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In October 1986, the United States International Trade Commission issued a report on the jewelry industry at the request of the Senate Finance Committee. Explaining the landscape, it wrote, “Jewelry has traditionally been considered a gift item and most purchases were for that purpose.”
It's not just that gift giving had dominated the jewelry industry, the gifts had mostly been from men to women, and so the industry’s marketing was often aimed at men, the buyers, and not women, the wearers.
“During the ‘60s and ‘70s, the incidence of female self-purchase was small,” says Hedda Schupak, editor-in-chief of the Centurion Newsletter. “For one thing, there were relatively few women in the workforce, so there wasn't a lot of female spending power for costly items. But also at that time, both men and women typically considered jewelry to be something a woman received as a gift. If there was female purchasing at the time, it was more likely to be female-to-female occasion gifting, like mother/daughter, or grandmother/granddaughter.”
Thirty years later, the jewelry industry looks remarkably different. Today the industry’s buzziest terms are “self-purchasing woman” (a woman who buys jewelry for herself) and “just-because purchase” (a casual buy in which the jewelry doesn’t mark a special occasion). For years the industry considered women "secondary influencers." They are now the target customer.
The self-purchasing woman is a result of more women working than ever before, and these women are earning more and seeing significant career progression (though, of course, not as much as their male counterparts). They are also staying single longer and having children later, resulting in more discretionary income at their disposal.
According to Eurostar, a diamond traders’ association, women who treated themselves to jewelry 50 years ago had to lie because “they were embarrassed that a man was not buying it for them.” Now more than half of all American women buy themselves non-occasion-based jewelry, according to a report from the Jewelry Consumer Opinion Council, and 23 percent of American women purchase jewelry for themselves at least once a year.
In its annual Diamond Insight Report, De Beers found that millennials spent $26 billion on diamond jewelry in 2015, and 31 percent of those purchases were pieces women bought for themselves. According to De Beers, female self-purchasing is on the rise, especially among those in the 25- to 39-year-old age bracket, and it’s a segment that De Beers — the company that coined the term "A Diamond Is Forever" — is focusing on just as much as its bridal and its relationship-milestone customers, according to Schupak.
This deviation has forced everyone else in the industry to reevaluate who exactly its desired customer is too; among the brands addressing this shift head-on is Tiffany & Co.
A luxury jewelry company that is nearly 200 years old, Tiffany has long been cashing in on the gift-giving traditions of heteronormative romance. Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly might have described its stores’ masculine appeal best when she mused in Breakfast at Tiffany’s that “nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits.” The 1961 film (and the Truman Capote novella on which it was based) accurately depicts how, while Tiffany was a place for Holly to window-shop, it was her love interest Paul who would be doing the buying.
As it tries to figure out how to jolt declining sales, Tiffany has found itself in turmoil, dismissing its head of design and CEO in quick succession. It believes the self-purchasing woman is key to getting back on track. What better way to increase purchases than by zeroing in on a huge and hugely influential demographic that they’ve heretofore underestimated?
Tiffany may be one of the most recognizable jewelry brands in the world, but it actually started out as a stationery and gift shop. As company lore goes, founder Charles Lewis Tiffany borrowed $1,000 from his father to start a small store in lower Manhattan with his school friend John B. Young. The pair opened their shop in 1837 and called it Tiffany & Young; after taking sole ownership, Tiffany changed the name to Tiffany & Co. in 1853.
Initially, the store sold Japanese papier-mâché, ceramic housewares, and stationery, but within three years expanded to jewelry. Tiffany is widely credited with creating America’s first mail-order catalogue, called the “Blue Book,” that allowed shoppers to buy items from its New York City location. (The company has since rebranded the Blue Book, which is now the name of an annual collection of rare and expensive pieces.) In 1850, Tiffany opened an office in Paris, where he bought world-famous stones, including some of the French crown’s royal jewels, for Americans who had recently come into money.
Also during this time, the US was largely importing luxury housewares and fine silver from Europe, and so Charles Lewis Tiffany set out to disrupt this monopoly. He opened his own manufacturing facility and hired American father-son silver craftsmen John and Edward Moore to create an extensive library of silver designs. Under the Moores, Tiffany became celebrated for its silver, and eventually for its porcelain china, crystal, and tableware too. Trophies, vases, tea sets, and serving pieces were globally renowned, with Abraham Lincoln and William Randolph Hearst counted among the brand’s customers.
“The Moores' designs would help establish Tiffany's distinguished reputation in decorative arts,” the Washington Post wrote in a 1987 retrospective. “By the end of the Victorian era, Tiffany was the source for much of the silver purchased by America's affluent families for their elaborate entertaining needs.”
When Charles Lewis Tiffany died in 1902, the company’s reins were handed to his son, Louis Comfort Tiffany. The younger Tiffany was an interior designer and artist with a distinctive Art Nouveau style. He made a splash for his family’s brand with ornate stained glass windows and lamps, as well as porcelain enamel jewelry. The company managed to survive the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed, but only barely; sales fell from a then-high of $17.7 million in 1919 to $2.9 million in 1932. The company was slowly able to rebuild its business, though, and in 1940, moved uptown into a sprawling, four-floor location on 57th Street and Fifth Avenue.
While the Tiffany family spent 100 years establishing the brand’s reputation, it is Walter Hoving that brought Tiffany & Co. to true commercial glory. The shrewd businessman acquired the company in 1955 and pivoted it towards “good design,” as the New York Times wrote. The old-school Tiffany made you feel like “you had to have a million dollars to come into the store,” the Times continued, but “Hoving introduced mass merchandising; not in the ordinary sense, but in the sense of affordable and good quality.''
Hoving added store locations in Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Houston, and hired the brand’s legendary design director Van Day Truex and window-display mastermind Gene Moore. He also brought on a star-studded roster of jewelry designers including Elsa Peretti, Jean Schlumberger, and Paloma Picasso, all of whom went on to create blockbuster lines consisting of mid-priced silver jewelry. Because of their affordability and more casual design, these collections did attract some self-purchasing women, notes Schupak, although “for less affluent women, it was an aspirational purchase and therefore was something they wanted and got as a gift.”
“Tiffany did great artistic designs before a lot of other brands did,” says Wolfgang Schaefer, global chief strategy officer at luxury advertising agency Select World. “They went out of their ivory tower on Fifth Avenue and actually tried to mingle and make themselves a part of the cultural current of the time.”
With lower-priced items like silver keychains and pendants, Tiffany sales ballooned to $100 million, according to the Times. Still, its high-end reputation remained intact well through the ’70s and ’80s.
“Historically, they were known for stones — and not just diamonds, but for using all different types of gemstones,” says Tracey Zabar, an author and long-time jewelry merchant. “But they were also the epitome of American luxury design. Everything they made was extremely covetable. The thing about Tiffany is that people shop there because they trust them. Yes, there are those people who look for a deal, but there’s also a certain segment of the population who don’t want to buy from a guy on 7th Avenue, who works on the 18th floor, all the way in the back. People understand, and trust that they’ll get quality.”
Schaefer adds that even the smallest of purchases at Tiffany “were driven by status and emotional appeal.”
“Everyone was crazy to have that keychain, and they knew they could have gotten one for half the price, but the Tiffany one satisfies a certain desire,” he says. “Its products were always wrapped up in a beautiful story, and to own one would mean to become a part of this cultural connoisseur collective. Certainly, it’s what all brands strive for, but few achieve it in the elegant way Tiffany does.”
Tiffany filed for IPO in 1987, the same year it forayed into fragrance and also into international expansion in Europe and Asia. In the ’90s, it developed its explanatory “How to Buy a Diamond” booklet, which positioned the brand as the expert in engagement rings. Another big hit was the 1997 Return to Tiffany collection, which had silver necklaces, bracelets, and pendants with hearts and oval charms inscribed with the message: “Please Return to Tiffany & Co. New York.” While similarly accessible silver Tiffany collections from Picasso and Peretti were also popular at the time, the highly giftable Return to Tiffany collection was a hit unlike any other. Beloved by Bat Mitzvah girls and Elle Woods alike, the collection’s heart tag bracelet in particular was called a “must-have fashion accessory” that made “sales skyrocket and investors cheer” by the Wall Street Journal.
By 2003, silver accounted for 30 percent of the brand’s US sales, and so Tiffany decided to “kill its golden egg,” as the Journal put it, by raising the price of its Return to Tiffany collection nearly 400 percent, which quieted the trend by the next year.
Over the last decade, Tiffany has debuted collections that have generated some buzz, like the 2009 Key collection and the faux rose gold Rubedo metal collection from 2012, but nothing that garnered a following like Return to Tiffany. In fact, the biggest move the brand made in that time was aggressive store expansion. In less than a decade, it nearly doubled its global store portfolio, going from 141 stores in 2003 to 275 in 2012; in the US, the number of Tiffany stores went from 51 in 2003 to 91 in 2012.
While this generated capital for Tiffany initially — net sales jumped from $2.2 billion in 2004 to $3.6 billion in 2011 — it hasn’t been a recipe for continual growth. Even with ample store representation today (there are currently 315 Tiffany stores worldwide, 96 of which are in the US), sales have fallen short of projections.
In 2015, Tiffany saw sales of $4.1 billion, down slightly from its 2014 total of $4.2 billion. This past summer, Tiffany reported its biggest drop in quarterly sales since the recession of 2009, and Reuters declared that its “old-world luxury fails to charm millennials.” This month, Tiffany blamed bleak holiday results on the ongoing protests against Donald Trump, which were held outside of Trump Tower, on the same block as Tiffany’s Fifth Avenue flagship. However, analysts believe Tiffany’s product offering is ultimately to blame.
“In the past few years, Tiffany missed a big way to make consumers enthusiastic,” says Mario Ortelli, a luxury analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein. “The product innovation was not there. The management must shake off the dust and make it shiny.”
Brian Yarbrough, an equity research analyst with Edward Jones, posits that Tiffany’s long legacy is actually what’s hurting the brand. It keeps reissuing old designs without having many new ones to boast: “Their attitude has been, ‘This product will sell because we’re Tiffany.’ They got too content, and there wasn’t really anything driving people into stores.”
“These days, the most successful companies out there read and react to trends taking place in the now,” adds Simeon Siegel, an equity research analyst at Instinet, “like a Zara, which listens to its customers, and gives them what they want. Tiffany tends to dig back into its own historical archives for inspiration.”
The shopping landscape has also changed dramatically in the last 10 years. “Consumers are looking for more affordable alternatives,” says Jasmine Seng, an accessories analyst at Euromonitor. “The jewelry shopper is more aware that cheaper options are available and are willing to trade down.”
This is particularly true of the demographic Tiffany is now turning its eye to. “All data points to the fact that millennial shoppers are fickle when it comes to loyalty, and what they care about is price,” says Peter Gold, the CMO of e-commerce site Shop.com, who researches millennial shopping behavior. “They value the hot, new brand that’s a social media darling just as much as the company with a 200-year history.”
Just look at Alex and Ani, Pandora, and Kendra Scott — all wildly popular among young female shoppers — for evidence, and the fact that digital sales of diamonds and fine jewelry have never been higher. For Tiffany to stand out today, it must offer something unique and exciting, which fans believe the jewelry brand sorely lacks these days.
Zabar notes that while the design-minded jewelry of Paloma Picasso and Jean Schlumberger received critical acclaim and achieved commercial success, “I don’t see any of their lovely, feminine designs when I go into Tiffany now. I feel like all there is the traditional engagement ring and its slight variations.”
Walking into the Tiffany & Co. flagship location on Fifth Avenue in New York City is like walking into a time warp. Yes, everyone is on their iPhones, but beyond that, it’s hard to tell exactly what time period it is, with the wood paneling, brown carpets, and grandfather clocks. The interior hasn’t been updated much the last several decades; it doesn’t look all that different than it did in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Across the country, though, a different Tiffany experience has arrived. The Rodeo Drive store in Los Angeles was renovated just three months ago; it’s airy and cheerful and is miles away, geographically and aesthetically, from the traditional Tiffany model. Cream wallpaper covers the walls and the floors are a light, polished marble. Warm sunlight pours in through tall windows.
This design concept was first introduced in Chicago in September 2015 and will roll out later this month in San Francisco, and then in Vancouver in May. While the brand doesn’t have plans to touch the Fifth Avenue store just yet, Richard Moore, Tiffany’s vice president and creative director of store design and creative visual merchandising, says all of the brand’s American flagships will eventually have the same “design language.”
“This concept is really much lighter, much brighter, a lot softer, and feels more feminine than our older store concepts,” says Moore. “The environment feels more youthful and energetic.”
Mood boards for Tiffany’s 2016 campaign imagery hang on the walls of Moore’s New York City office. They show people eating playful puffs of cotton candy, a woman holding a giant bundle of pink balloons, a couple kissing as they hold lit sparklers.
Moore, who has been working on Tiffany’s store redesign for the last couple of years, says the brand is slowly pivoting away from Tiffany’s older masculine look. The new stores, he says, help Tiffany talk about love and jewelry in a different way: “They have a big dose of glamour. They are aspirational and powerful, and they are gifts of your hopes or your dreams. They tell a bigger brand story, so it’s not just about putting products on the walls, but about telling the consumer more about the world of Tiffany.”
They also help Tiffany talk to younger shoppers who don’t necessarily connect to the 1950s glamour the luxury jeweler has subscribed to for so long. “We tried to take codes from the New York flagship and roll them out into some our smaller stores, but as we've grown hugely, where it's now at some 300 retail locations across the world, that doesn't always translate,” says Moore.
“I’m a 40-year-old European and I’ve seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s, so I can see how the designs at its Fifth Avenue store have an appeal around the world,” adds Ortelli. “But if I’m an Asian millennial, I probably have never seen the movie, so when I enter the shop, I see a concept that doesn’t feel so high-end or interesting.”
For Tiffany to revive itself as a contemporary jewelry brand, though, freshening up stores isn’t enough. Tiffany has also been beefing up its marketing efforts. There was the #LoveNotLike social media campaign from last summer that National Jeweler explained as the brand “jumping hard on the millennial bandwagon.” It featured models with huge Instagram followings like Pyper America Smith and Imaan Hamman and involved custom filters on Snapchat; the brand also encouraged shoppers to share their photos using the #LoveNotLike hashtag on Instagram.
There was also the Legendary Style campaign from this past fall that featured Lupita Nyong'o and Elle Fanning. This set of ads signaled that the brand, which had never relied on famous faces to sell its jewelry, was making a play for younger women who have long been immersed in celebrity culture. Last week, Tiffany revealed that its most recent pick for the campaign would be Lady Gaga; her debut ad ran during the Super Bowl, a first for the brand. Other modernizing moves include a 2015 ad that featured a same-sex couple, a first for Tiffany.
And this past April, Tiffany finally branched out into wholesale for the first time in decades, choosing Net-a-Porter as its exclusive partner. This was a deliberate choice, going with an online-only retailer whose customer base includes the same women who received pieces from the Return to Tiffany collection as tweens and teens, but have likely moved on from the brand.
But then, of course, there’s the jewelry itself. In 2013, Tiffany hired Francesca Amfitheatrof, a designer who’d worked for brands like Chanel and Fendi, as its first female design director. Since her hiring, headline after headline has exalted Amfitheatrof as someone who would shake Tiffany up, or “dust off the old sleeping beauty,” as Amfitheatrof referred to her mission at the company a few months ago.
“Honestly, Tiffany needs an injection of newness and energy and freshness,” Amfitheatrof said, sitting in a brightly-lit private room on the top floor of Tiffany’s Los Angeles flagship in the fall. “I don't think we want to completely leave behind what is the history of Tiffany, but at the same time, we do need to do something that's slightly different enough to really create space and interest.”
In 2014, Amfitheatrof released her T collection, which featured sleek designs on rings, bracelets, and pendants, and received favorable media coverage. Her latest fashion collection, called HardWear, debuts in late March, with select pieces available for pre-order today. Inspired by a unisex bracelet Tiffany released in 1971, the collection is modern and industrial-looking with geometric elements and heavy chains. But it seems these efforts were not enough. Three weeks ago, Tiffany abruptly announced Amfitheatrof’s departure from the brand, merely offering that she will “leave the company to pursue other opportunities.”
When Amfitheatrof started at Tiffany, her desire was to steer the brand back towards a more design-centered strategy.
“I think that a lot of brands really lived off this massive expansion and got very used to it, and became a little bit greedy honestly. Tiffany was more merchandise-led. It wasn't really about a vision,” she told Racked back in October. “Tiffany always had this kind of adventurous streak, and that's the part that I'm really interested in: to go back to being a really creative brand that puts design as its focus and its heartbeat.”
Analysts are hesitant to hold Amfitheatrof accountable for Tiffany’s lack of growth, but also admit the news of her departure isn’t surprising.
“At the end of the day, three years is a long time for a public company, and for a public company, if you’re not growing, you're shrinking,” says Siegel referring to the length of Amfitheatrof’s tenure.
“When Francesca came in,” says Yarbrough, “the expectation was that she was going to bring fresh, new looks to the business and drive some product innovation. While she might have done a great job with the T Collection, the numbers at Tiffany over the last two years have been pretty disappointing, and unfortunately, designers often get the blame for these things.”
Further signaling Tiffany is in crisis mode, just hours before the Super Bowl commercial featuring Lady Gaga in the HardWear collection went live, the company announced that CEO Frederic Cumenal was stepping down from his position, effective immediately. Tiffany does not have a replacement lined up for Cumenal, but instead appointed Michael J. Kowalski, chairman of Tiffany’s board of directors and a former CEO of the company, to step in in the interim; in a statement, Kowalski says the search for a new CEO is underway and that the news of Cumenal’s departure comes as a result of Tiffany being “disappointed by recent financial results."
In tandem with Amfitheatrof’s departure came the news that Reed Krakoff, Coach’s former longtime creative director who worked over the summer on homeware and accessories at Tiffany, would assume a brand new role, chief artistic officer. He is now leading design across all of Tiffany, including jewelry, accessories, stores, e-commerce, and marketing.
Tiffany representatives say Krakoff was appointed to this new position because he “understands luxury.”
“He is famous for his decades of experience designing accessories for the body, as well as objects for the home,” a representative writes over email. “While we are a fine jeweler first and foremost, expanding our offering in luxury accessories and broadening the Tiffany portfolio has inspired a role for larger creative oversight.”’
Where luxury fits with reaching younger female shoppers, and the self-purchasing woman in particular, is not something Tiffany would elaborate on; from the outside, it may even seem at odds with market demands. Tiffany stresses Krakoff is not replacing Amfitheatrof, whose job encompassed only jewelry design, as Krakoff’s role will be to create a unified vision for Tiffany across all categories. While a consolidated brand voice and look under Krakoff makes sense, Siegel says Tiffany would be wise not to pin its hopes on one person to lift it out of its sluggish performance, and focus more on producing jewelry that’s part of the conversation.
“In this day and age, single designers don't make or break companies,” says Siegel. “Teams and technology do. A successful company is one that is receptive to what people are buying, and listens to its customers.”
Krakoff’s influence on Tiffany’s jewelry also remains to be seen. Tiffany, which did not make Krakoff available for this story, says "its design and craftsmanship team" will design the jewelry, but did not share who exactly will be leading the team.
Unlike Amfitheatrof, Krakoff doesn’t have experience in jewelry design, though Yarbrough notes this very well may be a reason for his hiring. If Tiffany didn't see success with a jewelry designer at the creative helm, why not try out someone with a different skill set? “Reed had a hell of a run, from designing bags, to deciding the look and feel of Coach, down to its stores and the outfits of its sales associates,” Yarbrough says. “Reed has a real good pulse on how to market, and create excitement around, merchandise for women.”
As the sun slowly begins to set over Rodeo Drive and shoppers bustle down the palm tree-lined street, dozens of bags in hand, they stop to admire a crew of limos and black SUVs lining up at Wilshire Boulevard.
Celebrities dripping in Tiffany jewelry step out onto the Tiffany Blue carpet that covers the sidewalk and stairs that lead to the store’s main entrance, heading into a party to celebrate the new Tiffany Rodeo Drive store redesign. Cameras flash and photographers shout over a jazz band as celebrities make their way to a party celebrating the flagship’s reopening in early October.
Reese Witherspoon and Kate Hudson show their jewels off for the cameras, Witherspoon pairing a plunging black jumpsuit with a half-a-million dollar bracelet made of pink sapphires, rubellites, and diamonds, and Hudson wearing a light pink silk dress with a $200,000 necklace. Liam Hemsworth walks by in a CT60 rose gold watch.
Many of the non-celebrities in attendance inside are Tiffany’s biggest clients, flown in from all over the world to see the new store. Some pose near a wall decorated with dozens of blue gift boxes, while others gawk at Sofia Vergara and Halle Berry. Told there will be a surprise performance this evening, they move to an outdoor area designated as a makeshift theater.
A troupe of ballerinas pirouette to a soft soundtrack, and the crowd’s applause goes from soft to thunderous as projected images of diamonds and crystals quiver and explode on the storefront. Then the lights go black and a hush of excitement falls over the crowd. Suddenly, Ariana Grande is on a stage that’s just been rolled into the area. The pop star is wearing her signature cat eyeliner and high pony, but she’s accessorized with a diamond Tiffany necklace.
“Thank you to Tiffany’s for having me,” the pop singer coos. “This is seriously one of my favorite places in the whole world.”
For a brand looking to reach young millennial women, Grande makes perfect sense. She sings two of her own songs and before hopping off stage, flashes the crowd a grin and breaks out into her best Marilyn Monroe impression to sing a smooth and sexy rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” The crowd claps and Snapchats along.
Chavie Lieber is a senior reporter at Racked.