Tiffany & Co. Turns 175!

Tiffany’s is 175 years old this year and as CBS News’ Rita Braver shows us, it’s not just Audrey Hepburn, in the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” who walking through the 5th Avenue doors dreaming of luxury and extravagance.

Generations of Americans have ooh-ed and ahh-ed over Tiffany rings and bracelets and necklaces, even if they can’t afford to buy. Which is just fine with the folks who run the place.

“To aspire to be a Tiffany and Co. customer, to dream about Tiffany, is certainly a powerful part of what happens here,” said Tiffany’s Chairman and CEO Michael Kowalksi. “We welcome it and encourage it.”

Kowalksi says it’s been that way since the company began 175 years ago: “We were a young country, growing very rapidly. Luxury here was defined not as something aristocratic, not as something that excluded people, but rather we had an inclusive, welcoming vision of luxury.”

Long before this flagship 5th Avenue store was built in 1940, Charles Louis Tiffany and John Young opened a “stationery and fancy goods store” on Broadway in lower Manhattan. The year was 1837.

“Their two dads gave them each the grand sum of $500, and they opened Tiffany and Company with a capital of $1,000,” said John Loring, the company’s ad hoc historian and former design chief. “Its first day of sales were a magnificent $4.95!”

Loring says Young soon bowed out. But Charles Tiffany proved to be a marketing genius.

He hired some of the best American silversmiths whose sumptuous pieces started winning international prizes. They can now be found in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as in the company’s private collection – pieces like an American Indian0inspired loving cup.

By the mid-1800s, Tiffany jewelry was all the rage. Even Abraham Lincoln knew just where to buy seed pearls for his wife to wear at his 1861 inauguration:

Loring said Lincoln himself came into the store and chose them with the owner. “And the rumor goes that he wondered if the president of the United States got a discount at Tiffany and Company, and Charles Lewis Tiffany said, ‘I’m terribly sorry, but no one gets a discount at Tiffany.”

And that famous Tiffany blue used in all the packaging? It was chosen because it was the favorite color of Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III.

“She was also considered the most stylish woman in the world,” said Loring. “She was the supermodel fashion plate – fashion arbiter of the universe.”

After she was deposed in 1870, Charles Tiffany (who was known as “The King of Diamonds”) bought up some of her jewels.

But Tiffany is actually known more for very simple diamond engagement ring settings introduced in 1886.

Today diamonds are about a quarter of Tiffany’s $3.6 billion in annual sales. Most of the jewelry is handcrafted in New York.

And while you can pick up a blue diamond bauble for a mere $10 million, a yellow diamond, discovered in South Africa in 1877, is considered PRICELESS.

Being reset in honor the company’s big anniversary, it is the OFFICIAL Tiffany diamond, weighing in at over 128 karats.

“Charles Lewis Tiffany bought it for the grand sum of $18,000 – that was a very good investment!” said Loring.

If Louis Tiffany was known for marketing, his son, Louis Comfort Tiffany, was known for artistry. And it wasn’t just those famous stained glass lamps: He also designed beautiful jeweled pieces, often using American gems, such as sapphires, which all come from the Yogo Gulch in Montana.

You might not realize some of the things Tiffany makes: trophies for the Super Bowl, NASCAR, and horse racing. Lady Bird Johnson ordered Tiffany china for the White House.

And back in 1885, the company created the version of the Great Seal of the United States that still graces the back of every U.S. dollar bill.

“Tiffany design is American design,” said Loring, permeating every aspect of America. “Whether the people recognize it as such or not, it’s with them every day.”

The big ticket Jewelry has been worn by everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to Kate Winslet. But just about anyone can own a piece of Tiffany’s silver line, starting at about $100.

That’s caused complaints that the brand has been diluted. But Chairman Michael Kowalski is not bothered by that, or by sniping about “Rubedo,” the company’s latest product – a mix of gold, silver and copper that some call a gimmick.

“It’s beautiful,” said Kowalski.

“So you don’t care if some people are critical of it?” asked Braver.

“You know, Tiffany has always had an extraordinary history of product innovation, going back many, many years,” Kowalski said. “So I think part of the challenge of being an innovator is surprising people, and perhaps (being) upsetting to some.”

And let’s face it: Over the course of 175 years, we’ve all learned what’s meant by the “Tiffany standard.”

“You can go anywhere in the United States and the word ‘Tiffany’ will be used synonymous with quality,” said Loring. “You’ll find the Tiffany Laundromat, the Tiffany lumber yard, everything Tiffany! And probably there’s a nice little baby girl born every minute in the United States named Tiffany.”

CBS News

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