LONDON — After an array of dazzling pendants, earrings, and bracelets comes the piece de resistance: the 128-carat Tiffany Diamond, one of the largest yellow diamonds in the world.
The gigantic gem is the show-stopper of "Bejewelled by Tiffany" at the Gilbert Collection, one of three galleries located at Londons Somerset House on the Thames River.
The Tiffany & Co.-sponsored exhibit, which opens this weekend, uses jewels to trace the history of the celebrated American brand that has become synonymous with glamour.
The collection includes about 180 pieces that cover the first 150 years of Tiffany history up to 1987, almost all of which have been loaned from the corporations archives.
"In Britain people know about the film Breakfast at Tiffanys, but dont have a lot of knowledge about Tiffany history," said Clare Phillips, curator of the exhibit. "The magic of the name is understood, but people dont know a lot about how this glamorous company got started."
Indeed, whats best about the exhibit is that its more than just a display of jewels, but offers glimpses of fashion history by showing how the jewels were actually worn by Americans.
One model, for example, shows a woman wearing a brooch, a choker, a hair decoration, and a bodice ornament — all made from diamonds. It seems that wealthy American women in the 19th century so loved to pile on diamonds that Europeans ridiculed them for having no taste.
Another mannequin showed a 1970s woman wearing a bra made from sterling silver mesh.
"It’s fascinating to see how the items were worn and how the items have changed," Phillips said.
Like many of his contemporaries, Charles Lewis Tiffany was unabashedly patriotic. The rubies, diamonds, and sapphires winking from an American flag brooch at the start of the exhibit are proof of this.
The exhibit works like a timeline. It introduces visitors to the entrepreneurial genius that transformed a modest New York store into an American institution before taking them on a journey through world wars and international exhibitions.
The first part of the exhibit, "The Rise of an American Institution," illustrates some of the qualities behind Tiffany early prominence and long-lasting appeal.
When Tiffany opened the doors of his first fancy-goods store on Broadway in New York in 1837, jewelry was only a minor part of the inventory. But that soon changed.
After political turmoil in Europe in 1848 caused the price of gems to fall, Tiffany snapped up cheap diamonds, including some from French aristocrats who were eager to unload them. The gems went into new Tiffany-designed settings, prompting reporters to nickname Tiffany "The King of Diamonds."
Tiffany, whose cameo portrait is included in the exhibit, understood the value of publicity and marketing. He introduced mail-order sales, producing the first catalogue in 1845. He also participated in the great international exhibitions, eventually opening a shop in Paris in 1868.
"The Paris Exposition of 1900 was crucial, because thats when Tiffany became a name that was known internationally," Phillips said.
Other parts of the exhibit include:
"Temple of Fancy," which shows how the New York store aimed to suit the needs of every customer with pieces to mark every event from birth to death, from baby armlets to mourning pendants.
"Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On," which covers the period from the 1870s to the start of World War I and explores Tiffanys evolution into making jewelry with a truly distinctive American flavor. By the early 1900s, almost every item was from an American source such as Maine amethyst, Colorado topaz and freshwater pearls from Wisconsin and Tennessee.
"New York Worlds Fair and the 1940s" demonstrated Tiffany’s patriotism yet again with a gold charm bracelet of victory symbols and gold earrings in the form of American B-25 bombers.
Perhaps whats most surprising is how many functional objects were transformed into exquisite works of art. There are mens accessories such as pipes, spurs, and pocket watches, as well as boxes, trays, and evening purses.
But theres still plenty of jewelry.
One display window highlights a 3.53-carat diamond engagement ring, pointing out that its classic style was an important innovation in 1886. The rings tall claws allowed an unprecedented amount of light to pass through the stone. This style has featured continuously in Tiffanys ring designs through the years.
The Tiffany Diamond has been featured at numerous international exhibits since Tiffany had it cut in Paris from a 287-carat crystal discovered in South Africa in 1877.
But "no Tiffany jewelry has ever been shown before in public collections in the United Kingdom," Phillips said. "Id say were bringing history to the surface."
By SHELLEY EMLING Cox News Service