Rapaport Magazine

Magical on Madison

A passion for collecting gems and minerals led Tamsen Ann Ziff to become a jewelry designer.

By Amber Michelle

In her high school yearbook, Tamsen Ann Ziff  — who goes by Ann — was named most likely to leave her jewelry to Zsa Zsa Gabor. And that would be a lucky thing for Ms. Gabor, as jewelry designer Ziff fabricates stunning one-of-a-kind pieces using gemstones, diamonds and precious metals often mixed with unusual materials, including meteorite and dinosaur bone. 

Meterorite, diamond slice, pink spinel and ruby earrings.
A native New Yorker, Ziff grew up surrounded by creativity. Her mother was the American soprano opera singer Harriet Henders and Ziff was captivated by the special jewels her mother wore. As a young woman, Ziff was interested in handcrafts and she would make hair ornaments and necklaces from wood or ethnic beads. She evolved into a collector of Art Deco jewelry, as well as minerals and precious beads. This, in turn, led to a desire to create jewelry that expressed her personal style and she began stringing the beads she collected into necklaces. Encouraged by her late husband, the publishing executive William B. Ziff, Jr., her talent for designing necklaces grew from a hobby to a business.

Madison Avenue Via Denver

“My husband took me to the Denver Gem Show. It was a tiny show and he bought me diamond, sapphire and emerald beads. Then we went to Tucson and he said, ‘Just buy the best-quality beads, don’t worry about whether it will sell,’” recalls Ziff, whose family and friends were buying the necklaces she was making. She began consulting with jewelers and took her passion for design to the next level by adding earrings, bracelets and rings to her line.

In 2010, Ziff, who had amassed an extensive collection of gemstone beads, decided to open a store. She found a space on Madison Avenue in New York City’s chic Upper East Side shopping district and opened Tamsen Z, where she showcases her full collection of jewelry, as well as a number of gemstone sculptures and minerals that she has acquired over the years.

The street windows beckon visitors into the store with mesmerizing jewelry and gemstone carvings. Once inside, the store has a modern opulence that is both understated and comfortable. Shades of purple on the walls and furnishings soothe the soul, while low- hanging contemporary chandeliers highlight gemstone carvings and mineral specimens that are displayed in custom-made cabinets alongside jewelry bursting with colored gems and diamond accents. The details in the store decor reflect the theme of collectible gems right down to the gemstone door handles and amethyst gem railings on the staircase leading to a private loft sitting area. An avid admirer of lapidary artist Bernd Munsteiner, Ziff says he has been a hero of hers since she first read about him in the 1970s. Ziff met Munsteiner on a trip to Idar-Oberstein, Germany, where he lives. She was invited to his home and it was there that Ziff found many of the carvings and sculptures that are part of her private collection on display in the store.

Of her own work, Ziff says: “I have been a collector of minerals for many years and if something is pretty and interesting and it mixes well together, I will use it.” Ziff, who describes herself as unorthodox in style, says when it comes to clothes, she is primarily influenced by color, which is a dominant theme in her jewelry as well. While color is a big influence in her creations, Ziff says her designs are inspired by everything in her life…and she has a very big life. Besides her jewelry, Ziff is the chairwoman of the board and managing director for the Metropolitan Opera, as well as a vice chairperson on the board of directors for Lincoln Center and she is on the board of trustees for Carnegie Hall. In addition, she is the founding chairperson of the board of directors for the Smile Train, an international charity that helps children born with cleft palates, and is active in a number of other philanthropic causes as well.

Design and Gems

Ziff counts René Boivin as one of the great designers of all time, but she also says that good design is indefinable. “It’s a matter of mood, or is something beautifully balanced? Much of what I do is asymmetrical. When I make something, I will leave it for a few days and then go back to it. If it still looks good, then it is good design. Sometimes a change is needed. All of my pieces are one-of-a-kind because of the stones. I may use the same beads again, but I will change the bead pattern in the piece,” explains Ziff who, despite her busy schedule that also includes time for her large family, still strings the bead necklaces that are sold in her store.

Opal is a favorite gem for Ziff, who is attracted to its multicolors, variety of types and the organic feel of the gem. When it comes to diamonds, her preference is mostly for diamond beads — specifically the soft-colored opaque diamond beads. “Diamonds have become an everyday stone in a way they never were before,” she notes. “People wear diamond pavé with jeans. Diamond beads have a more casual feel than what diamonds used to be; you can wear them with a lot of things and to a lot of places. Most of my meteorite jewelry has black or white diamonds mixed with them because it makes it more wearable.”

It is Ziff’s love for color and the unusual that informs her collection and enchants those who are lucky enough to see it. “Everything about me is color-oriented, even music can present different colors in your mind,” concludes Ziff. And who would know that better than the daughter of an opera singer?

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - June 2012. To subscribe click here.

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