Tiffany's first female design director knows what women want

Francesca Amfitheatrof is turning heads with her softer, freer and thoroughly modern looks

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 September, 2015, 12:23am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 September, 2015, 12:23am

Sometimes when planning, it makes sense to look to the past. Francesca Amfitheatrof thinks so. As the first female design director of Tiffany's - she was appointed in 2013 - Amfitheatrof says the brand's archives, a treasure chest of designs incorporating diamonds and platinum, the symbol of glamour throughout the brand's 178-year history, has been a great source of inspiration.

"I look at the Tiffany archives - going back to the source, going back to the beginning, that's where you find a certain purity. It is at the birth of an idea where you find the truth."

Born in Japan - "my mother is Italian and my father is American from Russian descent" - Amfitheatrof's "amazing childhood" was spent traversing the planet, living in cities such as New York, Rome, London and Moscow. "My father was a foreign correspondent for Time magazine, so every four years we changed countries.

"When my father became bureau chief in Moscow during the Brezhnev years [in the 1970s - Leonid Brezhnev was the Soviet Union's leader from 1964 to 1982], I went to boarding school in England, and then to Central Saint Martins, where I studied jewellery, and then to the Royal College of Art, where I did a master's degree in jewellery design."

Then she got straight down to business. "I started my own brand of jewellery as soon as I left college, and the first collection was immediately stocked in the best stores in the world," Amfitheatrof says. "I then went to work for fashion brands, creating jewellery collections for Chanel, Fendi, Marni, Balenciaga and many more. I also was the chief designer at Asprey & Garrard and then the creative director at Wedgwood.

"I always had a passion for contemporary art and curated many museum shows with international artists such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Murakami, among others, and I was the curator of the Gucci Museo in Florence.

"I'm amazed that I am the first woman to hold the position of design director at Tiffany. It's a huge honour. Also, I believe that women approach jewellery differently from men. We have an intimate relationship with jewellery and not a conceptual one. These small creations are not just pieces of jewellery but much more. They act as memory banks, small time capsules linked to our emotions and our memories. Jewellery has an amazing power, and women truly understand this. In these small objects, we carry so many symbolic memories, and at the same time, they become part of us to a point that we should not feel them as separate objects; instead, they become part of our bodies, and we feel naked without them.

"As a woman, I am aware of our daily movements and needs. I am an independent woman, a mother, a wife and I work. My daily life is like women the world over. I know what makes us happy and what works. This all helps enormously."

Helping cement Amfitheatrof's name on the fashion map was Cate Blanchett at this year's Academy Awards. It wasn't because of the Australian actress' dress designed by John Galliano for Maison Margiela but her Tiffany jewelled bib - 500 carats of turquoise beads held with diamond-capped pins. (Other stones included turquoise cabochon, faceted diamonds and aquamarines.) It stole the show and sparked a social media frenzy, and some reports saying a Chinese manufacturer had already gone into production with a knock-off of the US$400,000 creation even before the telecast was over.

She says she first looks to nature for inspiration. "Then I look at contemporary culture, particularly contemporary art, as this tells us where we are heading. Artists have this amazing third sense and are the first to propose discussions that become necessary to our culture. It is stimulating to understand from them what is relevant to us … 'relevance' is the word I always go back to when designing a collection."

As for the design process, Amfitheatrof says it's about turning something from the dreamscape into reality.

"Always, I start with a dream, something I see in my head that won't fade until I get it down on paper. I love those initial drawings, when anything is possible and your mind is wide open. I like to start with a sketch to give the design process a human element, a real touch. But I enjoy the entire process, the journey of taking a vivid idea and doing all the practical and technical thinking that makes a piece possible to produce beautifully. I also find great satisfaction in distilling and refining a design until it is just exactly what it needs to be - nothing more, nothing less.

She is also involved in the Tiffany Victoria collection. "Charles Lewis Tiffany was named the 'King of Diamonds' after acquiring pieces from the Royal Collection of diamond jewellery from the king of France, which he brought to Tiffany in New York.

"Today, we have this incredibly high standard when buying diamonds. We only buy 0.04 per cent of diamonds on the market worldwide, as the rest do not meet Tiffany standards," she says.

"With this in mind, I wanted to design an evolution of the Victoria collection. Instead of using only marquise cut diamonds, which Victoria is originally known for, I made clusters of diamonds using marquise cuts together with pear shapes and rounds. By creating clusters from mixed cut diamonds, the designs become more modern, less stiff and freer. Even on a diamond collection like Victoria, just by adding this softer, freer look the result is a design that is cooler and more modern. Nature is not perfect, which is what makes it beautiful and Victoria is a result of this philosophy.

For most, Tiffany is the an eggshell blue box. Not Amfitheatrof. Her first memory of the brand was a book her mother had called Tiffany Table Settings. "The book featured photographs of incredible table settings of houses of society people. It had European royalty, the great American families and artists such as Elsa Peretti and Andy Warhol. What struck me was how perfectly it encapsulated the world of Tiffany. A world of utter elegance mixed with a timeless quality, of people from different backgrounds united in the interest of culture. This is Tiffany, elegance and ease."

Her love of art is obvious, and one of her favourites is Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

"I try and meet Ai Weiwei when I'm in Beijing. [Ai is currently in Germany after Chinese authorities returned his passport.] He is a very special artist, and his knowledge of craftsmanship is incredible. His utter respect for beautifully made objects is inspiring, especially in a world that is losing this and moving towards machine-made objects. As a bench jeweller and silversmith, I'm trained in making all my own pieces, so I know how important it is to humbly learn a craft.

"We both share this passion. I show him my work, and he talks to me about his."