June 03, 2020 6 min read

Tiffany & Co. at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, Chicago World's Fair 

As travel improved and international commerce became more important during the 19th century, fairs and exhibitions became destination events for the rapidly expanding middle and upper classes. The first "international" exposition was held in London in 1851, known as the "Crystal Palace" for its glass building.

The Wild Rose Vase, Tiffany & Co., 1893
The Wild Rose Vase, Tiffany & Co., 1893, Exhibited at the 1893 Columbian World's Fair.

Soon, world's fairs were held every several years, and luxury goods makers found a perfect method to market their most important pieces. Not only did throngs of increasingly wealthy people attend the 'must-see' fairs, but press reports could so influence public demand that successful exhibitions could change a company's fortunes.

Tiffany & Co. discovered this after their extraordinary success at the 1878 Paris Exposition when English designer Christopher Dresser named them "first silversmiths of the world," and they had a difficult time keeping up with orders.

The Grand Court of Honor at the World's Columbian Fair 1893
The Grand Court of Honor at the World's Columbian Fair 1893. (The Columbian Portfolio, Jones Brothers, 1893, n.p.) 

The 1893 Columbian World's Fair was truly spectacular. To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus finding the new world, an entire city was built on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago. It covered 686 acres and included 300 specially constructed buildings. (1)

In the course of the six months it was open in 1893, there were 27.5 million visitors (2) to the fair, an astonishing number in light of the fact that the US census counted 63 million Americans in 1890. Considering that it occurred during a severe economic contraction, the attendance made it an even greater success.

The Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building -  Tiffany's exhibit was at the center of this huge building.

The Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building. (The Columbian Portfolio, Jones Brothers, 1893, n.p.)

The Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, where Tiffany's exhibit was in the center, was the largest building built to date. Three times the size of St. Peter's in Rome, it covered 31 acres with the roof rising 245 feet with no supporting columns in the center. (3) The central hall could 'comfortably' seat 50,000(4), and 150,000 people crowded in on opening day. (5)

Tiffany's pavilion, at the center of the building, was shared with Gorham and the Tiffany Glass Company. Built by Tracy Brothers of Waterbury, Ct, it was initially contracted at $25,000.00 but eventually cost $100,000.00 to complete. (6) (That would be a few million in today's dollars.)

Floor Plan of American Jewelry and Silver section at the Columbian Expo.
Floor Plan of American Jewelry and Silver section at the Columbian Expo., (The Jeweler's Circular and Horological Review, May 13, 1893, p. 25.)

Many of the objects on show were prohibitively expensive to all except the very wealthiest clients. Companies took a significant financial risk making these masterpieces; for instance, Gorham's Nautilus Centerpiece made for the Columbian Exposition did not sell until 1921, 28 years later. (7)

According to The New York Times, Tiffany's exhibit at the fair: "undoubtedly contains the greatest number of costly and beautiful gold and silver ornaments and precious stones that was ever gotten together in the country by a single house. There are more than a thousand pieces of special production…some of which have required two years to complete." (8)

The Magnolia Vase
The enameled Magnolia Vase was exhibited at the Fair to great acclaim, here seen in The Art Journal in 1893 - now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  (It is interesting to compare this image with the one at  the Met.  The Magnolia Vase was patinated at Tiffany's shop and this coloring is largely gone today.)

The Art Journal of London noted:

Passing to the exhibit of Messrs. Tiffany & Co., of New York, one finds a display more varied in expression and original in design, more  distinctive and individual, than the work of any other firm in the art metal group. And above all we must note the distinctively American characteristics of many of the exhibits here. (9)

Tiffany & Co.'s exhibit at the fair included 1159 pieces – while some were production pieces, many were unique and extraordinary masterpieces designed and made for the fair. They exhibited:

  • 446 pieces, or sets, of silverware, from an Indian Chrysanthemum pattern butter-pat to the incomparable Magnolia Vase and Viking Punch-bowls;
  • 169 pieces, or sets, of jewelry including the Tiffany Diamond, a yellow diamond weighing 125 3/8 carats;
  • 46 watches;
  • 119 gold "fancy articles";
  • 358 silver "fancy articles";
  • 15 pieces, or sets, of silver-plated wares;
  • 11 trophies in a loan exhibition, including several Goulet Cups;
  • and exhibitions on the silver manufacturing process, diamond cutting, minerals, precious metals, and alloys. (10)
Selection of Tiffany Silver at the fair Selection of Tiffany Silver at the fair. ("The Tiffany Exhibit" in The Illustrated American, May 20, 1893, p. 593.) In this grouping is The Tiger Hunt Cup, (center) now at the Cincinnati Art Museum, a cup made of silver, amboyna wood and other exotic materials (center right) now at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Wild-Rose Vase (lower left) that we had several years ago.

Under the direction of Edward C. Moore, and later Charles T. Curran, Tiffany & Co.'s silver department spent four years planning for and creating the objects that were sent to the 1893 fair. (11) Their stunning exhibition was reported on and written about all over the country and many parts of the world. Tiffany & Co. won the grand prize for silverware (12) along with 55 other prizes (13), 15 of those for for silver. (14) Some items were purchased by museums at the fair. (15) One European princess was so impressed by the display she named Tiffany & Co. court jewelers on the spot. (16)

The "Pearl Vase" made by Tiffany for the Columbian Exposition, 1893
The "Pearl Vase" made by Tiffany for the Columbian Exposition, 1893, and purchased by the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin at the fair.

Along with the Magnolia Vase, two "Viking Punch-Bowls" of decarbonized iron (so it would be easier to work) were the most talked about metal wares by Tiffany, "The great magnolia enameled vase, the American flower set in Souchow chasing, the Viking bowls in etched iron and damascene work, are original and decided advances in the silversmith's art." (17) Two of Tiffany & Co.'s awards were for "damascening of gold and silver on iron, etching on decarbonized steel [sic.]" (18)

The Viking Punch Bowls
The "Viking Punch-bowls" at the Columbian Expo. ("The Tiffany Exhibit" in The Illustrated American, May 20, 1893, p. 592.) The Punch bowl on the right is now at the Met.


Of the silver pieces that Tiffany sent to the exhibition, 37 were vases, 16 of those were enameled, and 7 were decorated with floral champlevé enamel decoration designed by Charles T. Curran. (19) The largest and most famous of these is the "Magnolia Vase." Tiffany won an award at the fair their champlevé enameled pieces. (20) The "Daisy Vase," another floral enameled vase from the fair, sold at Christie's in New York (January 20, 2005) for $284,800.00 and the "Trout Vase," now without the original enamel, sold at Sotheby's (January 20, 2017) for $275,000.

The Moss-Roses Vase, Tiffany & Co., 1893.
The Moss-Roses Vase, Tiffany & Co., 1893, exhibited at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

The unique masterpieces made by Tiffany and sent to the fair were designed and executed to be shown in a spectacular setting and sold to their very best clientele.

Endnotes:

  1. John M. Blades and John Loring, Tiffany at the World's Columbian Exposition, (Palm Beach: Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, 2006), p. 14.
  2. Blades & Loring, p. 14.
  3. The Columbian Portfolio: Photographs of the World's Fair (Jones Brother Publishing Companies, 1893), n.p.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Blades & Loring, p. 14.
  6. 'Connecticut' in The Jeweler's Circular February 1, 1893, p. 20 and 'World's Columbian Exposition' in The Jeweler's Circular March 1, 1893, p 11.
  7. Charles L. Venable, Silver in America 1840-1940: a Century of Splendor, (New York: Abrams, 1995), pp. 116-18.
  8. 'Jewelry of Wondrous Design,' The New York Times, April 9, 1893, p. 2.
  9. "Art Metal-work at the Chicago Exhibition" in The Art Journal (London) supplement Chicago and the Columbian Exposition, 1893, p. xxii.
  10. Tiffany & Co., Catalog of Tiffany & Co.'s Exhibit, (New York: Privately Printed, 1893)
  11. Blades & Loring, p. 33.
  12. See Blades & Loring, p. 38, and Loring, Magnificent Tiffany Silver, p. 184.
  13. Blades & Loring, p. 36
  14. "Official Announcements of Awards for Silverware Exhibits" in the Jeweler's Circular and Horological Review, October 4, 1893, p. 44.
  15. Blades & Loring, p. 96.
  16. "Tiffany & Co. Honored by Princess Eulalia" in the Jeweler's Circular and Horological Review, June 21, 1893, p. 28.
  17. "A World's Fair Number" by The Cosmopolitan, September 1893, p. 555.
  18. "Official Announcements of Awards for Silverware Exhibits" in the Jeweler's Circular and Horological Review, October 4, 1893, p. 44.
  19. Tiffany & Co., Catalog of Tiffany & Co.'s Exhibit, (New York: Privately Printed, 1893). The Curran attribution can be found many places, including Magnificent Tiffany Silver.
  20. World's Columbian Exposition, List of awards, as copied for Mrs. Virginia C. Meredith, Chairman, Committee on Awards, Board of Lady Managers, from the official records in the office Hon. John Boyd Thacher, Chairman, Executive Committee on Awards, p. 310, chsmedia.org/media/fa/fa/LIB/WCE_AwardsList_Domestic.htm
     last accessed 1/1/2020.

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