Tiffany & Co: leading the way in ethically produced jewellery

Tiffany's diamonds

 Earlier this year, I walked into a room in Antwerp that was full of diamonds. I suppose if you’re going to walk into a room full of diamonds, that room will most likely be in Antwerp. This particular room wasn’t quite stacked-to-the-ceiling chock-a-block full – though it would have been amusing if it had been. Just imagine the sight of thousands of stones tumbling out in a great irresistible frothy gush as you opened the door, like seawater surging down the passageways of a sinking ship in a disaster movie. On this occasion, however, everything was in impeccable order. I was there as a guest of Tiffany & Co, the diamonds belonged to the company, and the atmosphere in its offices in the diamond district was, as you might imagine, calamity-free. Industrious, certainly, but hushed, secure, serene. Just so. ‘The quietness and the proud look of it,’ as Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly said. ‘Nothing very bad could happen to you there.’

The diamonds had been sorted and arranged into neat piles in shallow plastic containers according to their colour, cut, clarity and carat weight – those consonant-heavy principles of diamond appreciation that are familiar to engagement-ring shoppers the world over. Tweezers and loupes were provided, and there were special lamps to create an even light. The stones were worth a stupendous sum. Someone told me how much, though for the life of me I can’t remember the figure. Tens of millions of pounds. Hundreds of millions, perhaps. It’s not that I wasn’t paying attention, it’s just that it was so far into the realm of abstraction that it didn’t really seem to matter.

A Tiffany & Co. engagement ring
A platinum and diamond pave setting made for the 130th anniversary of the Tiffany engagement ring this year 

As I peered at one of these lovely sparklers, Andy Hart, Tiffany’s affable head of diamond and jewellery supply, made a point about the extremely high quality of the stones. The brand owns a subsidiary called Laurelton, which manages its diamond supply chain from offices in five countries. The Antwerp office is its headquarters, where the rough diamonds to be used in Tiffany jewellery are purchased, analysed and prepared, and where the larger stones are cut and polished. Laurelton’s buyers here, Andy said, reject 99.96 per cent of the rough that they’re offered. That sounded reassuringly stringent. But given that the planet is heaving with low-grade diamonds, most of which resemble fish-tank gravel – an industry term, not mine – it was by no means surprising. But then he said something that really did surprise me: ‘I like to think that all diamonds, when they’re born, aspire to become Tiffany diamonds.’

It was a playful way of making a point about the brand’s commitment to sourcing top-notch stones, taking only the pick of the litter, the best and the brightest. But, literal-minded, I couldn’t quite get past the notion that the gems themselves were wholly oblivious to such considerations. Diamonds are what they are – facts of geology, arrangements of atoms, permutations of the periodic table. They’re rocks. Their silence couldn’t be stonier. They’re completely, magnificently indifferent to our fascination, our creativity, our greed, our hopes and dreams.

Tiffany has a cutting and polishing factory in Mauritius 
Tiffany has a cutting and polishing factory in Mauritius 

Nevertheless, Andy’s notion of aspirational diamonds succeeded in getting me thinking. I had ample time to ponder on the long flight from Belgium to Mauritius, where Tiffany has a cutting and polishing factory, and later on the factory floor, as I wandered around talking to workers, inspecting stones, trying my hand at the polishing wheel and generally making a nuisance of myself. (The factory, as far as I could tell, was exemplary. The brand has similar facilities in Vietnam, Cambodia and Botswana.)

The point behind Andy’s comment, I decided, was that we have learnt to see diamonds not as things but as individuals. Later he referred to them as ‘snowflakes’, all physically and indeed chemically similar, yet each unique and beautiful in its own special way. Bingo, I thought.

In the past, famous diamonds had names. The Hope. The Cullinan. The Koh-i-Noor. The Dresden Green. The Tiffany Yellow. Think of all those charming anecdotes of baubles briefly lost under sofas or in shagpile carpets by Elizabeth Taylor, only to be rooted out and returned to their distressed mistress by a loyal lapdog, or by Richard Burton. My own favourite story of this kind, which may even be true, concerns a meeting between the Maharani of Baroda, a great beauty and jewellery collector, and her similarly well-adorned contemporary Wallis Simpson, to whom she was often compared. At a ball in New York, the Duchess of Windsor was wearing a diamond choker that she had just purchased from an eminent New York jeweller, not realising that the same diamonds had once adorned a pair of anklets worn by the Maharani. When guests at the ball were heard admiring the Duchess’s choker, the Maharani piped up that the same stones used to look very pretty on her feet. The necklace was returned the following day.

Auctioneers adore stories like that. Their value in the saleroom is incalculable. François Curiel, the preeminent jewellery expert at Christie’s, says that, when assessing a diamond’s value, one P is as important as the four Cs put together. That P is, of course, for ‘provenance’.

In recent times, however, a different form of provenance has become, to the majority of jewellery consumers, much more important than the sort of colourful royal, aristocratic or celebrity associations that can drive prices through the roof on the secondary market. This has to do with knowing exactly where stones have come from, where they were produced, under what sort of conditions, with what sort of consequences for those who live nearby.

Tiffany's headquarters are in Antwerp 
Tiffany’s headquarters are in Antwerp 

Auctioneers adore stories like that. Their value in the saleroom is incalculable. François Curiel, the preeminent jewellery expert at Christie’s, says that, when assessing a diamond’s value, one P is as important as the four Cs put together. That P is, of course, for ‘provenance’.

In recent times, however, a different form of provenance has become, to the majority of jewellery consumers, much more important than the sort of colourful royal, aristocratic or celebrity associations that can drive prices through the roof on the secondary market. This has to do with knowing exactly where stones have come from, where they were produced, under what sort of conditions, with what sort of consequences for those who live nearby.

Tiffany was among the first of the big jewellery brands to think seriously about supply-chain issues and to source its materials – not only its diamonds and other gemstones but also its precious metals – from mining companies that act responsibly rather than from ones that don’t. Some commodities are easier to keep track of than others.

Rough diamonds – small, portable, abundant and outwardly very much alike – can be notoriously tricky. Gold is even more so. It is mined in more than 60 countries, and refineries will often buy quantities of gold from different mines and melt it down before shipping it on to retailers, making it impossible to say which mine, or even which country, the metal came from. Keeping track of the social and environmental impact of goldmining activities can be trickier still. Much of it is done on a grand scale at hi-tech, open-pit mines that consume more water and electricity than entire cities; some are so big that they can be seen from outer space. Yet until recently the social and environmental impact of gold mining remained largely invisible to ordinary consumers. A typical gold wedding ring leaves behind 20 tons of mine waste – not only piles of dirt and gravel, but highly toxic chemicals, such as cyanide and mercury, which are used to separate gold from rock.

The 128.54ct Tiffany Yellow diamond set in a necklace 
The 128.54ct Tiffany Yellow diamond set in a necklace 

Over the past 15 years or so, public awareness of these issues has been raised inestimably by NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Earthworks (which launched the No Dirty Gold campaign, with support from Tiffany), and by trade bodies such as the Responsible Jewellery Council and the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (of which Tiffany was a founding member). Where diamonds, in The 128.54ct Tiffany Yellow diamond set in a necklace. Below: a platinum and diamond pavé setting made for the 130th anniversary of the Tiffany engagement ring this year st | watches & jewellery | autumn / winter 65 particular, are concerned, the Kimberley Process – a global certification scheme that aims to guarantee conflict-free diamonds – has also had considerable success, and made an impression on consumers. Such measures haven’t transformed overnight the way the mining and jewellery industries work, but by helping to establish an example of good practice that others are likely to follow, they have represented a commendable step in the right direction.

As well as observing international agreements, Tiffany applies its own rigorous protocols, including, for example, a zero-tolerance policy for diamonds from countries with widely reported human-rights abuses, such as Angola and Zimbabwe. In 2015 the brand appointed its first chief sustainability officer, with a brief to oversee the activities of its philanthropic foundation. These include initiatives for responsible mining, reef conservation and urban-park development.

I asked Hart what motivates a brand – any brand – to conduct its business in such a manner. ‘I just ask myself, if I had to pull back the curtain on our factories, would I want our customers to see what’s there?’ he answered. ‘Could I go on 60 Minutes and talk with a clear conscience about our supply chain? That’s part of it. But there are other things, too. Diamonds are a luxury. Jewellery is a luxury. People don’t need this stuff. If they’re going to spend money on it, they have expectations. So there’s no excuse for doing it badly, and that’s not just in terms of quality or craftsmanship but of working conditions and the environment.

Tiffany diamonds 
Tiffany diamonds 

Then there’s what I guess you could call company culture. Values. Tiffany is, in my opinion, the most transparent jewellery company in the world today. No other company of scale is doing what we’re doing.’ Charles Lewis Tiffany, the brand’s founder, liked to say, ‘Good design is good business.’ Good design plus good practice is, these days, even better business. Though difficult to quantify, and rather quaintly old fashioned-sounding, trust still counts for a lot. The sense that, even if that entry-level snowflake you just bought for your girlfriend is not grand enough to have its own name, it nevertheless arrived in a splendid little robin’s-egg-blue box tied up with white ribbon and bearing the name of a company that isn’t run by rotters.

There’s a wonderful moment in the recent documentary film Crazy About Tiffany’s, in which a middle-aged professor of physics named David Jablonski produces copies of two letters. The first is one that he had written when he was a boy. It reads:

Dear Tiffany’s, I saw your ad about the $176,000 ring. I would like to buy it for my mother but my allowence is fifty cents a week. Could we work out some kind of arrangement. Sincerely, David Jablonski

The second letter is the reply that he received from Walter Hoving, Tiffany’s chairman at that time:

Dear David, I am afraid that at fifty cents a week it would take you 352,000 weeks to pay up, and I am not sure that either you or I will be around at that time, or at least not in our present form. However, I am sending you some gold earrings for your mother. If she likes the earrings we will settle with you for one week’s allowance. Kindest regards, Walter Hoving

As the grown-up David Jablonski says in the film, he had fired off his snarky letter out of a sense of mild outrage. Who do you guys think you are, charging that much for a lousy diamond ring! The reply he got not only disarmed him but, in a sense, converted him, made him a believer. This, you might think, has nothing to do with provenance. And yet it does. It’s a fine example of how, over a long period of time, a well managed brand that pays attention to its public and their perceptions can itself attain not merely a good reputation but something like the lustre of legend, an aura of magic and the authority of its own history.

[Source:-Telegraph]