Tiffany & Co. Courts Millennials in China With Massive, and Strategic, Exhibition

Fawnia Soo Hoo

"Vision & Virtuosity" details the company's 180-year history, including an homage to "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and the famous yellow diamond worn by Lady Gaga.

Entrance of Tiffany & Co.'s Shanghai "Vision & Virtuosity" exhibition. Photo: Courtesy of Tiffany & Co.

At the first-ever Tiffany & Co. exhibition, you won't need to tap into your 401K to immerse yourself in blinding amounts of diamonds, including the famed 128-carat yellow diamond stunner that Lady Gaga wore to the 2019 Oscars, or to take selfies of your manicured hand modeling a signature engagement ring style. But you will have to book a flight to Shanghai.

Because the American heritage jewelry brand conceived and designed this inaugural extravaganza, dubbed "Vision & Virtuosity," for Mainland China — with tribute to the country's largest city — and its booming taste for luxury.

"Shanghai was [the top and only choice of] location for a few reasons. One: the rich cultural history. The second is we have a very important consumer base here," Tiffany & Co. CEO Alessandro Bogliolo told Fashionista during a preview before an American and Chinese celebrity and influencer-filled opening bash the next evening.

The luxury jewelry brand is relatively new to the country — opening its first brick-and-mortar store in 2001 and growing to a fleet of 35 as of this year, with two new flagships in Beijing and Shanghai. So, the opportunity is rife for building relationships with the local luxury consumers, especially millennials, who make 50% of the luxury purchases in China.

"People know the name and people associate Tiffany & Co. with the most beautiful diamonds in the world, but not much more than that," he continued. "There was a lot of curiosity: 'You are a New York brand. How old are you? When was the brand founded? What is the history? What are the values?' This is why we decided to have it here in Shanghai."

The design of the multilevel showcase illustrates the Tiffany & Co. story with themes integral to the brand, interactive and experiential elements and a non-linear approach.

"In the very beginning, we started thinking: 'How do we create a jewelry exhibition that's not a typical luxury house exhibition?' We started thinking about it as a story with chapters," explained Chief Artistic Officer Reed Krakoff, visibly fighting the inevitable jet lag, which couldn't have been helped by the dimmed mood lighting and soothing exhibition soundtrack composed by Shanghai-based electro DJ B6.

The exhibition is arranged into six "chapters" housed in the impressive Fosun Foundation designed by Foster+Partners and Heatherwick Studios. The non-profit foundation is a breathtaking work of art in itself, with three layers of rotating bamboo-like curtains surrounding the multilevel building — bridging East and West, like "Vision and Virtuosity."

Visitors enter through a hall of mirrors of sorts to reach the first destination, "Blue is the Color of Dreams," dedicated to colored gemstones: sapphires, aquamarines, Montana sapphires and tanzanites, which the brand discovered and introduced to the market, and of course, blue diamonds. This room also features work by a local contemporary artist, Ran JiWei, whose mural highlights scroll-inspired diamond bracelets.

Inside "Blue Is The Color of Dreams." Photo:  Courtesy of Tiffany & Co.

Notably: The room's deep blue lighting is extremely conducive to taking clear, glare-free photos (and boomerangs) of the brilliant jewelry pieces on display. Intentional?

"Definitely," said Krakoff, who also pointed to a very Instagrammable oversized Tiffany & Co. ringbox chair at the conclusion of the exhibition. (Or, rather, sharable on Weibo and WeChat, since the American app is technically blocked in the P.R.C., along with Twitter and Facebook.) "There are many, many moments within the exhibition set up for sharing social media and creating these little moments to remember."

Then you roam into "The World of Tiffany," which delves into the synergies between the brand and film, literature, fashion and pop culture at-large. Highlights include the Schulmberger-designed "Fleur de Mer" diamond-and-sapphire brooch the brand gifted to Elizabeth Taylor in 1965 (and later bought back for the archives) and Jackie Kennedy Onassis's ruby-and-diamond "Two Fruit" clip, which was given to her as a push present from John F. Kennedy after the birth of JFK, Jr. in 1960.

Chapter three explains the history of The Tiffany Blue Book, which has been featuring one-of-a-kind, handcrafted jewelry designs since its launch in 1845 as America's first mail-order catalog. The original booklets are displayed next to signature pieces, including works by Jean Schlumberger and Elsa Peretti, spanning nearly two centuries. (Interestingly, the covers have evolved through a spectrum of blue shades, and not just because of fading, over time.)

Inside "Tiffany Blue Book." Photo: Courtesy of Tiffany & Co.

Meanwhile, the "Love" room showcases eight signature Tiffany & Co. engagement settings, highlighting what look to be the most sizable solitaire and heart-shaped diamonds available. "We display the provenance of where [the stones] were sourced and mined," Bogliolo made a point to say, which speaks to Chinese Gen-Z consumers' emphasis on socially conscious shopping. Visitors may also want to allot extra time playing in this area, either writing messages on interactive screens lining the walls or trying on real diamond rings in one of the strategically lit selfie-stations.

Of course, the Tiffany & Co. story wouldn't be complete without an homage to the Oscar-winning 1961 movie "Breakfast at Tiffany's." The house brought out out never-before-seen images of Audrey Hepburn filming scenes at the Fifth Avenue flagship (including an adorable photo of the star and her doggo). Hepburn's original script is on display, while a video showing excerpts, with her notes, scenes from the movie and close-ups of the Tiffany & Co. jewelry, play on loop for even more behind-the-scenes moments.

Inside "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Photo: Courtesy of Tiffany & Co.

"You are at 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' and you really feel like you have Audrey Hepburn there," Bogliolo said excitedly.

This segment also connects the brand's cinematic history with contemporary Chinese art and culture. Sculptor Li Xiaofeng, who's also worked with Louis Vuitton and Lacoste, reinterprets Holly Golightly's little black dress with his celebrated broken porcelain technique using shards from the Song Dynasty. A mannequin wearing the sculpture gazes onto a vintage Manhattan street setting — yellow cab and all — backed by B6's "Blue River," a reimagined version of the movie's famed theme song "Moon River."

The metaphorical history book concludes with an exhibition dedicated to, of course, diamonds. Dazzling displays of necklaces, rings and tiaras stun, including a circa-1855 brooch from the French Crown Jewels collection, a '20s-style diamond-and-pearl leaf-motif circlet worn by Carey Mulligan in Baz Luhrman's 2013 update of "The Great Gatsby" and the dramatic conclusion of the Tiffany Diamond. The rare cushion-cut sparkler was mined in 1877 and had only been worn twice before Gaga's Oscar moment — the last time in 1961 by Hepburn to promote "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

Plush couches line the room for visitors to spend quality time with the precious pieces housed in long curved glass cases emulating flowing water, which also connects China to the American heritage brand's history.

"'Moon River' or [Shanghai's Huangpu] River. It's up to you," said Brogliolo. Or maybe Hudson River? Because the entrance of the final stop is a reproduction of the historic Fifth Avenue flagship's Art Deco limestone, granite and marble entrance, Atlas Clock and all.

"Tiffany was founded in New York and New York, well, is the world. You have all kinds of cultures, of languages, of people. It's the melting pot," said the CEO. In the midst of a U.S./China trade war and political tension, art and culture can be a form of soft diplomacy. Plus, Western luxury heritage brands have been finding success in resonating with younger Chinese luxury consumers through art and culture exhibitions.

"Vision & Virtuosity" has been in the making for over two years as a part of the brand's greater Mainland China strategy, which is key to Tiffany & Co.'s future plans. According to McKinsey, by 2025, Chinese consumers will account for 44% of the entire global luxury market. And more specifically, research firm Euromonitor International predicts the luxury jewelry market in China will grow from 2018 to 2023 by 19%.

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Bogliolo, who took the helm in July 2017 to "reinvigorate" the brand amid lagging sales, explained that "Vision & Virtuosity" is one component. In August, the brand launched e-commerce in China linking access to the brand via online, social media and hopefully in-store. "It's like a triangle of sharing information where people, really in an omnichannel way, can go from the digital to the physical," says Bogliolo.

The exhibition also coincides with the opening of the Shanghai flagship, which houses the third Blue Box Café, debuting in December. The brand's first dining concept, offering the opportunity to literally have breakfast at Tiffany's, launched at the New York flagship in November 2017. It's been wildly popular, especially with Chinese luxury shopping tourists, Fflur Roberts, Head of Luxury Goods at Euromonitor International, tells me.

Although, due to the trade war and decline in Chinese tourism to the U.S., Tiffany & Co.'s American sales to Chinese tourists fell by more than 25% last quarter, not helped exchange rates. But, the Chinese government is also encouraging citizens to shop domestically, so Tiffany's larger footprint, both physical and digital, will hopefully help offset the decline.

The second Blue Box Café, and first in Asia, recently opened in the new 10,000-square-foot Hong Kong flagship, coinciding with protests for greater democratic freedoms in the Special Administrative Region heading toward the 100-day mark. Tiffany & Co. has 10 locations in Hong Kong and lost six days of selling business in the last quarter, Bogliolo said on an earnings call in August.

"This has been basically a shift of consumption to Mainland China, where we are very well-equipped because we have 35 stores here, so it's totally fine," said Bogliolo.

Plus, there's "Vision & Virtuosity." As of now, Tiffany & Co. has no plans to take the show elsewhere, which makes it unique and special to consumers from all over the country as Shanghai is one of China's most popular domestic tourist destinations.

Bogliolo also points to what distinguishes Tiffany & Co. from other Western brands also fighting for a piece of the growing luxury Chinese jewelry market and how it's highlighted by the exhibition.

"Many luxury brands, they stand for status. They stand for ostentation. Tiffany, of course you have the craftsmanship. You have the preciousness. You have also the high price," he admits. "But it’s all linked to special moments of your life. So it's a luxury brand that is more connected to your personal internal life. So this intimate relationship is something that is very consistent of Tiffany throughout the world, including China."

"Vision & Virtuosity" is open to the public from September 23 to November 10, 2019.

Full disclosure: Tiffany & Co. paid for my flight and accommodations in Shanghai to cover the opening of the exhibition. 

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