(1935 – 1979)
Donald Claflin was one of the great innovators in 20th century jewelry. He was a genius at creating designs that were at the same time whimsical and precious, and these designs had a great appeal for the young and wealthy style-setters who were always eager for something new and amusing.
Claflin was born in Massachusetts in 1935. After attending the Parsons School of Design, he worked as a textile designer. His first work as a jewelry designer was with David Webb, and he also worked as a designer for Van Cleef & Arpels. Unfortunately, there is little information about his work for either of these jewelry houses.
claflin-carved-ivory-brooch.jpgHe is best known for the time he was with Tiffany & Co. – from 1965 until 1977. Tiffany featured him as one of their top designers, along with Jean Schlumberger. Thomas Hoving was instrumental in recruiting Claflin to work for Tiffany, and encouraged him to realize his most audacious designs, putting the technical and financial resources of Tiffany at his disposal.
Claflin achieved striking effects by working with unusual materials, such as leather, ivory and inlaid hard-stones such as lapis lazuli and coral. He often combined these humble materials with the finest gems. He was partial to earrings, bracelets and rings featuring large carved or fluted chunks of stone encrusted with diamonds and accented with emeralds or sapphires.
His jewelry was quite costly to produce, and required the technical skills of master stone cutters, goldsmiths, setters and enamellers. Most of his pieces were executed by the firm of Carven French.
Among his most memorable and best-loved pieces were those he designed based on characters from children’s stories .From Alice in Wonderland came Humpty Dumpty, with a removable gold crown, and the Walrus, with ivory tusks, and a brightly enameled outfit complete with rubies dangling from the jacket. The beloved mouse Stewart Little was another of his charming creations.
Claflin also designed a series of “friendly” dragons – one of them with popping ruby eyes that telescoped out, all encrusted with diamonds, sapphires, rubies and emeralds, or executed in brilliant enamels.
Another celebrated design incorporated coral strawberries; each set with tiny gold “hairs”, and set amid brilliantly green enameled leaves and diamond flowers. The strawberries were set to move with the wearer. There is a story that he originally designed these pieces with very few diamonds, but when he showed the design to a client from Texas, she advised him that he would have to add a lot more diamonds if he wanted to sell them in Texas. He made earrings and brooches of the same design, and there is also one example of a similar design with carved ruby cherries, and one with carved raspberries.
Claflin also designed less extravagant pieces for Tiffany’s more conservative clients, such as the popular Criss-Cross ring, a new and very innovative setting for diamonds that he developed in 1970, in which the center stone is mounted in the crossing of two bands of metal. He was also the first designer to use Tanzanite, a recently discovered stone of beautiful blue-purple hue, which had recently been discovered in Tanzania.
Claflin left Tiffany in 1977, unfortunately on rather bad terms. It is said that he did not get along with Tiffany’s new designer, Angela Cummings. Unfortunately, there are no archives for his designs, and it is also rumored that she either took or destroyed them.
After leaving Tiffany, he put his great talent to work designing for Bulgari. In keeping with their design aesthetic, he created clean and more abstract designs. He used a lot of yellow gold, as white metals were reserved for evening wear, and Bulgari wanted to make jewelry that, in the words of Paolo Bulgari “women could wear all the time”. Claflin worked for Bulgari until his untimely death in 1979. He was only 44 years old, and the jewelry world lost one of its greatest talents.