June 03, 2020 9 min read
The dinner service ordered from Tiffany & Co. by "Silver King" John Mackay remains singular in its importance to American silver and the most incredible silver service ever made by Americans. Comprising approximately 1,250 pieces, it took Tiffany & Co. over a year and much of their workforce, at some point or another, to create. The service was part of their award-winning display at the 1878 Paris World's Fair.
John Mackay was a partnered owner of the Virginia City, NV mine that included the Comstock Lode, the largest vein of silver ever discovered in the United States. The lode started producing in the early 1870s, and Mackey was exceptionally wealthy by the mid-1870s. The story of Mackay and his wife, Marie Louise, ordering this service, made from silver from their Comstock Lode, is well documented. (1)
The story of its fabrication, however, has not been told.
Edward C. Moore, the director of Tiffany's silver division, and Charles T. Grosjean, Tiffany's lead silversmith, had a problem - a big 1,250 piece problem.
When the Mackays accepted Tiffany & Co.'s designs, Grosjean had to figure out how to bring their service to fruition. It would prove a daunting task requiring nearly every skill set Grosjean had available to him at Tiffany's shop. His biggest problem was a lack of chasers, or decorators, for this highly ornate service.
The amount of work was astonishing. The Mackay Style, so called by Tiffany & Co., was a combination of chasing and applied work "of Chinese, Japanese, Persian & Arabian character" they called "Oriental." (2)
The service included a massive centerpiece and plateau, a punch bowl, a pair of immense 29-light candelabra; another pair of enormous salon lamps; 15 platters; 42 tureens and other serving dishes; claret jugs, wine flacons and bottle wagons; coffee, tea and chocolate services; 24 soup plates, ice cream plates, coffee cups and saucers, scallop dishes, salt cellars and pepper shakers; and more. This list does not include a 900+ piece flatware service for 24. (3)
(Grosjean kept a set of dairies or day books that we have quoted from here. We have kept the original spelling, punctuation, etc. as best we can transcribe the manuscript. Interestingly, Grosjean consistently spells Mackay as "Mackey.")
Grosjean wrote: "Being at a loss how to get the quality of chas'g [chasing] done in a given time, the amount of labor being greatly in excess to the number of men in our employ and failing to receive applicants after repeated efforts in various ways, my thoughts at once turned in the direction of utilizing other departments in some way, whereby I could assist the chasers and take off the burden of mechanical labor..." (4)Always creative and with a deep understanding of the silversmith's art, Grosjean looked to other ways of fabricating a chased, or repousséd, look. He documented two efforts.
His first solution involved applying cast flowers and leaves to a back that had been textured with a combination of engraving and etching (using acid to give the surface a matte finish). Finally, chasers would add definition places and 'soften' others to make the finished outcome look more like chasing. "Thus the work of months was accomplished in a comparitive short time with but few chasers...It is a shrewd overcoming of difficulties by ingenious utilization of the arts." (5)
The second solution included more engraving and chasing. It was "although more costly, [had a ] much richer effect." (6)
Finally, he settles on a somewhat simplified first method with more casting, "The cast appearance was taken out of the casting by chas'g in a very soft manner." (7) Grosjean would name style of cast and chased panels on the platters, plates, bowls and ice cream dish "Sou Chou." (8 ) "The 'Mackey order' will bring to mind the best example of this style of decoration. The Meat dishes with panels of Plum, Peony, Pomegranate, Daisy, Poppy, Chrysanthemum, Sweet-Williams, Iris & other beautifully m't'd & chas'd with undergrowth." (9)
Grosjean's surviving diaries cover a period of a bit under two years, with quite a bit of commentary on the progress of the Mackay service. The Mackays and their new wealth were not accepted by New York society, so they moved to Paris, where the service would be used. (10) One entry in the Diaries notes Tiffany's Paris store manager "Charles Reed visited the Factory to-day & was much pleased with the shaped work of the Mackay order." (11)
Other entries include standard progress reports such as: "Size of Centre Piece was decided today.", "Punch Bowl is about done.", "Soup plates etched & chased...". (12)
Some are accompanied by sketches, "Candelabra for Mackey order decided to-day." (13)
Others entries are much more engaged.
"Shape of Flacon decided today...on a stand with legs resembling an elephant head." (14) In fact, this stand is the same design, but slightly narrower, as the base of our ice cream dish. The elephant's trunk forms the leg, and the head emerges above from the forest with the eyes camouflaged until the viewer notices them.
Another entry mentions the large salon lamps: "Decided on lamps for Mackey order The body of general gourd shape with decoration of persian ornament & Poppy flowers & buds. The base a mixture of Elephants head leg & posterior." (15)
Always the master silversmith, Grosjean discusses the success of different pieces both from the perspective of design and business.
"Butter Dishes look like a piece of jewellry. Syrup jug finished; looks well" (16) " or with more detail, "Card Tray for Mackey order mounted with chrysanthemums & buds a success. Using the chrysanthemums both large and small & buds, with etched and chased leaves presents an undulated surface very pleasing to the eye all four sides being different in arrangement." (17)
He also spoke of the commercial success of different pieces. "Goblet body mt'd with Polonia looks remarkably well, but very costly, the ground work too rich to be profitable." (18)
Sometimes, he gives much more detail.
"Ice cream plates Mackey order a success both in appearance & in cheapness. The border was composed of 8 panels cast and soldered those with the Monogram & Crest were made cast'g the crest & mono with the panel saving the cost of mt'g. The pattern was nicely chased so as to cast without scarcely any repairs; from this a bismuth cast was taken and the chas'd pattern of Mon & Crest soldered to it and repaired, giving us two patterns to cast from, these panels were fitted to a spun sheet rim frame and soldered together, then the bottoms soldered in." (19)
One of the most significant developments during the Mackay service creation concerns the gilt and enameled coffee cups, which would become colorful, jewel-like pieces.
On February 14th, 1878, "Decided upon the style of Coffee Cup for Mackey order. [drawing] (20) They were to be enameled. On April 25th, Mr. Pearce and Mr. Kursh took a cup to enamel, "Mr Kursh thought it would turn out very well." (21) Soon, Tiffany & Co. decides to enamel the cups themselves. On May 13, "Mr Dimes is to go to Philadelphia and have Mr Kursh show him how to enamel & also furnish the enamels for our work." (22)
This is the first documented example of Tiffany doing their own enameling - an art they would develop and make their own. Within a decade, Edward C. Moore, Grosjean, and Richard Dimes developed a unique style of enameling with a matte surface and soft pastel colors. Used on some of the Saracenic wares Tiffany sent to the 1889 Paris Worlds Fair, this style of enamel met with great acclaim and became a Tiffany style thought of as uniquely American. Tiffany continued to use this style of enamel at the 1893 Columbian World's Fair in Chicago on masterpieces such as the monumental Magnolia Vase and the smaller Wild Rose Vase.
Edward C. Moore, his wife, and son Charles sailed for Paris and the World's fair on May 15, 1878. (23) On June 20th, a letter arrives from Moore stating that he is happy with Tiffany & Co.'s display and "anxious to get the Enamel cups & saucers & the wine Coolers & Candelabra's" to the fair. (24) Moore was a perfectionist - that he was happy with the display was a very good sign, but it would be a while before all of the Mackay's silver would be on show.
When all there, the result was spectacular. History has recorded the stunning success of Tiffany's display at the 1878 Paris Exposition Universelle or World's Fair. Tiffany & Co. became the first American firm to win a 'Grand Prize' for silver work at an international exhibition. Charles Tiffany was awarded the honor of 'Chevalier' of the French Legion of Honor and "collaborators" Moore, Grosjean and Dimes all won awards.
The extraordinary Mackay service was the center of their display making impressions on all who saw it. Some recognized it as amazing art; others thought it symbolic of the nouveau and showy wealth of the United States and Americans.
Moore was quite aware of this conundrum. How to create the highest form of art without going overboard? A diary entry from 1879 notes: "Mrs Mackey still expresses a desire to have a large Centre-Piece - one with a bird that will come out by moving a pedal under the Table and will sing and then disappear again. E. C. M [Edward C. Moore] does not want to make it asserting that it is common and vulgar..." They ultimately created one with an aquarium as that form was being used in London.
When completed, the service consisted of over 1250 pieces and contained over one half a ton of silver. An invoice from Tiffany & Co., dated April 26, 1879, includes the initial parts of the service (but not the centerpiece, or other later additions such as the enameled 'napkin clips') and was made out for the sum of $59,978.00 in labor, the 10,524.35 (26) troy ounces of silver had been supplied by Mackay and worth about another $13,700.00. (27). The centerpiece added another $10,321.52 in labor charges and $1800.00 worth of silver, for a known total cost of over $85,799.52, although rumors at Tiffany & Co. ran as high as $125,000. (28)
This is a staggering sum. When the first automobiles were introduced about 15 years later, they were the ultimate luxury purchase and cost $300.00-$400.00 each. When we think of this service as the equivalent cost of 200 to 300 cars, we begin to understand how much real wealth it represented.
Even by today's modernist-defined aesthetics, Moore and Grosjean succeeded most of the time. While some of the larger pieces can be overwhelming, most are exceptional objects of art - representative of the time and place they were made with only a few peers. The best pieces are truly sculpture for the dining room.
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