TIFFANY'S SECRET WEAPON F.A.
Francesca Amfitheatrof is design director of Tiffany & Co. She is responsible for interpreting Tiffany’s 177-year legacy of innovation in modern creations of striking beauty and original style.
It’s 8.30am in Beijing, and Francesca Amfitheatrof just logged onto Skype from her hotel room. After our video chat, the Tiffany & Co. design director will spend the day promoting her first collection, Tiffany T, in one of the company’s most valuable markets. But currently, she’s still reeling from yesterday’s studio visit with Chinese artist and architect Ai Wei Wei, who took her through his collection of jade antiquities. “We were talking about carving and craftsmanship,” said the 44-year-old Amfitheatrof, her signature heavy brows still looking sharp through the computer screen. “With all the constraints and the pressure he’s under, he’s so calm. I think that’s very inspiring.”
Finding calm within the chaos is something Amfitheatrof has undoubtedly worked for over the past two decades as a jeweler and silversmith. The designer’s curriculum vitae is so diverse and brimming with accolades that it’s difficult to believe she’s managed to be so creative and productive at once. Now, as the first woman to hold the title of design director at the 177-year-old Tiffany, she’s taking on her most challenging project to date.
The daughter of an American journalist and an Italian publicist, Amfitheatrof attended boarding school in England but spent her childhood in Moscow, Toyko, and Rome. “My father, [who worked for Time magazine], really wanted me to go to university in America. But I wanted to go to art school,” she says. “It was very unfashionable back then.” She did go, first to Central St. Martins, and then to the Royal College of Art, where she received her masters in silversmithing and subsequently trained with a master craftsman near Padua, Italy. Her first show, featuring both jewelry and silver work, was at gallerist Jay Jopling’s White Cube Gallery in the early '90s. Amfitheatrof ran with the Young British Artist crowd — known now as the YBAs — and was particularly close friends with Jopling, but also knew the now-world-famous Damien Hirst, brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman, and Tracey Emin. “It was a real struggle, in a way, to be an artist. You were lucky if you sold one or two paintings in a year,” she says. “Nobody had any idea that it would become what it is today.”
Straight out of school, Amfitheatrof was asked to design a collection for Italian brand Alessi and was soon commissioned by Chanel, Fendi, Garrard, Marni, Wedgewood, and others to create jewelry, accessories, and housewares, depending on the client. She also launched a namesake line of jewelry, which she has designed on and off, depending on her other commitments. There was also RS&A, a London-based agency that represented artists like the Chapman brothers and Oliver Clegg, that she co-founded in the early 2000s.
This is all to say that choosing to move to the States for Tiffany, as iconic and prestigious as it may be, couldn’t have been an easy decision. “My life in London was pretty settled. I had just redone my home, and I was about to hang my art collection. Everything was hunky dory,” she deadpans. Instead, it was off to Brooklyn’s charming — but not cloyingly so — Fort Greene neighborhood with her husband, who works at a tech venture capital firm, and two children. “Obviously it’s a dream job. And I feel that, you know, life is made up of cycles. If things happen at the right moment in your life, it’s impossible to say no.”
It’s been exactly a year since Amfitheatrof's official appointment, although she was headhunted nearly a year before that. “We’ve done a lot pretty quickly,” she says. “It was quite energetic, quite productive.” Much of her time over the past 12 months has been spent learning the ins and outs of each product category, from engagement rings to money clips. And also leading the charge on designs for the Blue Book, the annual publication that highlights 250 pieces of Tiffany jewelry, all uniquely designed. But she has also created Tiffany T, a range of minimalist necklaces, cuffs, and rings meant for layering and daily wear. Much like many of Tiffany’s most iconic ranges — of which she has spent many hours examining in the archives — they are destined to be collectibles, with the “T” motif serving as a common design thread. Although Amfitheatrof hopes that, unlike some almost-too-precious pieces, these will rarely see the dark interiors of a jewelry box. “I wanted to do a collection that could stand for itself. To be visibly Tiffany, be recognizable, but also to be the perfect chain you throw on every day, the perfect bangle that you can throw on with your other jewelry,” she says. “The kind of jewelry that just lives with you. The more you wear it, the more you love it.”
She was also cognizant of Tiffany’s growing global presence (sales in the Asia-Pacific region reached $810 million in 2013, nearly a quarter of the company’s annual revenue. Last year, it also opened six new stores in China, as well as five stores in the U.A.E.). “It reaches so many different women and men worldwide,” she says. “I wanted [Tiffany T] to feel like it spoke to a global village — fresh and new, yet still close to the heritage. Tiffany has always been very modern and groundbreaking.”
As for being the company’s first female creative in charge? “There have been so many women associated with the brand as designers that I didn’t think about it [at first],” she says. “It’s always amazing when you find out you’re the first woman. You think, ‘Wow, it took so long.’” But enough with the past. For now, Amfitheatrof is focused, quite simply, on the future. “Tiffany is going through a moment of evolution,” she says. “It’s the right time for both of us.”
Amfitheatrof's Tiffany T collection on Tiffany.com