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Tiffany & Co - The 'Wild-Rose Vase', 1893 Columbian World's Fair Sterling Silver and Enamel Vase, design attributed to John T. Curran, c. 1893


This extraordinary vase features four large repousséd and peach-colored enameled rose blossoms which grow organically up the vase along with many enameled leaves, branches and buds. This is set against a background of dense acid-etched foliage, mostly of ferns with some rose leaves. This decoration rises in a natural fashion from the base which is chased with sinuous lines clearly prescient of the Art Nouveau. The interior retains the original gilding, with some wear around the rim.

Designed and executed expressly for the Columbian World's Fair of 1893, this piece is a visual and technical masterpiece. As with most of the other John T. Curran designed enameled vases at the exhibition (twelve were created for the event), the focus is the realistically represented natural world.

Aesthetically, the 'Wild-Rose Vase' is very similar to Curran's undisputed masterpiece, the 'Magnolia Vase', also one of the twelve enameled vases created for the Columbian Exposition. Now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see here), the 'Magnolia Vase' is one of the most important pieces of American silver ever made.

However, the 'Magnolia Vase', the 'Daisy Vase' and other vases made for the fair display a repetitious, somewhat static sense of design. Other pieces made for the exhibit were inspired by the designs of Native Americans, some are aquatic, based on designs from the sea and others are academic, classical designs. The 'Wild- Rose Vase' is unusual in this group because it is moving so clearly in the direction of 'Art Nouveau' which would become the dominant design idiom in only a few short years.

Technically, the 'Wild-Rose Vase' was acid etched in at least two, and probably a few layers. It was then lightly repousséd from the inside under the flowers, buds and some leaves and stems. At this point, enamel was applied in several layers (and firings) into spaces apparently created by the acid bath, making this champlevé enamel.

The matte enamels with soft muted colors seen on this vase were developed by Edward C. Moore for Tiffany during the 1880's.(1) Curran, as Moore's assistant, helped with this technique.(2) Henry Vever, the noted 19th century jewelry historian, stated in a report to the French Government on Tiffany's exhibit that the 'use of opaque and transparent enamels…produces a most fortunate effect.'(3)

This type of matte enamel with soft colors is unique to Tiffany and their 'American' style of silver and was not replicated by other firms. Gorham hired European enamelers (mainly Russians)4 and generally chose to follow the styles prevalent there. One of their Columbian Exposition pieces (heavily restored) sold at Sotheby's May 23, 2002. Hungarian enamelist G. deFestitics worked on the piece(5) and it clearly follows the renaissance inspired styles popular in Vienna and Geneva at the time. Tiffany's virtuosity with their very own enameling style is a technical triumph, especially in light of the fact that virtually no American firms could do enamel work 10 years earlier.

John T. Curran and Paulding Farnham were two young assistants of Edward C. Moore at Tiffany. Both helped at the Paris 1889 exhibition, with Farnham's jewelry designs winning the gold medal.(6) When Moore died in 1891, Farnham took charge of the Jewelry department and Curran took charge of the silver department, under Farham's ultimate control.(7) Farham's work can be seen clearly in the mixed-metal 'Viking' and 'Pueblo' pieces. Curran, who was highly influenced by Charles Osborne(8), designed the naturalistic enameled vases and sea-inspired pieces at the fair. Collaboration with Farnham on the 'Wild-Rose Vase' cannot be ruled out as an original design for the 'Magnolia Vase' at the Metropolitan Museum shows Farnham's work on some floral decoration.(9) Curran is credited with the overall designs for both the 'Magnolia Vase' and the 'Daisy Vase' and it is clear the 'Wild-Rose Vase' was designed by the same person.

This extraordinary piece measures 7.5 inches tall and weighs 6.4 troy ounces. Underneath it is marked 'TIFFANY & CO /11182 T 3164/ STERLING' and below with Tiffany's special Columbian Exposition stamp with a capital 'T' over a globe. (It is interesting to note the 'Magnolia Vase's' model number is 11168; the 'Wild Rose Vase's' is 11182.) It is in very good antique condition with minor (less than typical) damage and restoration to the enamel. It appears to be in better condition that either of its siblings, the 'Magnolia Vase' or the 'Daisy Vase'.

During the 19th century, international exhibitions, or world's fairs, became the most prestigious marketing avenue for luxury retailers. Companies would invest exceptional resources to create their displays. These exhibitions became the equivalent of selling to royalty during an earlier era: only the very best would do. The publicity surrounding the fair could make, or break, a firm's reputation.

Many of the objects on show were prohibitively expensive to all except the very wealthiest clients. Companies took significant financial risk making these masterpieces. Gorham's Nautilus Centerpiece made for the Columbian Exposition did not sell until 1921, 28 years later.(10)

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.(11)

The Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, where Tiffany's exhibit was center stage, 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.(12) The central hall could 'comfortably' seat 50,000(13) and 150,000 people crowded in on opening day.(14)

During the six months it was open in 1893 there were 27.5 million visitors(15) to the fair, a particularly amazing 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 made it an even greater success.

According to The New York Times (9 April 1893), 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."(16)

[The Tiffany catalog of the exhibit only included about 500 objects(17) but it would appear from the checklist(18) that Tiffany brought approximately 500 pieces of silver, a few hundred pieces of production silver 'tablewares' and 280 pieces of jewelry. We've had Tiffany production 'tablewares' with Columbian Exposition marks that are not listed in the checklist, so Tiffany & Co. brought more production items to the fair than they cataloged.]

Tiffany & Co.'s silver department, under the direction of Edward C. Moore and later Charles T. Curran, actually spent four years planning for and creating the objects that were sent to the 1893 fair.(19) 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(20) along with 55 other prizes(21). Some items were purchased by museums at the fair.(22) One European princess was so impressed by the display she named Tiffany & Co. court jewelers on the spot.(23)

Of the silver pieces that Tiffany sent to the exhibition, 36 were vases and 12 of those were enameled.(24) The largest and most famous of these is the 'Magnolia Vase', now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The 'Daisy Vase', another enameled vase from the fair, recently sold at Christie's in New York (January 20, 2005) for $284,800.00.

The 'Wild-Rose Vase' is a smaller sibling of these illustrious examples, all made specifically to exhibit at the fair. The 'Wild-Rose Vase' is unique: designed and executed by the masters at Tiffany & Co. for a spectacular setting to be sold to their very best clientele.

Exhibition History:
World's Columbian Exhibition, Chicago, 1893.

Literature:
John M. Blades and John Loring, Tiffany at the World's Columbian Exposition

Endnotes:

  1. See John M. Blades and John Loring, Tiffany at the World's Columbian Exposition, p. 38, and John Loring, Magnificent Tiffany Silver (New York: Abrams, 2001), p. 181.
  2. Loring, Magnificent Tiffany Silver, p. 182-3.
  3. Henry Vever, "The French Ministry of Commerce Report on Jewelry and Silver Exhibited by Tiffany & Co. at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893", trans. John Loring in Tiffany at the World's Columbian Exposition by John M. Blades and John Loring, p. 121.
  4. Private conversations with Sam Hough.
  5. Sotheby's, Important Americana May 23, 2003 Sale number NO7801, (New York: Sotheby's, 2003), Lot 30, p. 20-21.
  6. John Loring, Paulding Farnham: Tiffany's Lost Genius, p. 7.
  7. Loring, Magnificent Tiffany Silver, p. 203.
  8. Loring, Magnificent Tiffany Silver, p. 182.
  9. Blades & Loring, p. 91.
  10. Charles L. Venable, Silver in America 1840-1940: a Century of Splendor, (New York: Abrams, 1995), pp. 116-18.
  11. Blades & Loring, p. 14.
  12. The Columbian Portfolio: Photographs of the World's Fair (Jones Brother Publishing Companies, 1893), unpaginated.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Blades & Loring, p. 14.
  15. Blades & Loring, p. 14.
  16. 'Jewelry of Wondrous Design,' The New York Times, 9 April 1893, p. 2.
  17. Vever in Blades & Loring, p. 115.
  18. Blades & Loring, p. 125-47.
  19. Blades & Loring, p. 33.
  20. See Blades & Loring, p. 38, and Loring, Magnificent Tiffany Silver, p. 184.
  21. Blades & Loring, p. 36.
  22. Blades & Loring,, p. 96.
  23. Geo Frederic Heydt, 'A Glimpse of the Tiffany Exhibit at the Columbian Exposition, Chicago. From the August Number of Godey's Magazine. 1893' Reprint by Tiffany & Co., 1893, reprinted in Tiffany at the World's Columbian Exposition by John M. Blades and John Loring, p. 105.
  24. Blades & Loring, checklist, pp. 135-6. 
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