It’s a story sure to divide the sexes – how much you think it’s now traditional to make a wedding proposal with a diamond ring probably depends on whether you are buying or receiving it.
The tradition dates back 130 years, according to the company history of jewellers Tiffany Co. It was in 1886, in the decade that saw the invention of the electric iron, the ballpoint pen, the dishwasher and Coca-Cola, that Charles Lewis Tiffany created the first raised setting for a diamond on a ring.
Previously, diamonds were set into the band itself and only the top of the stone would have been visible. It is this innovation that is said to have popularised the idea of the engagement ring. Tiffany Co now has more than 100 styles of raised setting.
The setting and its history are being celebrated in an exhibition in the Landmark mall in Hong Kong’s Central business district, until October 16. Visitors can learn about the company history, see an engraver at work and a ring set with an 8.88 carat diamond valued at HK$12 million.
The jewellery and its association with the rich and famous have helped the company become a byword for glamour. Mary Todd Lincoln was the first of the First Ladies of the United States to wear Tiffany jewellery but it has been seen on many others since. In 1903 Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed to Eleanor with a ring. The couple were just 22 and 19 years old. Despite his acknowledged philandering and her rumoured lesbianism, the couple remained married until FDR’s death in 1945.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the embodiment of the glamour and optimism of the early 1960s and still revered as a fashion icon, was a fan. The company’s jewellery was also worn by Michelle Obama, the current First Lady of the United States, at Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012.
As the exhibition makes clear, it is the movies that have really made the company’s name. Most recently, the jewellery featured in the screen adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (2013), with Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. Tiffany jewellery is at the bottom of one of the funniest scenes in the 2009 film Bride Wars, in which Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway ‘s characters compete to have the best wedding.
The company worked with the filmmakers to ensure their products featured in those films, but other directors have also given them plenty of screen time, most famously with Blake Edwards’ 1961 adaptation of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Belgian actress Audrey Hepburn plays the Tiffany’s-obsessed socialite Holly Golightly, to George Peppard’s curious writer Paul Varjack.
In words that must have had more impact than any advertisement, glamorous Golightly says she is “crazy about Tiffany’s” and that “Nothing can go wrong at Tiffany’s.” The film has prompted more than 30 men a year to propose to their prospective spouse at the New York store. The success rate is unrecorded.
130th Anniversary of the Tiffany® Setting Exhibition. The Landmark Atrium , Central. Until October 16