Tiffany-style lamps—still tremendously popular more than 100 years after their invention—are widely manufactured today and easy to find. It’s much more rare to come across a leaded-glass lamp that was actually made by Louis Comfort Tiffany or produced by his Tiffany Studios, which closed a few years after his death in 1933. These original pieces, once made for America’s wealthy elite, go for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
While modern artisans are getting closer and closer to cracking Tiffany’s secrets, none of them have been able to replicate the level of craftsmanship put into antique Tiffany lamps. There are many reasons for this. For one, at his studios, Tiffany assembled a dream team of artists, craftsmen, and inventors, including noted British chemist Arthur J. Nash. Tiffany also insisted on using only the highest-quality materials—for example, all Tiffany lamp bases were made of bronze.
Secondly, Tiffany, like his competitor John LaFarge, developed innovative glassmaking techniques. By adding certain metallic compounds to molten glass, he was able to achieve a unique iridescent sheen. To create another stunning effect, Tiffany would add as many as seven colors to the hot glass so that one piece would possess multiple hues without having been painted. Lastly, he employed copper foil to fuse the stained glass pieces together in even more delicate lines than had ever been created with lead.
All of this resulted in lamps as complex and breathtaking as the flowering plants that inspired them, with twisting branches, tiny, flowing leaves, and vibrant petals that gleamed like clusters of jewels. At the time they were made, they were considered luxury items, art pieces that also served a functional purpose in home decor.
The son of fine jewelry merchant Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of the famed Tiffany and Co., the younger Tiffany abandoned the family business to study under landscape painter George Inness. Even though the budding artist was on his way to a successful painting career, he became captivated by stained glass as a medium. In 1879, he started making windows for the homes of his father’s wealthy friends. Employing organic shapes and sinewy lines, these windows embodied the aesthetic of the emerging Art Nouveau movement.
Tiffany’s earliest experiments with lighting began when he was decorating New York’s Lyceum Theatre in 1885. The first electrical lights ever used on a stage were being installed by inventor Thomas Edison himself. There, Tiffany created the ceiling chandelier and the sconces, described as “fire in monster emeralds.”
His earliest lamps, though, from 1876 and 1879, were kerosene-burners with blown-glass shades, bearing no resemblance to his windows. It wasn’t until 1898 that Tiffany introduced his trademark lamp, featuring a bronze base and stained-glass shade. By 1906, his Tiffany Studios offered more than 400 oil and electric lamps...
Around the same period, Tiffany was making vases, paperweights, and other art-glass objects using his own handblown-glass techniques. He dubbed his work Favrile in 1894 after the old English word “fabrile,” meaning “handmade” or “fabricated.” He also experimented with millefiori, an ancient technique wherein rods of color glass are fused together, usually in the shape of flowers, and then sliced to make patterns.
Some of Tiffany Studios’ most iconic lamp designs include the dragonfly, wisteria, the Tyler scroll, nautilus (shaped like a snail), and lily, with lily-pad bases. While Tiffany gets the credit, many women, known as “The Tiffany Girls,” worked for him as designers, and some, like Clara Driscoll, likely designed many of his admired floral lamps.
Tiffany lamps made after 1902 have the model number stamped on their base or base plate. When the shade has a different number, it is stamped into the metal on the inside of the bottom edge. All in all, the studios produced more than 500 designs for lamp bases and another 500-plus designs for shades.
While Tiffany-style lamps fell out of fashion in the 1920s and '30s, when hard geometric lines of Art Deco became all the rage, they saw a resurgence in popularity after World War II. Over the past 40 years, more and more companies have dedicated themselves to reproducing the elegant, intricate lamp style of Tiffany Studios.
Many of these lamp makers put the word Tiffany right in their business name. These include Dale Tiffany, Meyda Tiffany, and Paul Sahlin Tiffany’s. Thus, “tiffany” is a now generic term for a stained-glass light fixture, which is applied to light shades made for bars, restaurants, soda advertising, and pool tables—none of which were ever produced by Tiffany Studios.