Gilded Age Flatware

Tiffany & Co.'s Chrysanthemum Pattern

Shippokuwaisha's [sic] exhibit, Japanese section, Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, 1876. Photo courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Designed in 1880 by Tiffany’s head of silverware, Charles Grosjean, Chrysanthemum was one of the most extensive and expensive flatware patterns Tiffany ever made. It was not just heavier than other patterns, but required an immense amount of labor and finishing for each piece. Full services easily surpassed many hundreds of pieces, and a complete flatware and table service cost as much as a lifetime’s wages for a middle class working American. As was the case with much of the decorative arts and furniture of the period, the pattern was inspired by Japanese aesthetics owing to the craze for all things Japanese which swept through America and Europe during the Gilded Age in response to the Japanese exhibit at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876.

The chrysanthemum holds special importance in Japanese culture as the flower associated with the royal family, and Grosjean’s rich, dense design elegantly overlaps the flowers and buds against a foliate background resulting in luxurious flatware affordable to only the very elite of society. Chrysanthemum was a top seller until the Great Depression forced the company to retire it in 1934, though due to its popularity and desirability it was later reintroduced and remains in production to the present day. 

Tiffany & Co.

The name Tiffany is now synonymous with luxury around the globe, but the company was born from slightly more humble beginnings. In 1837, 25-year-old Charles Lewis Tiffany and his friend John Young opened a stationary and fancy goods store in New York City on Broadway. Catering to fashionable men and women, they purveyed a new “American style” more inspired by the natural world rather than the ceremonial patterns and ornamented Victorian opulence of earlier decades. In 1853, Charles Tiffany took control of the company and renamed it Tiffany & Co. By then, he had already introduced their signature, and now iconic, robin’s egg blue color.

Tiffany’s silver studio, headed by celebrated silversmith Edward C. Moore, was the first American school of design. Moore compiled an enormous collection of sketches and artwork, encouraging apprentices both to study them as well as to observe and sketch the natural world. Under his guidance, the studio developed their own design identity and became famous for elegant, Japonesque-style silver and glittering gemstone and diamond jewelry. Tiffany & Co. became the first American company to adopt the British silver standard of using only 92% pure metal, and he achieved international acclaim at the 1867 Paris World’s Fair where he was awarded the Grand Prix for silver craftsmanship; it was the first time an American design firm had been honored so by a foreign jury.

By 1870, Tiffany & Co. had become the premier silversmith in America and leading purveyor of jewels and timepieces. Tiffany purchased crown jewels from France and Spain, revolutionized the engagement ring with solitaire prong-set stones, and by the end of the century would be known as the “King of Diamonds”—a fitting title for someone who was appointed Royal Jeweler to the crowned heads of Europe, the Ottoman Emperor, and the Czar of Russia. The firm won numerous awards at international exhibitions, employed more than one thousand people, and had established branches in London, Geneva, and Paris prior to Tiffany’s death in 1902. His son, Louis Comfort Tiffany (founder of Tiffany Studios), then took the helm and became design director.

Already a leading designer and artist in the Art Nouveau and Arts & Crafts movements, the younger Tiffany stewarded the company to even greater heights. They successfully navigated changing styles, adjusting to the Art Deco aesthetic through the 1920s and 30s and, after L.C. Tiffany’s death in 1933, the more streamlined, modernized designs of the 1940s and 50s. Their success and notoriety only continued to grow throughout the 20th century as they continued to hire visionary designers such as Jean Schlumberger, Paloma Picasso, and Elsa Peretti, and garnered diverse and important commissions, from the Congressional Medal of Honor to the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the National Football League, which they have created since the first Super Bowl in 1967.

Throughout its history, America’s elite politicians, families, socialites, and actors have all frequented Tiffany & Co.: Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, the Vanderbilts, Astors, Whitneys and Havemeyers, Elizabeth Taylor, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to name but a few. With their global presence and steadfast dedication to excellence of quality and craftsmanship, Tiffany & Co. continues to be one of the foremost creators of silver, jewelry, and vertu in the world today.

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