Charles Tiffany Set Standard of Quality in American Silver

One hundred-eighty years ago this year Chicago became a city, the patent for rubber was filed, two chemists laid claim to developing Worcester sauce, and the beginning of what would become the most iconic American silver company of the 20th century began to take shape.

Tiffany & Co. pair of candelabra, about 1879, silver, copper and gold, anonymous lender. IMA image

Interesting enough when Charles L. Tiffany and John B. Young went into business together in 1837 as Tiffany & Young, they initially specialized in selling stationary, fans, pottery, and silver items manufactured by other companies. This included Gorham, which would become Tiffany’s greatest competition in America’s early silver marketplace.

The competition between the two companies was “the biggest rivalry of the 20th century silver market,” said Dr. Charles Venable, the Director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The founders of the competing silver companies approached the business quite differently, Venable added, with Jabez Gorham viewing the business largely with the eye and mind of a silversmith, and Charles Tiffany as a retailer and progressive marketer.

Silver beer pitcher, circa 1857, by designer and maker Edward C. Moore (1827-1891) for Tiffany & Co. IMA image

Although Tiffany & Co. is synonymous with luxury items, including but not limited to silver, the company also served an important manufacturing role during various wars. During the Civil War, the company was an arsenal for the Union and a producer of badges, swords and military uniforms. When World War I broke out, the company shifted gears of its production to focus efforts on manufacturing surgical instruments for use on the battlefield. In addition, throughout World War II, Tiffany & Co.’s New Jersey-based silver factory turned out parts for military airplanes.

Tiffany & Co.’s role in developing America’s place in the silver market involved innovation on a global level. An early example of this materialized when the company brought the British standard of silver purity into the American marketplace in the second quarter of the 19th century. As a direct result of Charles Tiffany’s tireless efforts supporting this, the federal law requiring 925/1000 standard for an item to be marked “sterling silver” was passed. The company claimed another first when it earned the grand prize for silver craftsmanship during the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle. This marked the first for an American firm.

This was a progressive time in the history of American silver, said Venable, whose IMA team curated and presented the exhibition “Tiffany, Gorham, and the Height of American Silver, 1840-1930,” which was on display between April 2015 and October 2016. With a tremendously positive response to the exhibition, both from private collectors of silver who lent the museum items for the installation and museum attendees, IMA is looking at curating another exhibition of silver in the next few years. This will focus on another period of silver innovation, said Venable.

Installation view of ‘Tiffany, Gorham, and the Height of American Silver, 1840-1930’ at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. IMA image

Although Tiffany & Co. and its counterparts in the American silver manufacturing community came into their own hundreds of years after European makers set a course, the freedom of newness – both of the country and the collective mindset of its people – helped spark a uniquely American approach.

“The American silver industry, from about 1865 to into the early 1900s, was a very innovative industry – characterized by a boldness of design,” said Venable, whose masters study at the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library included work focused on the extensive collection of metalwork of the du Pont family. “America was much more willing to explore avant-garde design.”

Tiffany & Co. sterling silver English Armada dish/bowl, hallmarked and monogrammed, 3 1/4 inches diameter. Sold for $66 through Jasper52, November 2016. Jasper52 image

The innovative spirit present in Tiffany & Co.’s various offerings of luxury goods can also be seen in the items produced by the related, yet vastly different work of Tiffany Studios. This venture was the brainchild of Louis Comfort Tiffany, the son of Charles Lewis Tiffany. The works produced by various teams of designers, lamp makers and craftspeople associated with Tiffany Studios included blown-glass vases, lead-glass lamps and windows and pottery, among other items.

The continued popularity of many facets of Tiffany & Co. is likely based on a variety of factors, perhaps nearly as many as there are references to the brand in films, music and art. However, looking back at where and how it all began, Venable says, many things point to the attention to detail and marketing genius of Charles L. Tiffany. From the company’s Blue Book catalog (first published in 1845), the incomparable blue turquoise Tiffany’s box, to the experience of visiting a Tiffany & Co. retail store, it’s all about presentation.

Sterling silver box, Tiffany & Co., just less than 6 troy ounces, 1 7/8 x 6 inches. Sold for $242 through Jasper52, April 2017. Jasper52 image

“One area where they clearly outflanked their competitors was in marketing,” Venable said. “Their marketing has really been quite breathtaking.”

With that in mind, the next time you’re visiting a shop, perusing an auction catalog, or inventorying items tucked away and out of sight and mind for a period of time, remember this final bit of advice from Venable: “A lot of great American silver lives in attics.”

Dr. Charles Venable is the Melvin & Bren Simon Director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He possess more than 30 years of museum experience, including past service as the director and CEO of the Speed Art Museum, and senior positions at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Dallas Museum of Art. He is also an award-winning author of the books “Silver in America, 1840-1940: A Century of Splendor,” “American Furniture in the Bybee Collection, and “China and Glass in America, 1880-1980.”

Other Sources:
Encyclopedia of American Silver Manufacturers by Dorothy T. Rainwater and Judy Redfield
Brainy History
Indianapolis Museum of Art
The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art