The news that Francesca Amfitheatrof is leaving Tiffany & Co after three-and-a-half years came as a shock to many. Her brave, quirky jewellery designs have made her a creative idol, and her connections to the Young British Artists scene gifted Tiffany & Co some much-needed cool kudos (the zenith perhaps being 2015’s collaboration with Dover Street Market on the Out of Retirement collection). But did it get too cool?
The departure of Tiffany & Co.’s first female design director was but a side note in another announcement welcoming Reed Krakoff, the American designer whose skills were credited with transforming Coach’s turnover from US$500 million to US$4 billion during his 17-year tenure as its creative director. He will take on the newly created role of chief artistic officer, which will give him creative control over all of Tiffany & Co’s products, from engagement rings to sunglasses. Krakoff has a “deep understanding of iconic American design”, Tiffany says, suggesting a steady hand that could change the direction of the brand. Return it to safer waters, perhaps – at least in its domestic market, where it has struggled of late (Tiffany’s latest results show modest growth worldwide, but a continuing decline in the US).
Playing it safe is not something – and I say this as a compliment – that Amfitheatrof does very well. She has spoken about dreaming up designs for Tiffany & Co’s annual Blue Book of haute joaillerie that the rest of the design team thought were “mad”. She took every classic Tiffany & Co motif and gave it a hip twist: its bows became lifelike loops instead of two-dimensional shapes; the Tiffany T was bent to her will to turn it into a cheeky smile ripe for an emoji-loving generation.
This pioneering attitude won much praise from the media, but did it win sales for Tiffany & Co? I’d love to think so, as I enjoyed these designs hugely, I thought they were incredibly cool, but then I don’t consider myself and my tastes all that aligned with the mainstream; fashion/media types may set the trends but they rarely fund big commercial brands like Tiffany & Co.
There is a moral somewhere in all this, and that is if you want to make jewellery design a long-term career, you have to embrace your creativity without letting it blind you to the cold, hard, positively indigestible fact that commercial jewellery is what pays the bills. It’s not the avante-guard one-off creations based on ‘found’ objects at the bottom of your grandmother’s handbag that will sell in the thousands but the simple gold hoop earrings, the solitaires, the (dare I say it?) charm bracelets.
“There is a moral somewhere in all this, and that is if you want to make jewellery design a long-term career, you have to embrace your creativity without letting it blind you to the cold, hard, positively indigestible fact that commercial jewellery is what pays the bills”.
And it’s not just about topping up your bank balance; it’s about keeping your business afloat. Jewellery designing is very much a hand-to-mouth existence in a professional sense. I’ve heard it so many times (even from jewellers whose names you will know) that they have to wait to sell some pieces before they can afford to fund the next passion project. This is where having a commercial line to financially prop up your creativity is crucial – this can be a silver offering, perhaps, or (even better) a steady business in engagement ring commissions.
As a designer, you might not think you want to sell lots of jewellery, just small numbers of the kind that gets your passion flaring. Yet when it comes to the end of the first month after which your savings have expired and you still have bills to pay and materials to buy, you might feel differently.
By Rachael Taylor, BAJ