Tiffany’s Sparkly Surge Reflects a Divided Moment in America

The jewelry company credits a hip-hop–inflected ad campaign for its success. It should credit the wealth gap as well.

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In a video posted online in May, the actress and model Elle Fanning slouches up to a Tiffany store in an oversized hoodie, holding a take-out coffee cup, to admire the window display. It’s a deliberate play on Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with “Moon River” playing in the background. But as Fanning stands there, in black-and-white, looking both admiring and a bit glum—It’s all beautiful, but can she afford it?—the image turns to color, and a hip-hop beat, from A$AP Ferg, comes in. Soon, Fanning is prancing, bejeweled, through New York; her backup troupe includes a cop and a group of uniformed schoolgirls—all wearing hints of Tiffany blue.

As recently as last year, Tiffany, like a lot of luxury brands, was struggling to get Millennials to buy its products. Common wisdom would suggest that this is because Millennials are an unusually hard-up generation, thanks in part to student debt, the long hangover from the recession, and lower marriage rates (which translates to lower household income).

Tiffany, though, saw a marketing problem. In the past, it had managed to maintain a reputation as a luxury brand while also appealing to aspirationally minded, upper-middle-class Baby Boomers and Gen Xers who would buy lower-priced trinkets such as keychains. But in more recent years, the brand seemed to be losing its appeal, partly because its Upper East Side image meant young people weren’t as impressed by it as they used to be.

In October, Tiffany hired Alessandro Bogliolo, the former chief executive of the Italian apparel brand Diesel, as its CEO, and Bogliolo set out to rebrand the company for the Instagram age, introducing more personalizable jewelry (common wisdom is that Millennials care more about individualism than fitting in), graffitiing Tiffany’s flagship New York store (part of a trend in “brandalism”), planning a major renovation of that shop (built around young people’s preference for interesting experiences over products), and introducing a Millennial-oriented marketing campaign called “Believe in Dreams” (of which the Fanning video is the centerpiece).

On Tuesday, Tiffany reported better-than-expected quarterly sales and said its earnings for the year would be higher than it had earlier thought. In a call with analysts, Bogliolo credited the Believe in Dreams campaign for creating a “modern interpretation of the historical legacy of Tiffany.” The Fanning video’s message, according to a press release, is that “New York is a place where anything can happen, and Tiffany is where dreams come true.” There’s a Hepburnish, city-girl-next-door quality to Fanning’s character in the video that viewers seem to have responded to; it conveys an accessibility that hasn’t historically been associated with the Tiffany brand. “Can y’all invite [me] next time?” reads one top comment on the video, which has been viewed more than 10 million times. “This looked dope.”

Tiffany’s success might have more to do with broad economic conditions than with its marketing. In October, The New York Times, citing data from the consulting firm Bain, reported that people born between 1980 and 2010 had generated 80 percent of the growth in the luxury industry over the previous year. Other luxury companies are also thriving—Gucci and Michael Kors, among others, have also issued positive earnings reports—in part by appealing to the young.

But which young? It would seem impossible that the student-debt generation is responsible for a luxury boom—yet this is also the Crazy Rich Asians generation. Student debt and low minimum wages aren’t dragging down all Millennials. In 2003 and 2005, only one person under the age of 30 appeared on Forbes’s list of the world’s billionaires; by 2010, there were five of them, and by 2017, there were nine. The Credit Suisse Research Institute said in a report last year that Millennials are likely to face a bigger wealth gap than previous generations. “We expect only a minority of high achievers and those in high-demand sectors such as technology or finance to effectively overcome the ‘millennial disadvantage,’” the report’s authors wrote.

Is Tiffany gaining customers among the down-and-out-in-hoodies demographic? Of course not. Brands like Tiffany have never depended on the fortunes of the masses. As ever, the company makes a great deal of its money from items such as $175 silver pendants, which are considered small ticket, as far as the luxury industry goes, but aren’t exactly meant for working-class people. Meanwhile, the Tiffany Paper Flowers collection, which the Fanning video advertises, includes a $5,500 ring made of tiny diamonds in the shape of a flower and a $75,000 platinum-and-diamond necklace. Tiffany also sells $100 “paper” cups (actually made of china) that would seem to be marketed for beer pong—or magic tricks. It seems a complicated branding strategy is afoot—one fully grounded in the economics of the present moment. If the graffiti, the hip-hop video, and the dorm-room glassware can help cleanse Tiffany of its traditional air of snootiness, wealthy young people, aware of what the 99 percent thinks of them and their privilege, might feel a bit better while wearing its jewels.