Mention Tiffany and what do you get? A long, drawn out sigh. Aahh, Tiffany! Colorful, lustrous, opaque, varicolored, iridescent, marbleized, etc. Just about any word I can thing of pertaining to quality applies to Tiffany.
Everyone has heard of Tiffany lamps and vases, but did you know he started out as an artist? His art is relatively unknown. His five children who inherited his artwork still own and prize it all. In his early days, he had been heralded as one of the most promising American artists, but his interests in glass and his decorating talents left him little time to follow this line of work. He was one of the first professional interior decorators and over the years planned and decorated three homes for his family.
At the time of his death in 1933, the Great Depression was over this land and the market was flooded with unsold items produced by his workshops. His private collection was sold for a song at auction in 1946. In the 20-year span following WWII, Tiffany glassware prices increased one hundred times, then in the ‘70s, Tiffany lamps surpassed them.
His increasing interest with ecclesiastical windows probably came about as the result of marrying the daughter of a Presbyterian minister after the death of his first wife.
At age 52 he was at the peak of his career, the most famous American artist and the leader in Art Nouveau, which was an international craze by the turn of the century. During this era, he employed over 200 craftsmen.
After 1900, he reorganized his business and most of the designing was done by artisans hired for that purpose. Tiffany was president of his firm and retained the right of approval until his retirement in 1919. The The firm continued producing church windows until 1938, when the firm was liquidated.
Its a sad by true fact that a minute fraction of these widows have survived, most of them being bulldozed along with the buildings they graced, in what we thought was progress at the time.
Tiffany lamps were and are the elite of the lighting devices. They were also the most expensive. The factory mark, 'Tiffany Studios, New York' and the model were usually stamped in metal or on a metal tag attached to the item. However this 'signature' was often omitted on unique or commissioned articles. The best proof is comparison of style and technique with known Tiffany.
The numbers were not put on Tiffany items until they were ready to leave the factory so while having a numbered Tiffany is proof that it is Tiffany, it is not necessarily proof of exactly when it was crafted. Some of his earliest pieces were not numbered until 1921 after Tiffany's retirement. Any piece of Tiffany marked with the prefix A through N and numbered was almost certainly made prior to 1900.
It's impossible to describe many of Tiffany's items as I am at a loss as to how I can define them, but a few stick in my mind. Namely, an iridescent glass and silvered metal punch bowl made for the Paris Expo of 1900. An etched metal desk set in a grapevine pattern had marbleized glass inserts of green. This one, I was lucky enough to see at auction recently. How about a fireplace set with sample Tiffany glass tiles? This was installed in Tiffany showrooms and used to display Tiffany glass.
They made hollow ware, flatware, trophies, tea sets, solid silver handles for Smith & Wesson .32 pistols, candelabras, all out of silver and with so much detail you need a magnifying glass to study it.
In the mid '70s they designed a sterling cover for a Sharp calculator, which, when closed and imprinted with initials, looks like a man's silver cigarette case, so popular in the 1940s.
I'd say my favorite story about Tiffany items is the silver bicycle they designed for actress Lillian Russell. It was a gift from some of her admirers. Although Diamond Jim Brady had Tiffany make her a- get this- gold chamber pot with an eye on the bottom, which has got to be the epitome of vulgarity. The bicycle wasn't unique as Tiffany's 1897 Blue Book listed bicycles in it.
Don't forget that Carnival Glass came about as a result of the people wanting something that looked like Tiffany but didn't cost as much. Hence the name for carnival glass, the Poor Man's Tiffany.
There have probably been hundreds of books written about Tiffany and in several languages too. For this article I used just three of them: Tiffany Silver by Charles & Mary Carpenter; Louis C. Tiffany's Art Glass by Robert Koch; and Tiffany, a Rizzoli Paperback.
As a final note, if you ever get to the Corning Museum of Art,
spend the day and treat yourself to a Louis C. Tiffany one of a kind show.
-Jo Ann Wright