Beyond the little blue box and Fifth Avenue windows, one of Tiffany & Co.’s most enduring symbols is its singular “T” motif. Originally fashioned in the mid-Eighties by then-design director John Loring, the “T” collection has been reinterpreted every few years since — including a new iteration by current Tiffany chief artistic officer Reed Krakoff. Earlier this month Krakoff introduced the collection T1, which applies his industrial, sleek sensibilities to Tiffany’s foremost initial. It is his third addition to the T franchise, following T True in 2018, which moved the collection into the engagement sector, and T Color in 2019.
Tiffany says it has seen steady increases in gold jewelry sales over the last two years led by the company’s many T designs, which is now the jeweler’s largest collection in terms of revenue.
As Tiffany introduces T1, the jeweler’s headquarters and much of its store roster across North America and Western Europe remains closed under coronavirus lockdowns. These unusual times have called for extraordinary measures by the jeweler, which earlier in the year had intended to give T1 an all-star roll-out. Instead, the company has simply released the collection on its e-commerce site as well as in stores that are currently open.
Krakoff is riding out quarantine restrictions at home in New York City, while Loring is hunkered down in Palm Beach, Fla. In the span between their two careers, Tiffany has ballooned from a $70 million business at the start of Loring’s tenure to a $4.4 billion behemoth soon to come under the wing of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which is due to fold the iconic American brand into its stable at a cost of $16.6 billion. Along with this growth comes inflated marketing budgets, celebrity endorsements and digital advertising. Loring comes from a more discrete time in fashion, which was the genesis of T’s simple, yet impactful design.
Krakoff aspires to maintain this same level of restraint, harnessing precious materials and craftsmanship to create understated jewelry with a certain casual quality. It’s this balance that he thinks will keep Tiffany modern for generations to come.
In an hour-long telephone conversation, WWD engaged Krakoff and Loring about design then and now, the nature of business and the everlasting impact of Audrey Hepburn.
WWD: John, tell us a little bit about the start of T — it was among the first commercial collections in the fine jewelry world that relied on a brand logo. Where did it all come from?
John Loring: I think we can trace the beginning of Tiffany ‘T’ back to the Atlas collection that I did in the beginning of the Eighties. We wanted to make a watch like no other watch, which was based in simplicity without any ornaments or doodads. Additions are basically hiding the fact that the original design is imperfect.
We were taking things back to basics…Atlas was designed with block numerals. We expanded Atlas [from a watch] into a jewelry collection and decided we couldn’t go on expanding it further.
The next idea was, “Why don’t we just look for a T for Tiffany?” We wanted something that follows in line with Atlas. What we were doing with Atlas was taking things down to absolute basics, so we went back to absolute basics with T, which is not all that easy. Simplicity is a complicated affair that requires a lot of work. So a big proportion of T did not fall from the sky, it took a while to do it.
We needed an overall pattern for T, which I drew, and in 1986 we got a copyright to use it on gold jewelry and that expanded to jacquard scarves with woven fabric, to a leathergoods collection and then it went further. We did a bracelet and earrings — it was extremely difficult to [design], very time-consuming.
We stopped there and went onto other things and now Reed is taking it miles further with this T1 collection with diamonds. We were a quite small company when T was [first] produced and not in position to launch diamond T jewelry — it would have been impossible.
Now it’s quite a large company and Tiffany is in a different position. Every interpretation is wonderful, I particularly like the necklaces because of the asymmetry. It’s a very intriguing design — I have many books on Japanese design and they point out how asymmetry brings life and movement to jewelry. If everything is completely symmetrical, it’s just too static. It adds animation to what [a woman] is wearing, it’s flattering and draws attention across a crowded room. I’d certainly notice Reed’s design.
Reed Krakoff: Oh, thank you! John was just saying how one of the most difficult things is to create something simple but recognizable. One of the main goals of the [T1] collection is to create jewelry to be worn in a personal way. The collection has a strong diamond presence but has the look that it can be worn in both formal occasions or complemented by solid gold pieces to look more casual. The idea is to mix them together.
It’s incredibly important when introducing something that it represents the brand of Tiffany and that it stands for something long-lasting. It took about 18 months to create this collection, it was a lot of different iterations to get the right combination of edginess and strength and femininity; to have a juxtaposition between something pretty, edgy and irreverent. That kind of dichotomy is what modern jewelry is about.
Design is about desire, it’s about falling in love with something — especially when there is so much visual information to cut through today. I’ve long been a fan of John and his aesthetic at Tiffany. When I started, I looked through the archives — it gave me an enhanced understanding of what he did at Tiffany and it helped me find a way to continue that. I found the T collection and thought it was keeping with the lineage of beautiful, unfussy, simple, effortless American style.
WWD: When T was first released, it was the start of luxury branding and a larger desire for logos on everything from handbags to scarves. How was this received in fine jewelry?
J.L.: It was the dawn of the age of branding. We considered the T not a blatant or aggressive form of branding — it was something so basic everyone would recognize. Something important about design for a large audience is not to put any complication in there to confuse people.
Perfect design is something you look at and have one answer to — “Yes, I understand that.” It’s perfectly beautiful because I say, “yes” to it, I would love to have it. Someone once asked Eleanor Lambert what Tiffany is about and she said, “It’s fun to dream.” This collection is very easy to dream about.
We found design in those times that many companies overdid it and everything started to be so branded, it wasn’t what it was anymore. It lost its elegance and utility and was not versatile anymore, it had branded things all over it. Tiffany did not want to join the parade of companies just hanging brand symbols on a chain and being so completely blatant.
I think people in business should think about staying power. What I used to say is, “Only use ideas that fall on everyone like rain.” You don’t want to seek complexity or sophistications that are very short-lasting. That was the craze at that time — overly sophisticated products with too many ideas and no new ideas.
WWD: Reed, you find yourself in a similar moment where trends are short-lived and logomania is everywhere again. How do you navigate that kind of landscape?
R.K.: It’s always top-of-mind how there are so many choices, probably too many choices, for people shopping in the luxury space. I think the most important thing is to only look outward so much. I think for Tiffany, we have the fortune of having such a strong brand with such strong equity and history. At some point you look inward and say, “What is it we uniquely do that’s relevant and exciting that makes sense in context of what’s happen in luxury and design?”
There is a specific burden on jewelry in particular because it’s expensive and something that’s a big investment, you have to understand the timeliness of it and something that’s worthy of serious investment. It’s a real responsibility to be introducing these kinds of collections. You have to get it right, it’s very public — you are really putting the brand out there saying, “This is our point of view.”
J.L.: I think Reed is saying is that it’s important for Tiffany jewelry to come out of the heart and soul of Tiffany and not to be looking right or left and paying attention to what other people are doing.
During 30 years as design director, I never entered another jewelry store. I had no interest whatsoever in what they were doing. I did not want [what we were doing] to come from outside, it came from the inner spirit, motivations, look and feel and culture — the mystique — of Tiffany & Co.
[About the price of gold and diamonds], I don’t think too much about pricing of things — that is a different profession. We never designed thinking about the prices of jewelry, maybe only if we were using large gems. We were paying attention to one thing and that was design — the proportion, the perfect surface, perfecting the fit.
R.K.: I can’t say that it’s as pure today as it was. The way I have come up in the luxury world is that I like to understand the spectrum of what’s out there. I use it more as something to tuck away in the back of my mind as grounding.
Things like “does price matter?” is such a broad statement. It matters when we are not keeping with the perceived value of what we are creating. It could be something extraordinarily expensive or more casual of a purchase, it’s more in the back of my mind of how it’s done in concert with design.
To be precise, we are a $4.4 billion company. We are a big company, there are opportunities to do the most extraordinary things that you could never do as a smaller company. There is a responsibility that comes with that.
J.L.: I remember when I went to Tiffany in 1979, our global sales were about $70 million. It was a very small company with restraints on what we were able to do. But what we were able to do built the company into what it is today.
WWD: John, as you said, Tiffany has grown into a giant company and now has a huge marketing budget for celebrity endorsements. What was it like in your time?
J.L.: My friend, it is a principle of mine never to name another jewelry company… I’m afraid another principle of Tiffany & Co. is not to talk about clients.
Many big celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor [wore Tiffany jewelry publicly] and we can’t overlook that. We had many celebrities from movie stars to members of royal families, great industrial lines, great society ladies — but it’s a major point with Tiffany never to discuss customers or what they have.
R.K.: For me, it’s a different time, of course. Things like this change. We do not talk about customers but if it’s something in the public eye, then…. Imagery and social media are so widely shared that anyone who wants to be noted for something, including wearing jewelry, can be today.
WWD: How important has Audrey Hepburn has been to Tiffany’s enduring success?
J.L.: Of course, Audrey Hepburn is important to the brand, she continues to be one of the most famous movie stars there ever was.
I knew Audrey Hepburn fairly well, she was an ideal woman — beautiful, beautifully spoken, gracious, friendly and highly intelligent. She played a great role for me at the beginning of my time at Tiffany. We had hours of conversation on the phone about image and the aesthetic necessary to maintain that image.
There must be kept what she called an “aesthetic distance” between you and everyone else. She was a marvelous example of maintaining that between herself and the global audience. Tiffany welcomes everyone but we also maintain, I believe, an aesthetic distance between ourselves and the rest of the world — even though we are catering to them.
There remains something aspirational and a rush of excitement when you see the blue box. People say, “Wow, I’m getting a present from Tiffany & Co.” You can’t do that if you don’t maintain a proper distance, which she did with the press. She was a wonderful person and a tremendous help to me in teaching me about branding and image and maintaining who you are.
The film [“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”] is still world-famous, I think everyone still associates Audrey with Tiffany & Co. We discussed many times Audrey coming back to work with us and she finally said, “I’m just too old now to represent you the way that I would want you represented.” She said, “I think the aesthetic distance might be too big a distance at this point.”
We had so many discussions about that and sat at lunches for hours talking about these things — what could be done, how to present the company. She was a genius at marketing and maintaining image.
R.K.: That’s amazing for me to hear, John and I have never talked about that. My experience is quite different, I never met Audrey Hepburn. I never understood her importance for maybe a year or two in a meaningful way.
What really struck me was the opening scene in the window with the pearls and paper bag. It was actually coincidental, I had worked on a version of that coffee cup in sterling a year before as an idea of a utilitarian object made from extraordinary material.
A year later, I looked at that image again of the black dress and pearls but holding a paper cup and paper bag — that juxtaposition and offhandedness and utility with extraordinary beauty and refinement — to me became a key to understanding Tiffany. It was a pivotal moment in understanding what it meant to the brand — more of a roadmap for surprising elements coming together in way that felt fresh and slightly irreverent.
WWD: Lastly, I’m wondering what you are both up to during the quarantine. Have you picked up any surprising hobbies?
J.L.: I am up to my ear in writing. I wrote 22 books about Tiffany & Co. I began writing those with Jacqueline Kennedy and after the first six she said, “I suppose when we are in our 80s we will be writing about Tiffany mushrooms.” Unfortunately Jackie didn’t last very long but I continue to write many books about Tiffany. I live my life and am just completing two more books — one is autobiographical, but I’m not prepared to release that. I think books are not terribly relevant in the time we are living right this minute. I enjoy writing all the books about Tiffany & Co. so the history and mystique is preserved forever.
It’s also very flattering that the Columbia University rare books and manuscripts library has asked to put together a John Loring archive, dealing with Tiffany but also dealing with the other lives of John Loring — there is still a lot of work to be done, it’s a hobby.
R.K.: Wow, I look forward to that — when do you think it will be finished?
J.L.: I don’t think I could finish, it would probably take me another two years. It’s quite immense; it’s not just about me, it’s all of Jackie Kennedy’s letters to me and a great many people that I think are far more interesting than I am.
R.K.: Like most people, my days are a combination of things. Obviously there is work all day on calls, FedEx-ing design work and marketing concepts, packaging and story ideas. It’s been pretty amazing how as a group we have been able to accomplish a lot during these difficult times.
I watch one documentary every day at night — that’s been interesting. Even if they are slightly interesting or obscure — it’s something I’d never have time to do otherwise. I’m spending a lot of time with my wife and children, mostly inside — lots of reading, lots of sketching, working on some design projects, like a series of carpets for one of our flagships.
Most publications are online now and have archives — I’ve been going through archives of design magazines like Elle Decor, Architectural Digest, House & Garden to see what’s been happening in the last 30 or 40 years which, again, is not something I would have time to do normally.