(This post was the final exam for my American Studies course this semester. We were asked to “dense fact” an artifact of American culture–taking something “ordinary” and unveiling its hidden meanings. At our scheduled final exam time, we displayed each of our objects with carefully crafted “artifact labels.” I chose to put a Tiffany & Co. Box on display in our makeshift museum. The post below is its label.)
In 2009, this iconic box produced and imagined by the New York City jewelry company Tiffany & Co. was pulled from the pocket of an 18-year old young man and placed in the hands of an anonymous young woman. Dented slightly in 4 places around the left and right edges and containing traces of an unknown substance (likely makeup powder in a light shade,) it was handled frequently. The shiny trinket that lay atop the cotton gauze inside this box is unimportant. The unique texture, blue hue, and elegant symmetrical font tell a deeper story. In the lines and leathery texture of this palm-sized box is a piece of the American Dream, a complicated status symbol, a history of consumption, and a set of nuanced values. In its clean visual simplicity, there is so much more than meets the eye.
This box is not blue. It is trademarked at number 1837, the year Tiffany&Co. was born. “Tiffany Blue” is its title. If you are a woman, it is more likely that you recognized it from a distance. From three feet away you mused; “Tiffany’s.” You could not read the font printed across the lid. It is December. Perhaps you remembered the glossy magazine advertisements telling you to “Dream of Blue Boxes beneath the tree.” If you are a man, your association may have been less defined. Though research shows that men are less adept at discriminating among blues, greens, and yellows than females, the reasoning extends beyond genetics. For men, this box is “blue.” For women, this box is a heart-racing, display worthy hue. It is a color so valuable it must be owned. For both, it is a metaphor for success and exceptional quality. Tiffany Blue’s patented shade screams luxury, decadence, love, identity, and worth. Its subtext reads “inequality.” This shade is reserved for the wealthy. Or for those who have invested. It is a shade of confidence. This box, defined by its unmistakable palette, plays on your emotions and places relationships into high quality identical packages—a greater metaphor for our consumer culture. We fill our lives with thousands of boxes, yet this one stands alone.
In Tiffany’s founding year, this shade of robin’s egg blue made its debut. An ode to Napoleon III’s wife Empress Eugenie and her prized position as client for the King of Diamonds and Tiffany founder Charles Young Tiffany, the fashion icon Empress’s favorite color defined the tradition of Tiffany & Co. It would go on to embed itself in the American psyche. Like the trademarked Royal color, the straight and narrow font of each stamped letter is perfectly defined. The typeface is simulated in wedding invitations and Tiffany-themed parties held by the elite (or those who wish to be.) The dimension of these simulations are never a perfect match. They are protected by history. It was a wealthy man who opened the first Tiffany & Co., but it was the ideal woman and image perfection his name and packaging would come to represent.
Should you cradle this modern box in careful hands, you would hold a significant fragment of popular culture (but please, do not touch.) 48 times Tiffany&Co. has appeared on the silver emblematic screen of American cinema. From Audrey Hepburn’s worshipped role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, to the Tiffany & Co. product placement in Sex and the City scenes, this “little Blue Box” defines beauty and happiness for the white, upper-middle class American woman (and the man who offers up the little blue bag.) On average, 30 proposals are made each year at the Fifth Ave. Flagship Tiffany & Co. store. 30 bended knees, 30 Tiffany Blue boxes, 30 buy-ins to a brilliantly crafted campaign that associated the box sitting before you with eternal love and fidelity. In a 21st century climate of uncertainty and relationships dulled by technological excess, the Tiffany box becomes a placeholder for trust, authenticity, and longevity.
Aware contemporary concerns that consume the American public sphere, Tiffany has extended representation of “eternity,” “trust,” and “longevity” to include protection of the environment that inspires its designs. Tiffany & Co. has pledged participate in sustainable sourcing for both its products and renowned packaging, and to set a conscientious corporate example. Were this box produced between 2011 and today, 89% of its materials would derive from recycled sources. In the Tiffany Blue Box, American consumers enjoy a historical context of social worth and reverie, a status of “green” behind the Blue, and a “thing” whose meaning will last “forever.” Though Tiffany & Co. produces the silver trophies of PGA Tours and Superbowls, their name is primarily associated with the exterior of this box. A Tiffany Box is never wrapped nor covered. Once sold empty on eBay for purposes of pure status, the Box is its own commodity. Today, it can only be obtained through Tiffany. I am the real thing and you are priceless, it whispers. Through the Box, we see who we are and who we are not.