Tiffany & Co. thinks outside the blue box

Back in February at the Academy-Awards, Australian actress Cate Blanchett made her usual regal turn on the red carpet, a vision of cool beauty in a silk velvet sheath. The dress, designed by John Galliano for Maison Margiela, was so conspicuous for its lack of frippery it might have easily been interpreted as an emblem of Galliano's continuing public chastening.
The point was not the dress, however. The dress was just a foil for what was draped about Blanchett's milky throat.
To call the jewelled bib she wore that evening a "statement" necklace, as many did, was a bald understatement. Five hundred carats of turquoise beads undulated on its surface, held in place with diamond capped pins. Beneath them lay a platinum armature to which were affixed 400 additional carats of stones - turquoise cabochons, faceted diamonds and aquamarines all contrived to imitate the effect of sunlight refracted through water.


Whether the 36.6 million Oscars viewers were aware of this subtlety, the scene-stealing bib had the commercially desirable effect of making the million-dollar gems on other entertainers look like so much borrowed ice.


A real showstopper
The frenzy of social media "likes" and "favorites" flew so fast that evening that, seemingly before the telecast had drawn to a merciful conclusion, a Chinese manufacturer had already gone into production with a knockoff of the $US400,000 jewel, some bright light at Us Weekly hatched plans to sponsor a reader contest offering as a prize a $75 faux turquoise collar inspired Blanchett's necklace, and it became clear to a lot of people that - for the first time in a long while - Tiffany & Co. had stolen the show.
"You have a company that's 177 years old and still here," Stellene-Volandes, executive style director of Town & Country, recently said of the company. "A piece like the one Francesca designed is modern but also recognises Tiffany's heritage and that much of the company's future lies in what's been done in the past."
She was referring to Francesca Amfi-theatrof, little known outside the industry and a stealth force within it, not only the first woman in the history of Tiffany & Co. to be named design director but also one of only a handful of trained jewelers ever to hold that job.
Unlike predecessors charged with retailing fancy goods to the relatively limited carriage-trade elite, Amfi-theatrof was handed in 2013 the daunting task of restoring artistic luster to a storied U.S. retailer that in recent years has morphed into a global behemoth. Tiffany's sales in the fiscal year ending in January 2015 amounted to $US4.25 billion. It has 298 stores worldwide.
Still, "If you really think of Tiffany & Co. in the last couple of decades, there's not been very much new or creative," said Daniela Mascetti, a senior specialist in jewelry for Sotheby's in Geneva. "They have a legacy to respect but at the same time need to come up with new ideas to bring Tiffany to the forefront again."
With the unveiling this month of her first Blue Book - a catalog displaying 230 examples of so-called "high jewelry" - Amfi-theatrof makes strides in that direction, showcasing a series of one-of-a-kind pieces, like the Blanchett necklace, that stand as an artistic statement of intent. First published in 1845 as a "Catalogue of Useful and Fancy Articles," the Blue Book catalog long ago abandoned any illusion of utility - unless, that is, one's idea of a necessity runs to $US100,000 tanzanite and platinum rings.
(Whether or how much Blanchett was paid to wear the Amfi-theatrof design to the Oscars is a matter of conjecture. It is well known that many entertainers are richly remunerated for their red carpet loyalty. Asked whether Blanchett was one such star, a Tiffany & Co. spokeswoman replied, "Cate Blanchett is a friend of Tiffany's.")
While wealthy clients queue up each year for the Blue Book rarities produced at Tiffany's specialised workshops above the landmark Fifth Avenue store, the catalog's real purpose is to increase the luster of a luxury brand in an increasingly competitive market and deflect attention from the fact that Tiffany's bottom line is built on far more prosaic stuff. Even in boom times, a limited number of clients exist for a $US400,000 necklace. Yet come June, high school graduates by the thousands are likely to open a trademark Tiffany & Co. robin's egg blue box and find inside one of the jeweler's classic best-sellers, Elsa Peretti's silver heart on a chain - priced $US200.
Art of the sea
More than one year in the making, the objects in "The Art of the Sea" collection are a reflection of Amfi-theatrof's lifelong obsession with water, the element in which she has always felt most at ease and one she has drawn on time and again as a metaphorical force.
"I've always had a huge draw to the ocean, just massive," Amfi-theatrof said in early February at the annual American Gem Trade Association fair in Tucson. There, for several days, dealers from all over the world congregated with their precious wares. "Whether it's off Patmos in Greece or in Wellfleet, the minute I'm in the water, I'm so affected by it my heartbeat changes," she said.
To listen to Amfi-theatrof discussing the quirky nature of individual gems as she made a circuit of booths in the subterranean sales floor of the Tucson Convention Center offered insights into what might have brought her to the attention of Tiffany & Co. executives in the first place. Loose emeralds at one booth were colored the bright sharp green of a praying mantis. The fugitive greenish hue of a rare alexandrite at another booth she likened to "the color of petrol."
As gem dealers unlocked safes to display treasures like an 8.25-carat Mozambican ruby or a pinkish padparadscha sapphire, Amfi-theatrof cannily studied and rated each in turn. Cradling the stones between the ring and index fingers of her downturned hand, she noted that while some seemed nearly radioactive in their brilliance, others were duller than beach glass.
"I don't think about the value of the materials all that much," she said. And it is true that in her work she tends to treat precious and base materials alike, oxidizing gold to blacken it, pairing relatively worthless minerals like rock crystal with platinum, setting semiprecious gems like opals in diamond-studded bracelets.
"I mean, sometimes, when I hear the numbers it's like, 'Holy cow,'" Amfi-theatrof added in the accent of the English schools where she received a substantial part of her education. "But in general I try not to be intimidated and just focus on the design."
Daughter of a U.S. journalist and an Italian publicist, Amfi-theatrof, 44, was born in Tokyo, where her father was then posted as the Time bureau chief. Although a U.S. citizen, she spent a nomadic childhood attending schools in England and Italy, where her paternal grandparents (her grandfather was Hollywood composer Daniele Amfi-theatrof) moved to help raise her and a sister during their father's stint as the Moscow bureau chief for Time. Amfi-theatrof's decision to bypass an Ivy League education in favor of art school was no less shocking to her parents than was her decision to major in, of all things, jewelry design. "My father wanted me to go to Harvard," she said. "I got the application and secretly threw it out."
More than a blue box
Instead, she went first to the Chelsea School of Arts, later Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art in London, where upon graduation she almost immediately began working as a designer of everything from furniture to jewelry to buttons for a roster of storied labels: Marni, Fendi, Wedgwood, Alessi, Asprey & Garrard.
"The good taste we're fed all the time I find dull," she remarked at Tiffany & Co. corporate headquarters near Madison Square Park one morning last October. Paradoxically, it was Amfi-theatrof's tasteful commercial first collection that inspired consumers to make a run on Tiffany, a fact analysts were quick to note. The Tiffany T collection "speaks volumes by itself" about Amfi-theatrof's abilities, said Luca Solca, lead luxury goods researcher at Exane BNP Paribas.
Solca was referring to a line of jewelry that uses "T" as a graphic motif, thus creating a subtle logo for a company that has long relied for brand recognition on its trademark blue box.
"It's not enough just to have the box," Frederic Cumenal, the new chief executive of Tiffany & Co., told a reporter in conversation last November. "There has to be something inside."

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