My partner and I have just flunked our very first test at the pop-up Tiffany Diamond Academy at New York’s East 63rd Street. What we have identified as inclusions in a diamond has turned out to be streaks from the cleaning solution we’d used — news that our instructor Stacie Schwartz, Tiffany & Co.’s manager of technology, training and quality assurance, breaks to us with a polite smile.
At the next station, Paul Kong, manager of the jeweller’s grading lab, and diamond polisher Manek Patel watch us with eagle eyes as we each hold a diamond down against a polishing wheel. For the inexperienced, the tang (which holds the diamond in place) can be unwieldly and honestly, our little handiwork can barely be considered as facets. That Patel polishes all 57 facets of the brand’s namesake diamond by hand as easily as one chews gum is simply unfathomable.
Schwartz, Kong, Patel and all their fellow instructors at this academy — specially put together for international press — have long been among the unheralded stars that work behind the scenes at Tiffany. Except, for 2016, the jeweller is marking the 130th anniversary of its Tiffany Setting diamond engagement ring and its year-long campaign has put its specialists and craftsmen squarely in the spotlight. For the first time, its elegant advertising visuals even feature photographs of its own artisans, rather than models or personalities.
If Patel looks somewhat familiar to us students, it’s because he and his brother Bhagwati starred in one of a series of clips Tiffany released on social media. Diamond polishers who work as a pair, the brothers have 45 years of combined industry experience and have spent the last 13 years at Tiffany’s. Like them, Schwartz and Kong have both crossed the 10-year mark at the company. Diamond setter Marcus Latronico has clocked two decades, while the brand’s very dapper chief gemmologist Melvyn Kirtley (who peers through a loop in print advertising) has three decades behind him. So we really couldn’t have better instructors for our Tiffany indoctrination.
“The story of the craftspeople that we have in New York alone is almost a story of New York — it’s a major cosmopolitan city, one of the most exciting in the world, where we have a real melting pot of cultures. I think we once counted employees from 30 different countries based just in our workshop and factories in New York and Rhode Island,” says Andy Hart, senior vice president of diamond and jewellery supply, who is in his 16th year at the house. The reason why so many craftspeople stay on for the long-term, he reasons, is because they truly believe they work for the best company in the industry.
“Where do you go from here? If you are a jeweller or craftsperson, this is the pinnacle. We also create working environments where we can bring out the best of our employees. We treat our people with respect and we make sure they are paid adequately. This is one of the reasons why we take control of our whole supply chain. Even our polishers in Vietnam have great working conditions and are able to achieve their aspirations by creating beautiful pieces of artwork,” Hart adds.
It is fitting then that it is these unassuming craftsmen who are the ones honoured on the 130th anniversary of the iconic Tiffany Setting (the first to lift a solitaire off the band). Emphasising what makes the setting different from other six-prong rings, the campaign reminds soon-to-be brides and their prospective fiancés that the symbol of love is not only lovingly handcrafted, but that 99.96 percent of the world’s gem-grade diamonds were rejected in the search for the perfect stone.
One might say the masterly campaign also indirectly takes on those that hawk inferior imitations, shoring up Tiffany’s aggressive intellectual property strategy, as luxury brands continue their epochal battle against those that infringe their trademarks. After all, it is the iconic Tiffany Setting ring that was at the heart of a long court battle between Tiffany and American discount goliath Costco since Valentine’s Day 2013. (The jeweller was handed a major victory last September when a US federal judge rejected Costco’s claim that “Tiffany” is a generic term to describe pronged rings.)
Debuted by Charles Lewis Tiffany in 1886, Tiffany Setting engagement rings glorify a solitaire diamond by lifting it out and above the band. For the first time, light could pass between the ring prongs and through the diamond, heightening its brilliance. So unique and breathtaking was the design that in 1904, future US President Franklin D Roosevelt proposed to his beloved Eleanor with one. Such an instant success was the design that the jeweller was advertising warnings about imitators as early as 1909.
It is in the hands of the house’s artisans that the symbol of everlasting love endures today. As jeweller Henry Siuda, another 16-year Tiffany veteran, explains: “Each Tiffany Setting is unique. It’s made once — and never repeated. That’s because each ring reflects the special artistry and skill of the people who made it. Not many people qualify for that.”
As a Tiffany Diamond Academy dropout, I can attest to the fact that, indeed, very few people are qualified to play a part in the making of this legendary ring.