AsiaSpa | Designer Dialogue | FRANCESCA AMFITHEATROF | Sept/Oct 2015
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Discover the world of Tiffany & Co's Francesca Amfitheatrof and learn how she transformed the brand's classic pieces into modern day works of art. Writer ALISON CATCHPOLE.
If diamonds are still a girl’s best friend, Francesca Amfitheatrof — chic, sophisticated and focused — might be the fairy godmother. Since joining the Tiffany brand in the autumn of 201 3, she’s been credited with bringing a modern, fresh approach to a company identified by its forget-me-not blue, aka Pantone 1837, and that iconic Fifth Avenue store where Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly character so elegantly considered breakfast.
Now some of the iconic collections — Victoria, Bows, Infinity and Atlas — are being updated with a clean, sophisticated wearability. But there are also some dazzling new collections, very much in line with the traditional company values. That sleek, geometric 19305-influenced necklace and earrings draped on Reese Witherspoon at the Met Gala? They were part of the new'|'iffany Masterpieces collection, an electrifying contribution to diamond jewellery. Masterpieces are very much on the mind of the Tiffany Creative Director as she reflects on how she approached her new role, bringing a unique view to the Manhattan skyline.
”One of the key reasons I imagine I was hired for this job is that my sense of style and my aesthetic is unfussy and undecorative. I love materials and a sense ofproportion, and for things to really have a harmony in how they’re constructed, in their scale and feel, and just how they feel on the body. That is something that has always been in Tiffany's DNA. It is all about simplicity. Simplicity is the chicest thing of all.”
The eighth Creative Director in the company since its 1837 foundation, Amfitheatrof is the first female to take the role. Her English accent hides a cosmopolitan background as her American journalist father was regularly posted round the world. Early years in Tokyo (where he was 77me bureau chief) were followed by spates in Rome, Moscow and for many years London. Her Italian mother, a publicist for brands, including Armani and Valentino, would have pieces of jewellery commissioned using stones she had bought. Francesca Amfitheatrof’s visual world was clearly a very rich one.
”The first piece of jewellery that I remember was my grandmother's. I remember lying on her lap, having my head stroked. And she wore this long gold chain with a huge piece of amber, a pendant like a delicious drop of honey that was about to fall into my mouth. It had an insect inside it. As a child, it was weird: the idea that this stone holds an animal inside and it looks like honey and it looks delicious. That had a big impact on me.”
Boarding school in England was followed by London's Central St Martin’s and the Royal College of Art, where she received her masters in silversmithing, and an apprenticeship with a master craftsman near Padua. Her first show was at Jay Jopling’s White Cube gallery. Shortly after graduating, ltalian brand Alessi invited her to design a collection, and she was soon taking further commissions from Chanel, Fendi, Garrard, Marni, Wedgwood, and others to create jewellery, accessories and housewares, depending on the client. A line ofjewellery took up the spare moments as well as establishing RS&A, an agency representing artists such as Oliver Clegg and the Chapman brothers.
Before Amfitheatrof signed her Tiffany contract, she insisted on visiting the company's meticulously curated archive. “Sometimes in life, there can be a lot of layers that suddenly hide the real essence of a home. In the archives, you open these boxes and you find things that feel as if they have been asleep for decades; but when you pull them out, they are just as fresh as when they were made.
“For me, the archive is the essence of this whole brand and is its purest form. With brands that have a number of years of history, they sometimes lose the real reason for their existence. And what struck me was not only the quantity, the possibility, the variety and the styles, but also the mechanisms and how things work and how they function.”
She discovered a new confidence, agreed to the role and began to exercise her creativity on a much larger scale. Along with her husband and two young children, it meant decamping to Brooklyn where she immediately started to work. TheT collection was her first major contribution and by all accounts a highly successful one. Inspired by the architecture of Manhattan and the brand’s Fifth Avenue flagship store, the T seems indicative of an entirely new era for the company. Light, supple open bangles and chains of fluid interlinked T5 are all worked in precious metals. A necklace can be transformed into a bracelet.
’’I’m the first woman design director the brand has ever had, and I am — also in some sort of way — its ideal customer. My age group, my background, I think that all of those things together were really captured in the T collection. I have a very strong aesthetic rigour that is very close to the brand. It is very Tiffany, but it is also very relevant to women's lives today. You can put things on very easily, you can take them off very easily, you can go from day to night, at any event, and you can wear them anywhere in the world. lt’s recognisable but it's not shouty.”
As well as getting her head around the numerous categories under the Tiffany umbrella — tableware, gifts, engagement jewellery, corporate commissions — Amfitheatrof has also updated iconic collections within the brand's portfolio. Atlas, Victoria, Bows and Infinity have been given a makeover, enabling much more versatility. ”Some of these, in the past, have felt quite rigid. They needed to become fresher, more modern and wearable. So for instance, I wanted to work with a very classic collection, Victoria, which has existed here for a number of years. It was made up of just marquise cut diamonds. I have now tweaked it into something which is made up of clusters, so it is made up of different cuts — pears, marquise and round — and just by doing that, it feels much more modern, fun, closer to nature.
It has a little more ease. And the more they are redesigned, the more you can wear them and just style them together. You can start them with T, then you can style them with diamonds.”
Another innovation, the 2015 Masterpieces collection, will debut for Tiffany VIP customers in Singapore toward the end of October. Keeping to the core Tiffany aesthetic of simplicity, the pieces are tactile, playful and wearable, capturing the drama and magic of the moment when the stars hit the NewYork skyline. The engineered quality so central to the success of theT collection is carried through in a much more opulent form. ”l’ve focused on diamonds to create an extremely modern collection that is very clean and sculptural,” explains Amfitheatrof. ”lt is very Tiffany, but it is also very me.” Strong, geometric formations of platinum- set diamonds — ethically sourced in line with the company's strict policies — and hand-cut onyx are woven into pendants and draped necklaces. Influences here include archive pieces, the Chrysler building and the Hollywood Regency style, epitomising a time when movie stardom depended heavily on glamour and personal lifestyle.
Amfitheatrof has also had success with her first Blue Book, The Art of the Sea. The Blue Book, first published in 1845 when founder Charles Lewis Tiffany chose its famous robin’s egg blue cover, is an annual collection of opulent and exquisite one-off pieces. Much like Parisian couture clothing, it showcases innovation, talent and imagination. These are the pieces that adorned A-listers Cate Blanchett, Reese Witherspoon and Emma Stone at the 2015 Oscars, where all three shone in one-off diamond creations inspired by sheer 19405 glamour. ”We’ve taken on this challenge to create something like 200 pieces that are unique designs. They are only available to those Tiffany customers and they will never be made again, or seen again. They become like collections, like you would collect art,’” says Amfitheatrof. ”That in a way is a crazy thing to do but is extremely special!”
Technology too is enabling the brand to move with the times. ”We have quite an advanced website where, say, you can take a picture of your girlfriend’s hand while she’s asleep. Then you can try engagement rings on her hand. Pretty quickly, you can find out what looks good on her.
”It’s about emotions. Tiffany owns love. You come to Tiffany for different moments in your life. You come for your engagement ring and to celebrate. You buy for yourself and for somebody else. The area of love is very much in the DNA of the brand.”
Love, and perhaps a few midnight surprises.