be kept in this ledger. But the most important purpose is for us to know about ourselves and to preserve our history for the future: to store our architecture, our product design, our packaging design, our logo design. And, of course, the archive is a rich source for our designers as they continue to evolve. We frequently look back, not to replicate but to learn where did we come from and why were certain choices made. Since the beginning of this brand, there’s been quite a bit of innovation in the world of jewelry, including when we produced the six-prong setting in 1886.

What is the oldest piece of jewelry in the archive?

One of the earliest pieces is an Archaeological Revival necklace in gold from around 1850 to 1870. It’s on display in the exhibition — we feature it with the 1845 Blue Book, which is the first mail-order catalog in the United States. But part of our role at the archives is to explain that jewelry making is not a new practice for us. There are spectacular examples, very early examples, that we can refer to to point out our expertise in this field. For example, in this exhibition you see a spectacular 1870s diamond and emerald necklace. It just illustrates the fact that we’re not new to this practice. You can see how the Tiffany designs have evolved with the different creative leads.

Why did you choose London to tell the Tiffany legacy?

Because of the renovation, the Tiffany Diamond would not be on display in the New York flagship. That meant that we had a window where we could share it somewhere else. And in honor of our 150 years of conducting business in London, we thought it would be a good concept to bring it here.

Why did you choose the Saatchi Gallery?

We looked at a few locations. We loved the connection to art. We loved the neighborhood. We didn’t want it to be a commercial exhibition; we wanted it to feel artistic in spirit.

One piece in the show is actually for sale?

Yes, our reimagining of the World’s Fair diamond necklace from 1939. We have the original design for it, which called for an all-diamond necklace. At the time we couldn’t source a diamond that big — there was no 80-carat stone. Instead, the design was realized with a large aquamarine in an emerald shape. But when we were conceiving of this show, we felt we missed that really big diamond necklace moment. We referred back to the archives and said, Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could realize that piece? Our chief gemologist, Victoria Reynolds, suddenly had access to this 80-carat, internally flawless Empire Diamond stone and said, “Let’s make it.” The idea that you can take the stone out of the center and wear it as a ring felt that much more over-the-top. It is for sale. I’d love for the necklace to go to the archives but it would be our most expensive acquisition ever, so I don’t think that’s likely. But it was a real full-circle moment to do something that couldn’t be done back in 1939.

What’s the asking price?

I’m not sure. [Later, Tiffany said it could not reveal the price except to say its value was “north of eight figures.”]

Is the archive growing?

We’re constantly buying. We buy frequently.

Is there a Tiffany jewel you are dying to get back into the archives?

Yes, there is, and we just got it. We really, really wanted Louis Comfort Tiffany’s gold and opal Medusa pendant. It was considered long gone, it was considered lost, but it came up at auction this past December [and sold for $3.65 million]. We moved heaven and earth to get that piece. I will tell you that we were in fierce competition with leading institutions to get it back. It is the holy grail of necklaces. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We’re now working on preserving it. The piece needs a little bit of loving care. There are stones missing and things we need to enhance to make sure it’s in a good state again. But we hope to reveal it at the reopening of the New York flagship next year. If it’s ready.

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