Tiffany sparkles its way into Towson

By the time she reads this article, Bridget McNamee ought to be one happy woman.

On the morning of the night that McNamee and her fiance, Gareth Port, were to be married, he put aside a "to-do" list that was chock-full of chores he needed to have accomplished before the 5 p.m. ceremony in Nottingham — chores such as "get a haircut" and "buy cigars."

Instead, with his best man in tow, the 29-year-old was at the Towson Town Center. He was waiting for the brand new Tiffany store to open its doors for the first time so he could buy a bauble for his bride-to-be.

The British-born Port, who works as a paralegal for a New York pharmaceutical firm, chose a sterling silver key on an elaborately worked chain that shimmered in the light.

"I am going to write on the card, 'This is the key to our future,' " Port said.

Forget that Baltimore has several high-end jewelry stores, each with its own devoted clientele, which sell pretty, sparkly, outrageously priced gems. No other name has caught the popular imagination as has Tiffany & Company, the former fancy goods store that first opened in Manhattan in 1837. Shoppers who purchase a bracelet or brooch aren't just buying a piece of jewelry; they're buying part of the tradition that jewelry represents.

It's Tiffany whose client list has included names synonymous with fabulous wealth, such as Vanderbilt, Mellon, Whitney, Morgan and Astor. It's Tiffany whose signature turquoise gift box — and the treasures contained inside — have been coveted as gifts by eight generations of women and little girls. And it's Tiffany that lent its name to a classic 1961 film starring Audrey Hepburn.

And so, when store director George Getschel snipped the silky white ribbon stretched across the doors at precisely 10 a.m. Friday, the roughly two dozen shoppers who flocked inside were served — what else? — breakfast at Tiffany's.

There were bite-sized ham and mustard biscuits, spinach and cheese paninis, miniature cinnamon pastries and petits fours decorated to resemble that famous blue box.

"I've been to the Tiffany's in New York, and I wanted to see if this store would be as grand," said Wanda Raker, 63, of Anne Arundel County, who browsed the ring selection with her husband and daughter.

Raker tried on a platinum, diamond and tourmaline ring priced at $7,165. The center stone was such an intense shade of green that light moving through it created the illusion of an opening blossom.

"It's beautiful," Raker said. "What better way is there to start my morning?"

Before Friday, Baltimoreans with a yen for one of the jeweler's signature pieces by designers Paloma Picasso, Elsa Peretti or Frank Gehry (yes, the famed architect also makes bangles) had to travel to the chain's branches in Chevy Chase or Tysons Corner, Va. The Baltimore store, with its facade of marble and oxidized bronze, is the 81st Tiffany to open in the United States.

Diane Brown, the retailer's vice president for the Mid-Atlantic region, said the company had been considering entering the Baltimore market for several years.

"We've been watching Baltimore," she said. "We knew from our research that a number of our online customers and the customers in our Washington and Virginia stores came from here. It was just a matter of finding the right location. When the new luxury wing opened up in the Town Center, it was ideal."

The jeweler is opening as the economy is starting to rebound, even though consumers are still skittish about spending. Although the Labor Department reported Friday that the private sector added 67,000 new jobs last month, unemployment ticked upward to 9.6 percent as more people entered the job market.

But Tiffany sees promise in the Baltimore market, company officials said.

"We have seen many economic conditions and global events, but have always continued to be there for our customers," Getschel said.

Tiffany has long been known for its high-end pieces, and indeed, at the store opening, two lucky models were draped in $400,000 worth of diamond and aquamarine jewelry — including a spectacular 3.2-carat diamond and platinum ring that sells for $118,500. The matching necklace, which is set with 455 round diamonds totaling 8.86 carats, is a comparative bargain at $47,000.

But the store also has an extensive line of sterling silver rings, earrings and charms priced in the low three figures, including Port's $200 necklace.

Customers who buy the lower-cost items are often every bit as passionate about Tiffany's jewelry as those who can drop $125,000 on a massive, light-blue aquamarine brooch shaped like the store's box and "wrapped" with diamonds.

For instance, Jessica Hummel, 33, of Abingdon, estimates that she already owns 40 pieces of Tiffany jewelry. She wore four of her favorites — a pair of ball earrings, two charm bracelets and her "notes" necklace — to the Towson branch's grand opening.

Hummel received her first piece, a Christmas gift from her parents, about 10 years ago. From there, her collection grew. On Friday, Hummel picked up a $150 sterling silver charm from the company's "1837" line of styles popular during the year the retailer was founded.

"I'm so excited they're finally here," she said. "A lot of money will be spent."

In the past, she shopped for her jewelry at the Chevy Chase branch and during occasional trips to New York. Several months ago, she began hearing tantalizing rumors that Tiffany planned to open a Baltimore branch.

Hummel, a detective for the Baltimore County Police Department, applied her crack professional skills to the task at hand, tracking down sources and painstakingly separating fact from fiction.

"I've been asking around and calling," she said. "As soon as I confirmed the date, it went on my calendar. I've been stalking this store for months."

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