ALL THAT GEM: Melvyn Kirtley
Text by Kee | Photos courtesy of Tiffany & Co.
Melvyn Kirtley, chief gemologist of Tiffany & Co.
Tiffany 'Aurora' necklace featuring over 300 brilliant diamonds
Lady Gaga wore a necklace with a total of over 16 carats of diamonds at the 25th Screen Actors Guild Awards
The Tiffany 'True Cut'
Tiffany & Co. 'Blue Box' collection for 2019

Melvyn Kirtley has called Tiffany & Co. his home for 37 years. He is highly regarded at the 182-year-old 
New York City-based company and holds multiple roles that influence the creations and direction of 
the brand. Meet the chief gemologist who possibly has one of the best roles in the world of luxury.

Melvyn Kirtley is Tiffany & Co.’s secret weapon. He probably won’t admit to this unofficial title but he has been through several shake-ups at the New York City-based company since he joined as a sales professional in the ’80s. His rise through the ranks is a remarkable story, having moved up from that entry-level position to become the sales manager of the main floor at the New York store to the vice president of worldwide client development by 2004 and then the group vice president of Europe by 2008. Though he currently also carries the chief gemologist title amongst others, Kirtley is that guy Tiffany & Co. counts on to celebrate its past and romanticise the future in every new creation going forward. Together with its first chief artistic director Reed Krakoff, who joined in early 2017, they work closely to deliver even newer surprises for the company known as much for the robin egg blue boxes as for its glitzy creations.


M: You’ve just unveiled the new Blue Book collection which is the brand’s prestigious high jewellery portfolio. It’s another stunning tribute to Tiffany & Co.’s high jewellery-making prowess. Share with us more about the process behind this particular collection and how long it took to put it together.

MELVYN KIRTLEY: It took between 18 months and two years, the latter is the lead time it would take to research the collection and the former is the time needed to manufacture it.

M: You’ve a close working relationship with Reed Krakoff. Can you share with us an insight into the chemistry?

MK: I work hand in glove with Reed and his team. I am really working on finding the gemstones and then getting it to his team, and they use those stones to create a lot of the influences you see. And on the backend of it, working with this team – both in concept and more technical renderings – I get to see all of it. The relationship is symbiotic as sometimes they need my technical expertise to develop what they need for the product. For example, we developed a whole new diamond cut with cracked ice (a formation of diamonds that resembles shattered ice) for last year’s collection which we have used again in this year’s collection. For some of the petal brooches and butterfly motifs in this Blue Blook, we have developed an entirely new, round and flat brilliant-cut to showcase the transparency. It was a nuance that Reed was very, very keen to have in the collection. I didn’t think we could do it because if you cut small round brilliant diamonds they are designed to reflect the light back. He wanted to see through them but we figured it out – we developed an entirely new cut with a shallow pavilion so you get transparency and brilliance.

M: Did Reed get a culture shock when he first moved to the company? After all, his background is in fashion.

MK: Reed loves gemstones. He is crazy about it and quizzes me about it constantly and he loves to know all of the details and I give him all the technical info and he laps it up.

M: When you see the recently launched Tiffany True cut, it is mindblowing that in this environment there is still room to manoeuvre in representing a freshly cut diamond. How important is it that jewellers continue to develop new diamond cuts?

MK: It is immensely important because it is a very complicated thing to do. Basically, you have to design the cut and then figure it out later how it is going to work as there are a lot of elements you have to be careful of as it has to work optically. You can disrupt the cut in a certain way but you can’t overdo it or it will fail. So, it is a fine balance. For this collection, we have new cuts too and we may use it in the future or we may not but it is now part of our arsenal.

M: What is a normal day like for a chief gemologist?

MK: I don’t have normal days. (Laughs) Weaving into all of this is the extensive travelling because that is how I source the gemstones. I don’t go to the mines per se – though I’ve been to a few – as I can’t buy straight from them as all our coloured gemstones are already polished. So we work with a vendor and a trusted network of people we’ve been dealing with for many years. The difficulty is finding the type, variety, colour, and quality of gemstones we want. It takes up a lot of time. In a year, I have four main buying trips and we are constantly filling the demands of our current inventory but also working on special pieces for the new Blue Book collections.

M: What is the most difficult part about buying these gemstones?

MK: It’s really about finding them in the first place. You know what’s interesting? It is not a case of ticking the boxes on quality and colour characteristics. Those are the easy parts. I could just tell someone to give me the weight and size of a certain type of gemstone and they can provide them. It is really about the nuance and character of the gemstone and they can fall into very high quality but not have the character. We have to audition all of these gemstones to find that character.

M: So, essentially you are the final judge.

MK: I’m that final judge. And even after I’ve given my final judgement, we then have to send it on its path to be checked from a gemological standpoint to make sure that everything is accurate and nothing is hidden. It’s part of the due process.

M: You have been at Tiffany & Co. for such a long time. Has things changed a lot since you joined the company in the ’80s?

MK: I have been here for 37 years. Not a lot has changed though I think it is harder to find quality gemstones these days as well as looking for different species and varieties that we haven’t used before. For instance in this Blue Book, we used some pretty spinel in this collection which we haven’t used before. We have about 11 different species and under each category we have even more varieties of each species. So for instance, we used sapphires. And in a necklace we have unenhanced purple sapphires. We also have a 50-carat oval sapphire for a necklace and a pink one as well.

M: How does it feel on your part to see the designs that Reed creates with the gemstones that you bring back? Do you chip in some ideas as well?

MK: It actually works both ways. I’m searching for important gemstones that Reed will be influenced by and the other way is that the team has developed designs that may contain multiple gemstones that I try to find – at least the same colour varieties within certain species to make it work for the design. The flower petal brooches in this collection are a great example of this. The first challenge for that was to redo the diamond cut and the second challenge was to redo the sapphire cut as well as finding the colours of the sapphires that would work.

M: Does anything still surprise you anymore in terms of designs or gemstones?

MK: There are always surprises down the path of product development and there are always things that you have to overcome. As the designs have become simpler and more modern, they are more complex to build because everything is exposed. We are not hiding anything, but simple and pure designs show all the details. If you see the ribbon necklace with the large green tourmaline, the complexity of making that was remarkable. You are talking about two planes, then you got movement of the ribbon and also a gradation of the colours of the sapphires and everything was custom cut to fit into the channel to make them look almost invisible. It is a testament to the craftsmanship of the artisans. We make everything work – even the impossible.

M: Now, that’s a real slogan for the brand: We do the impossible.

MK: (Laughs) The greatness about this Blue Book is that we merge the art and the science together. You really look at jewellery that is not just wearable but also sculptural as well.

M: The great thing is that there is also a sense of fun in the designs and this creates an emotional connection.

MK: Yes, they have a character and personality on top of its beauty. And the design is in service to the gems. It might be in its simplest form but the design really brings it to life.

M: There is a continuation of a high standard at the brand. What is that next level to be achieved?

MK: We keep pushing the boundaries and we keep opening up high jewellery to a very large demographic. It is a worldwide customer base we have of varied ages and we are not segmenting down to a specific demographic either. We see us on the collectability side and looking at it like works of art but there are also so many places we can go with that. It is up to Reed to see where his next designs will be but they will carry with them the sense of what you’re seeing now. This is the modern look of high jewellery with elements that are more disruptive. Taking diamonds and cutting them into pieces of cracked ice and using different cuts and gemstones and incorporating them into different designs and fitting them into beautiful boxes… it makes high jewellery more desirable to a broader audience.

M: Like it or not, technology plays such a huge role in jewellery-making today. How far along is Tiffany & Co. in implementing technology into making the end-product?

MK: You can’t hand everything down to technology. Technology can help you take renderings, turn them into 3-D and create the prints or waxes and determine the wearability and comfort before you make it. But then this is as far as technology goes. It is then handed onto the craftsman who builds it by hand. Technology helps us on the conceptual sense but it isn’t building it for us. There is nothing robotic about these – just hands, tools, metals, and gemstones coming together and built from the ground up. We still do hand carved waxes too.

M: Lady Gaga has become someone so important for the house today, which is rather surprising. How do you think she has raised the bar for Tiffany & Co.?

MK: I think she is the perfect innovator for us. Her role as an ambassador is perfect for this moment in time.

M: Was her involvement ever surprising to you?

MK: Well, no. I think it came naturally to us. She wears our jewellery beautifully and she has innovative ways of wearing it and how it all goes together. It is another symbiotic relationship there.

M: Were you at this year’s Oscars when Lady Gaga wore the iconic yellow diamond necklace?

MK: No, I wasn’t. It is the most special diamond in the world and I’ve handled it thousands of times and it is very important to me and to the heritage of our brand.

M: It was such an iconic moment as the last person who wore it in public was Audrey Hepburn in 1961. How did the entire idea come into fruition?

MK: Yes, it was only worn by two other women. I think it just came about because we knew this was the right moment. It was absolutely the right time. It was a diamond from 1878, and if you looked at the diamond you thought it was cut a year ago.

M: So, we’re guessing this is the last chance we’re going to see it in this lifetime?

MK: Well, we’ll never know. But it is always on display in our New York store.

M: What’s been the highlight for you in these last 37 years?

MK: There have been many incredible moments. I treasure the role that I have and being part of the history of this company, I have seen many things. The company is really evolving now into a very new, modern and youthful company that also has a broader appeal and I find that very refreshing. I love the fact that we’re focusing on high jewellery now more than ever before. I like where I am right now.

M: You are very close to lot of the customers and know each and every custom order. Has there been a special one that you can remember?

MK: There have been some very incredible acquisitions and I have taken some incredible journeys with them. A privilege I have in my role is working directly with customers as well. While we don’t discuss about custom orders for our private clientele, the one in which we can mention is Lady Gaga’s Aurora necklace that she wore (to the 2019 Golden Globes). It was custom built for her. She came in, she looked at it and she was part of the process.

M: Are you currently searching for particular gemstones that will get Tiffany & Co. to that next level of high jewellery-making?

MK: Reed will leave the gemstone buying in my court as he knows I’m out there looking for the best of the best. I find things on a regular basis. We have already started work on our next Blue Book and we are also looking at the next one in 2021.

M: Do auction results ever dictate how Tiffany & Co. designs its jewellery or what gemstones you should be sourcing more of?

MK: I don’t ever think about the auction side of it. I think about where the gemstones are going to live next and that someone will have the same passion about it like I did in finding it. That to me is the emotional part of it and the most rewarding thing is seeing the owners share that passion.

M: There have been crazy prices being reached at global auctions for coloured gemstones. Does that surprise you about those numbers?

MK: No, it doesn’t surprise me. These are very rare, and impossible to find today. And their value will continue to grow because it is that rare.

M: Is that the benchmark of what you hope to find in terms of gemstones?

MK: Always. I am always looking for the rarest of the rare.

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