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The Tiffany Touch: Reknowned Jeweler Celebrates 150 Years

September 17, 1987 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ When Charles Lewis Tiffany opened his fancy dry-goods store in Manhattan on Sept. 18, 1837, the future did not look bright. Sales for the first day totaled $4.98; the first week’s profits, 33 cents.

Things have definitely changed.

Gone are the dog whips, tongue-scrapers and papier-mache. In their place stand cavernous floors filled with glittering gems and collections of fine silver and crystal.

Sales have picked up, too; Tiffany & Co. reported selling $182.5 million in goods in fiscal 1986.

The company is celebrating its sesquicentennial with four months of museum exhibitions and black-tie galas in New York, Boston, Houston, London, Beverly Hills, Calif., Chicago, San Francisco and Dallas. Tiffany’s has branches in those cities and Atlanta. A store will open in Munich, West Germany, next month.

Though internationally known today, the original Tiffany’s was a 15-foot- wide cubbyhole across from City Hall in Lower Manhattan and ″went unnoticed by competitors as well as by most shoppers″ when it opened, according to ″The Tiffany Touch,″ a book on the store’s history.

And while today the name Tiffany is synonymous with taste, it wasn’t always that way.

Tiffany once exhibited the skinned and tanned hide of a P.T. Barnum elephant, publicly hanged for killing a circus employee, in his front window under an ad inviting customers to have luggage made from the notorious pachyderm.

Tiffany’s business acumen and keen sense of publicity turned the store into a profitmaker in four short years, and its reputation has grown a thousandfold since. It was acquired by Avon Products in 1979 and resold to a private investors group in October 1984.

Over the years, Tiffany’s tony customers have included presidents Lincoln and Johnson and nearly every crowned head of state, including Queen Victoria, the Shah of Persia and the Czar of Russia.

While president, Lincoln bought his wife, Mary, a string of seed pearls and matching earrings for $2,600, and Johnson commissioned Tiffany’s to provide a new set of china for the White House.

Tiffany’s has long been the preferred jeweler, china maker and silver supplier of wealthy socialites and a favorite of celebrities from Diamond Jim Brady and Lily Langtree to Elizabeth Taylor and Carol Channing.

But the magic of Tiffany’s lies in its ability to make the ordinary person feel extraordinary.

″So many people believe that Tiffany’s is intimidating and we have to be extra-friendly and warm and hospitable″ to dispel that idea, said William R. Chaney, Tiffany’s chairman and chief executive.

A staff of 1,250 salespeople and managers is available to help customers spend money on the lowest priced item - a $12.50 double deck of Tiffany playing cards - or a million-dollar diamond necklace.

Hardly a day passes without a busload of tourists waiting patiently to pass through the single revolving door leading into the seven-story building on Fifth Avenue.

Its international image was given a large boost by the 1961 movie version of Truman Capote’s novel ″Breakfast at Tiffany’s,″ starring Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly.

Though the movie characters never ate in the store, the idea somehow stuck. ″People still come in and ask for our restaurant,″ said Chaney. Tiffany’s routinely turns down hundreds of requests for private breakfasts each year, said spokeswoman Fernanda Gilligan.

Over the years, the store has built its reputation on jewelry.

The first breakthrough came in 1850 with the acquisition of the French crown jewels and Marie Antoinette’s ″girdle of diamonds″ - four strings of pearls connected by two large diamond motifs.

The firm followed with the purchase in 1877 for $18,000 of the Tiffany diamond, the world’s largest and finest canary diamond.

The diamond was cut from 287.42 carats to its present 128.51 carats to bring out its brilliance and is prominently displayed in a sealed case on the Manhattan store’s main floor. It is worth ″in excess of $10 million″ today, Miss Gilligan said.

It is also definitely not for sale. A salesman once asked then-Tiffany Chairman Walter Hoving what he would get if he sold the famous diamond. ″Fired,″ Hoving replied.

Another key to Tiffany’s success lies with the fact that it caters to its customer’s tastes - however peculiar.

Conservative clerks barely batted an eye when Diamond Jim Brady asked Tiffany’s to make a solid-gold chamber pot with an eye peering up from the bottom for actress Lillian Russell, according to ″The Tiffany Touch.″

But Hoving did balk when a West Coast restaurateur asked him to make 45 pairs of Tiffany-designed pasties, a $3,000 apiece, for his topless waitresses. Hoving imposed many edicts still in effect, including a ban on selling diamond rings for men.

″He considered it to be in poor taste,″ Miss Gilligan said. ″We feel diamond rings are an accessory to adorn women and not men.″