Tiffany Blue: The Color of Money

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- If luxury has a color -- beyond the obvious choices of gold and silver -- it might very well be Pantone No. 1837.

That's the official, patented hue of "Tiffany Blue," which, along with "Tiffany Blue Box," is a registered trademark for the famous jeweler from which they take their name.

Patented aquamarine Tiffany boxes are so popular and iconic that a black market trade has grown up around them.

So popular and iconic are the silver-ribboned boxes that there is even a black market trade in them. The boxes, storage pouches and even shopping bags can be found for sale on sites such as eBay ( EBAY) and Craigslist for between about $10 and $50.

A caveat, however, is that just as Tiffany & Co. ( TIF) products are often counterfeited, so are the boxes -- often crudely. One recent eBay seller's profile we came across was protested with angry feedback after the promised-to-be-authentic pouch was no more than green felt with a crooked logo stamped on it.

The famous jeweler's use of the color, variously described as "forget-me-not blue" and "robin's egg blue," made its first "appearance" in an 1878 catalog. A history offered by the company suggests it may have been chosen because "turquoise was also a favorite of Victorian brides who gave their attendants a dove-shaped brooch set with turquoise so that they would not forget the bride."

As for the boxes, they too are a tradition that extends back more than a century.

The New York Sun wrote in 1906: " Charles Lewis Tiffany has one thing in stock that you cannot buy of him for as much money as you may offer; he will only give it to you. And that is one of his boxes. The rule of the establishment is ironclad, never to allow a box bearing the name of the firm to be taken out of the building except with an article which has been sold by them and for which they are responsible."

That corporate restriction holds to this day, creating the underground marketplace.

In fact, trademark violations and counterfeit goods were the basis of a years-long legal fight between Tiffany and eBay that was only put to rest, in eBay's favor, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal late last year.

Tiffany claimed eBay wasn't doing enough to prevent the sale of counterfeit items using its name. In response, eBay, with its entire business model potentially at risk, successfully countered that reasonable safeguards were in place, that enforcement was taken seriously and that Tiffany could benefit its own cause by working with, rather than against, them.

It stands to reason bargain hunters might be tricked into buying a counterfeit ring or bracelet from a third party. But who is looking for a mere box or bag, authentic or not?

A read of eBay sellers and various wedding-themed blogs and discussion boards reveals several types, starting with those who love the color and symbolic nature of the boxes and want them as either collectibles or -- a common theme -- as wedding centerpieces and decorations.

There are also those who need the boxes to complete the illusion when selling counterfeit jewelry.

Others looking for advice on where to buy a box were men who say they want to place a cheaper piece of jewelry inside a box as either a "joke" or admitted deception -- the paragons who win hearts with proposals built around a fake jewelry box bought online.

Putting aside the motivation of scammers, why is there such a fervor among so many at the mere sight of an aquamarine box?

Dr. Kit Yarrow, a professor and chairwoman of the Department of Psychology at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, specializes in consumer behavior. She recalls going to a charity auction where the host had, somehow, acquired several dozen Tiffany boxes. For a donation of $100, participants got a box with a number inside. One lucky winner would receive a (non-Tiffany) ring valued at around $2,000. Everyone else could keep the souvenir as a token of appreciation.

"It didn't seem like a good deal to me, but people went crazy," Yarrow says. "It was a brilliant, brilliant idea. Basically every woman there had one of those boxes."

Yarrow says the excitement felt by these women, and countless others over the years, comes from associations they get from Tiffany's use of color and packaging.

"When people see the box they get excited, knowing the contents are likely to delight them," she says. "Eventually the box itself is enough to generate excitement. It's Pavlovian -- the association between the box and a rush of emotion is the same as Pavlov's dog salivating at the bell that meant food was on the way. The only way that this works is if the contents have very consistently generated that emotion. I think a lot of people feel like they are irrational because they get excited by that box, but I think its natural and understandable. If you have good experiences with something, then your body just responds in a positive way."

Even people who have never had a Tiffany's "experience" often have the same response.

"The true Pavlovian response would be someone that has gotten a few really great gifts from Tiffany over the years and gets very excited because they have paired the stimulus with the response," Yarrow says. "What's really interesting is that people who have never had a gift from Tiffany before can still get excited by the box. It has become an iconic symbol of the ultimate present, really. "

"Why is it that someplace like Cartier doesn't have that response? The color of the box, in that it's completely unique, is the reason for that. Most other jewelers chose a traditional red or black box, but Tiffany went with a color that was very identifiable."

Tiffany's isn't the only company to cash in, and create cache, by claiming a color as its own. UPS ( UPS) is forever associated with brown. McDonald's ( MCD) arches are golden. ING ( ING) is trying to corner the nonjuice market with orange.

While Tiffany's may have been blessed over the years by the happy accident of choosing a unique color that would prove enduring, modern companies may be more methodical with their visual schemes.

"Within the past 20 years, everybody has pretty much recognized the power of color as a symbol and representation." Yarrow says. "Consumers are increasingly more visual and less verbal. I think things like color, scent and even boxes and packaging are more important and powerful in the world of marketing."

-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Joe Mont.

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