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Meet the Unsung Hero of Tiffany: Donald Claflin

By Sheila Smithie FGA

Donald Claflin arrived at the pinnacle of the New York jewelry world via an unexpected path. A graduate of Parsons, Claflin began his career in interior decorating and textile design, working and living in Manhattan. An old-world custom led to the serendipitous encounter that changed the course of the designer’s life. At the time, it was still typical for busy New York restaurants to accommodate strangers at shared tables to maximize seating. Conversation was optional, but led to occasional rewarding exchanges. At a crowded Italian restaurant in 1957, Claflin found himself seated across from a charming stranger who happened to be David Webb’s hairstylist, and they had an enjoyable time together. Soon after, Claflin’s new friend set up an introduction to Webb, and Claflin became his assistant. Little has been written about his career there, but the character of Claflin's work must have been influenced by Webb’s passions for color, nature and ancient art, as well as the older designer’s lighthearted spirit. By 1965, after a stint at Van Cleef & Arpels, Claflin had found a home at Tiffany & Co. as a protegé of the CEO himself, Walter Hoving. Along with Van Day Truex, Hoving understood that exceptional design would be key to the successful revitalization of Tiffany. Under Hoving, Claflin became an influential leader in the Tiffany jewelry department.

Claflin was not a native New Yorker. He was born into an old New England family of English and Scottish descent, and he also had early colonial forbears. He grew up on Claflin Place in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. His direct ancestors included Lee Claflin (1791-1871), a hard-driving self-made businessman and politically active abolitionist, and Lee’s son William Claflin (1818-1905), 27th governor of Massachusetts and a founder of the Free Soil anti-slavery party. Father and son established and funded Claflin University, an historical Black college in South Carolina. Claflin also recounted stories from the remarkable career of his Ohio-born relative, Victoria Claflin Woodhull (1838-1927). Under the patronage of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Victoria and her sister had founded both the first women-owned Wall Street trading firm and national newspaper, and Victoria also ran for president in 1872. A warm, friendly man, Claflin lived his adult life in New York, maintaining ties to his mother, sister, nieces and nephew in Massachusetts.

Under Walter Hoving, Claflin was responsible for creating high jewelry in the firm’s stated tradition of  “innovative and individualistic” design, as exemplified by star designer Jean Schlumberger, who had joined Tiffany in 1956.  Schlumberger’s genius had been key to the revitalization of the firm’s jewelry department. Claflin’s early efforts were soon producing an outpouring of distinctive work. Like Schlumberger, Claflin looked to nature for inspiration, but he also mined stories of imagination and delight from childhood for his figural work. Playful jewels, advertised in the blue book of 1966, were plucked from childhood literature. This series of designs included Stuart Little, Humpty Dumpty, Puss-in-Boots, Squirrel Nutkin, the Walrus from Alice in Wonderland, a parrot in pantaloons and feathered hat, possibly inspired by Long John Silver’s pet “Captain Flint” of Treasure Island, and the fairytale Frog Prince. The press celebrated these fresh, carefree designs, as well as superb quality of their workmanship and materials.

Coverage of Claflin’s work intensified after the success of his early collections. In January, 1967, Tiffany’s diamond department highlighted Claflin’s new collection in its window display. From this collection, The New York Times particularly singled out Claflin’s totem jewels, “a series of clips in gold, enamel, diamonds and other jewels … based on American Indian masks.” It was reported that Claflin’s exposure to American Indian and ancient Colombian and Peruvian art through museum collections and special exhibitions had inspired the clips. In fact, Claflin may have attended the important Brooklyn Museum exhibition “Ancient Art of America” that ran from November 1966 to March 1967. Claflin’s additional series of jewels depicting ancient ceremonial figures of Peru and Colombia resemble the artifacts on exhibit in Brooklyn. The jewels depicted religious figures and masks bearing regalia of spirituality and power: ear flares, masks, scepters, and pectorals, adhering to the strong stylizations of the ancient artists themselves.

  Claflin’s output that year also included more whimsical forms. Women’s Wear Daily praised these “dazzling” and “one-of-a-kind collector’s pieces”. They included a frog with a beribboned foot, and a gargoyle clutching a large pink cabochon tourmaline and suspending a chiming gold bell. In October, the San Francisco Examiner hailed ‘“Tiffany’s newest designer” for this “unusual” collection of “exceptional craftsmanship”, which included “succulent ruby raspberries glisten(ing) with dewdrop diamonds”,   “a friendly dragon of canary diamonds hold(ing) a heart-shaped carved emerald”, and “an acrobat (that serves as) a pin… or rests on a malachite stand.” A week later the Los Angeles Times highlighted Claflin’s additional new jewels for the season.  These included little gemmy flowers that quivered on a coral melon, a bird’s wing, a willow bough - all jewels that “tremble and move.” They praised Claflin’s extended menagerie of “impish, grinning dragons”, one that “clutches a swinging peridot in his claws”, as well as  “a coral mama turtle with two turtle-babies hugging each other on her back; a glistening hummingbird dripping a huge yellow sapphire from its beak; a dazzling water lily with a little green dragon fly perched on its edge” (which could be detached and worn separately). 

By November of 1967, Women’s Wear Daily, spreading the word of this new force in the Tiffany jewelry department,  announced that Hoving and Claflin’s “successful meeting of the minds” was culminating in a party and exhibition, “a celebration of his work at the St. Regis”. In a single year, Claflin had demonstrated that, in his original manner, his jewelry could address great ancient art, nature, and fantasy, all enlivened by his distinctive humor and sense of delight.

From the late 1960s, a hallmark of Claflin’s thoughtful and imaginative jewelry was its convertibility into multiple forms.  Many of Claflin’s early jewels also including moving and adjustable elements. His kinetic, transformable designs also featured the lavish use of gems along with enamels, “to give more dimension”. He set carved emeralds imaginatively, and shaped rubies into raspberries inlaid with diamond dewdrops. Building on Claflin’s warm reception by wealthy clients and the press, Tiffany continued investing in these costly jewels that required the intensive use of lavish materials and workmanship.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, in late 1967, Claflin for the first time offered his thoughts about contemporary jewelry design and his work process.  “I think the day of the sterile patterned jewelry is past.. This is a world where color and movement reign…” The journalist reported that Claflin began each jewel “with a black piece of paper and a mind that is whirling with things he has seen in his steady museum-moseying, at the opera…”.

“…at last after 25-30 drawings, the last with three dimensional shadowing, he does one painting. After this, he worked constantly with the artisan through the wax model stage, then the cast in silver by the lost-wax process. At any moment, if one or the other doubts a bit, they begin all over.”  

As with other top firms, Tiffany did not manufacture all of its designers’ jewels in-house. For many of Claflin’s complex, luxe designs involving enamels, convertibility, and kinetic elements, the manufacturing collaborator selected was Carvin French, whose partners were of Parisian origin, trained in the old traditions. The “total value of craftsmanship” was a major focus for Claflin. Carvin French founder André Chervin worked with Claflin to create jewelry for years, and they became close friends. 

Another key figure in Claflin’s career was Harry Platt, Louis Tiffany’s great-grandson. Platt was the firm’s Vice President and chief gemologist.  From among the firm’s designers, Platt chose Claflin to mount the firm’s prize, 84-carat tanzanite in 1968. It was Platt who, after legal battles with other gem dealers, had won the right to name the new mineral after the African nation where it was discovered. The royal blue gem was one of a small group of naturally-colored stones recovered from a mine near the Kenya border.  In November of that year, a columnist from the Los Angeles Times covered the evening exhibition and champagne soiree celebrating Claiflin’s tanzanite jewels at Tiffany & Co.’s New York salon. High society and fashion influencers were now closely following Claflin’s glamorous, high-spirited creations. Shortly after this successful event, on December 9th, The National Observer reported “Jet Set Loves Claflin’s Jeweled Fantasies.” 

Around the same time, Claflin caught the attention of Eugenia Sheppard, a top fashion arbiter and Herald Tribune journalist. She was known for the syndicated column Inside Fashion, and was vaunted by Andy Warhol for having “invented fashion and gossip together”. In “Diamonds for the Supermarket”, printed in newspapers around the country, Sheppard reported that Claflin was responding to clients’ demands for jewels they could wear “to the grocery store”, in contrast to formal jewelry that had to be kept in the vault. Among the new and unusual jewels that Claflin had just created were: 

“a wide red python leather bracelet decorated with three clamped on Persian designs in lapis, turquoise, diamonds and gold. The Persian motifs can be unclamped with a nail file and transferred later in the day to a more elegant band of velvet or moire.” 

Claflin disclosed that women told him they looked for jewels “they can wear all the time, whether it’s to the supermarket or the theater.” At his show at the Regis Hotel, where his new collection of 61 pieces was displayed, Sheppard reported that Claflin’s jewels were: 

topical, current and full of color and…double or triple purpose. Lots of them move or at least quiver, and all the colors show the influence of Pop Art.” 

The glamorous, influential socialite Mrs. William Paley (“Babe” Paley) favored one of the python bands set with Persian medallions of white coral and lapis. When Sheppard asked about his sources of ideas, Claflin explained that the Topkapi museum’s tiles and metalsmith objets were the inspiration for his bracelets of “lacy grillework”, while his Chinese knots and puzzle motifs could be seen as "miniature abstract paintings in jewels”.  His specialty, convertible and transformable jewels, included “a whole gorgeous plaything”: 

“a necklace of diamond leaves set with four coral, lapis and enamel beetles with moveable wings, wearable as pins or earrings, and interchangeable in the structure of the necklace with additional leaves and flowers.” 

This had been pre-sold to a client who allowed Claflin to travel with it and place it on more or less permanent display. In Sheppard’s article, a photo montage pictured Claflin discussing a velvet tray of his opulent jewels with Harry Platt. Sheppard also illustrated an “armful” of these lavish, Islamic-motif bracelets, which were also illustrated in Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue articles.

By September 1969, Claflin was the new star. Harry Platt was traveling to San Francisco to promote the Claflin’s designs. Boasting of Claflin as his “discovery”, Platt explained “I’m not taking anything away from our Schlumberger, but Donald has it, too.” A few months later, in December, Sheppard reported in the Los Angeles Times that Tiffany & Co. were hosting an elegant event at the St. Regis library, entertaining jewelry-loving glitterati such as the Mr. and Mrs. Robert Gardiner (owners of Gardiner’s Island in the Long Island Sound), the Sukharnos, ruling family of Indonesia, Nan Kempner, and Princess Elizabeth of Toro. Princess Eleonora zu Hohenlohe-Jatzberg, who had bought Claflin’s bold jewel set with “Tiffany’s largest tanzanite”, was wearing it on a velvet choker at the fête. While Sheppard credits Tiffany’s other designers - Sonia Younis (a Claflin protegée) and Don Berg as being “on their way up” - with Jean Schlumberger “at the top” - it is Claflin and his “million dollar” new collection that commanded Sheppard’s interest. No other designer’s jewelry was described. She highlights Claflin’s invention, the “CrissCross Ring” - as a “new ring setting that’s very light and free. Two narrow bands of tiny diamonds are crossed in an X…”, some of which centered colored stones. “The shape is new and attractive all by itself”, she reported. “For young people” she continues, “Claflin has designed a pin that says “LOVE” in simple block letters of diamonds.” Likely inspired by Robert Indiana’s pop art sculpture of 1967, Claflin also designed a ring with a squared silhouette, bearing an L-O-V- or E on its four sides. Other novelties followed: “ a broken rectangle that can be worn as separate pieces or together” and a “cobweb bracelet..a wide lacy cuff of platinum wire set with medium-size diamonds.” While Claflin could create whimsical, pavé-set gemmy creatures of fantasy and fairy tale, he was also already at home with the sleek, streamlined aesthetic of the cartoon and of Pop Art that was to dominate the 1970s. 

A year later, in December 1970, Tiffany announced that it had -for the first time in its history- updated its engagement ring with a new Claflin design. Sheppard reported that Claflin 

“has had his eye on the old ring - the famous Tiffany 6 prong solitaire of 1886 - ever since he was hired. He wanted to give it more design and substance without upsetting the basic simplicity. After two years of doodling on paper, he came up with the new setting. Two open gold ovals make the band, crossing center front, where the diamond is still supported by the original six prongs. Claflin believes his new look represents the proper combination of contemporary design and sentiment.” 

Also, she reported “by some optical illusion, the same size diamonds looks bigger and more expensive.” Claflin also designed a v-shaped wedding band to accompany the new mounting. Along with the Crisscross ring, the graceful new engagement ring continued to dominate the imaginations of wedding designers and writers over the next several years.  The designer explained: 

“The time was ripe for producing a new type of setting but it couldn’t be too radical because you still want a soft, simple feeling. It still has the quietness of the original Tiffany setting, which I think will be around 300 years from now.” 

By 1970, Claflin had also became something of a sought-after commentator, consulted for his views on jewelry design and its interconnection with couture. The Los Angeles Times interviewed him on the relationship of jewelry women wore to skirt lengths. In “Gems and Hems: Donald Claflin Understands the Midi and its relationship to jewelry…”, the paper reported that the jeweler had designed a coral pendant to complement a leather midi skirt. It was unusual for a designer of this period to follow developments in women’s couture so closely. Additionally, reporters now sought his judgement on jewels of a variety of eras. He was also approached for his opinion on collection of the socialite and philanthropist Mildred Barnes Bliss, late mistress of Dumbarton Oakes. Claflin outspokenly deemed most of her jewelry collection, which was scheduled for auction, “not outstanding. They sound like the things everybody wore.” Instead, he singled out for special praise an extraordinary 12-inch peacock feather devant-de-corsage in buff-top sapphire, emerald, topaz and amethyst, with a detachable 8.75 carat sapphire eye. Instead of sending it to auction, the Bliss family donated the early 20th century French jewel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Throughout 1971, the press continued to praise Claflin’s exciting, colorful jewels. His collections were viewed as exceptional, “even at a time when bird and beast jewelry abounds”.  His falcon head ring, inspired by an 18th century French example, opened to reveal a secret compartment; a whimsical kingfisher with a bejeweled hat angled for coral fish; a kinetic brooch centered a large aquamarine pool surrounded by ducks was designed to spin at the flick of a finger. A “massive necklace of enameled and bejeweled daisies” and a bracelet of “leaves studded with pearls and emeralds, twined around six raspberries…made of rubies” were high-end stars of the collection.  

At the same time, Claflin began to create streamlined, edgy jewelry. His “Ball and Chain” bracelet with diamond padlock (now revived by Tiffany as “HardWear”) appeared in advertisements around this time.  Another innovative Claflin brainchild, fiendishly complex to construct, were his popular “finger bracelets”, composed of tiny links set with gems, which were almost elastic, as “flexible as mesh”. By summer, 1972, Claflin’s recognition was international. His diamond settings were featured in an English wedding haute couture shoot at the Ascot races along with Harry Winston, Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. Claflin was lauded as “Tiffany’s pace-setting designer”. The model wore Claflin’s jewels “in square-knot settings at the ears and throat”, while on her finger she sported “a brilliant of 15-carats in Claflin’s new criss-cross Tiffany setting”, with a "flexible, diamond-paved eternity band”, one of his “finger bracelet” innovations. His work straddled the luxury and youth markets in a compelling way.

In fact, these new, highly flexible-ring mountings, the “finger bracelets”, appear to have been one of Claflin’s most popular innovations, his thoughtful answer to rigid and uncomfortable rings. Highly observant, and concerned with his clients’ comfort, Claflin explained his insight to journalist Eugenia Sheppard in October 1972. “When a ring is big enough to slip over the knuckle, it’s often too big for the finger. It’s uncomfortable and the stone keeps slipping around.” Claflin’s minute attention to the enjoyment and ease of his clients was something unusual among jewelry designers. It is a theme that emerges regularly in his interaction with the press. Precisely described, the “finger bracelet” was a

 “pull on (design), completely soft and flexible, which stretches over the knuckle…settling into place below… One of the designer’s own favorite versions is the ring made of three strands of baguettes with a row of sapphires between two of diamonds.” 

Enthusiastic customers wore multiples of these flexible rings on their fingers, as well as stacks of conforming bracelets of the same construction. Seldom to never encountered on the secondary market, these little wonders of jewelry engineering presumably did not survive decades of daily stretching and wear. Additionally, in 1973 Claflin introduced “Clip on Rings”, which had ingenious hidden hinges designed to “bypass the knuckle.”

After ten years at Tiffany, Claflin had established himself as a jewelry designer of glamor and fantasy, who worked in eclectic combinations of ultra-precious gems, novel stones, unusual minerals and organic materials. He produced yearly collections of dozens of pieces that he marketed from the East to West coasts, as Tiffany expanded its branches. He had found favor with Harry Platt, Charles Lewis Tiffany’s great great grandson, who considered him a designer worthy of marketing alongside Schlumberger. Further, he was a keen observer of art, harvesting ideas from ancient Asian, South American and Middle Eastern sources, European historic design, as well as Pop Art. His innovative rings answered young people’s desire to see diamonds “treated in a contemporary way, and even with a touch of fantasy." He was a trusted mentor to younger jewelers at Tiffany: in October 1972, the press covered his protegée Sonia Younis’ exceptional two-part snake bracelet, worn above and below the elbow, “so that the gold serpent seems to wind down the arm from shoulder to hand.” Aldo Cipullo, later of Cartier fame, was another rising star who worked under Claflin while he was at Tiffany & Co. Angela Cummings, another star designer,  also rose through the ranks with his support. He held an important place at Tiffany and in the New York jewelry world.

Yet the mid-1970s were extremely challenging years for the luxury trade. New York developed a harder, more experimental edge, and, for wealthy women, the city was no longer a playland where they could flit around freely in gemmy jewelry. The oil crisis, soaring interest rates, and stagflation took their toll on the luxury goods market, and Tiffany management seems to have aimed displeasure at its designers. Claflin’s gem-set and enameled creations were costly to produce. Shareholders pressured management to move in a commercial direction, with a goal of offering artistic jewelry that was less expensive to make for a mass market. Transformational change was coming to the Tiffany jewelry department. 

In a 1977 article entitled “Jewelry’s New Dazzle”, Newsweek explored the genesis of the streamlined, unisex jewelry designs of the mid 1970s, as exemplified by Elsa Peretti, Aldo Cipullo, Barry Kieselstein Cord, and lesser known designers like Mary McFadden. Tiffany was behind the curve of the current trends. “We weren’t at all happy with our jewelry,” Hoving was quoted as stating regarding the firm’s established group of designers and their work. In 1974, Halston introduced Walter Hoving and Harry Platt to Elsa Peretti, an intense and frequently abrasive former fashion model with abundant design talent. “Smitten with Elsa”, Hoving and Platt hired her on the spot, offering her a five year contract and a unique profit-sharing arrangement. 

With the addition of this dynamic new designer, hired under a preferential contract, the atmosphere in the Tiffany jewelry department would likely have changed. By March 1976, a quiet shake up had occurred, evidenced by a surviving invitation for Palm Beach clients to view the firm's latest collections. The invitation lists Tiffany’s new roster of designers, now headed by Elsa Peretti, followed by Jean Schlumberger, Angela Cummings, and lastly Donald Claflin. Elsa Peretti’s sleek and sensuous designs, relatively inexpensive to produce, responded to the 1970s zeitgeist and allowed Tiffany to reach a mass market at last with artistic jewelry. 

Later, after leaving Tiffany in 1983, Cummings told the New York Times that she remembered Claflin as “the kind of teacher everyone should have. It was totally inspirational working for him.” When Claflin was a senior member of the team, there may have been a sense of both freedom and collegiality. In addition to Schlumberger, the old team had included numerous young designers - Don Berg, Angela Cummings, Sonia Younis, Aldo Cipullo- as well as an unnamed older gentleman, who according to Harry Platt, had worked for Tiffany for 60 years. With Claflin, Aldo Cipullo felt free to indulge in whimsical notions like taking a fly that had landed on his desk and casting it in gold. “We all design together,” Cipullo reportedly said. Later, after Claflin had gone, Cummings stated that Tiffany management began to try to create rivalry among Schlumberger, Peretti, Picasso and herself, and she felt that there was a further push toward commercialization. 

Claflin was out of Tiffany by early 1976. Whether he was fired, or resigned, or was encouraged to leave is unknown. He did not remain unemployed.  The dynamic Nicola Bulgari, inventor of the Roman firm’s beloved coin jewelry (“Gemme Nummarie”), hired Claflin to design jewelry for his new New York salon, located in the lobby of the Pierre Hotel. Claflin and Bulgari had met at the Pierre, on another chance lunch occasion. On that day, rivals Louis Arpels and Harry Platt and their guests, Bulgari and Claflin, had found themselves seated at neighboring tables. Nicola Bulgari and Claflin began laughing at the awkward situation, which broke the ice among them all. The two men became friends. Under Nicola’s leadership, Bulgari became the gallery of bold, pop art colors and sleek design that Andy Warhol called “the most important museum of contemporary art”. 

The columnist Eugenia Sheppard followed up with her old friend Claflin around six months after he started at Bulgari, in December 1976. As though to reintroduce him and give him a fresh start in the press, she reminded readers that Claflin was descended from Mayflower forebears, and she quizzed him on his relative who had run for president. Claflin added with a touch of self mockery that members of the Adams clan could be found in his family tree - not only those of the early political dynasty, but of the satirical television show as well. In this last interview, he claimed -or confessed for the first time- to having dropped out of Parsons, and to have been unemployed when Webb hired him as an assistant. Perhaps he felt the need to embellish the hardships in his rise in the profession - or secure enough by this point to admit to failings he concealed before. The wax models for Claflin’s first collection had just been sent off to Bulgari workshops in the Via Condotti to be manufactured. Among these jewels, Nicola praised Claflin’s sapphire and emerald chandelier earrings, designed as mirror images of each other, and his clever double ring designs, which could be worn singly or as an interlocking set. One of Claflin’s unique new jewels was a necklace centering an apotropaic agate and sapphire eye. “The age of complicated jewelry is dead,” Claflin told a reporter at the Tennessean in May, 1977. “I try to put as much efficiency as I can into the setting.” To another reporter at the Boston Globe, in early 1977, Claflin reported fitting in well at Bulgari - with his curly dark hair and classical features, everyone assumed he too was Italian. He rode the subway to work and “threw pasta parties.”

Bulgari’ s New York business apparently grew quickly - so much that Claflin reported having to turn away some of the more ostentatious special commissions his clients were bringing him. Such orders did not adhere to Nicola’s modern vision and streamlined aesthetic.  At Bulgari, Claflin’s style continued to evolve. It was his last, sensational success at Tiffany with the flexible mesh “bracelet rings” that stretched to fit any finger which had convinced him, he reported, that women most wanted uncomplicated jewelry and clean shapes. He was now subordinating precious stones to “the flow of design”. This included jewelry mounted with numismatics of various vintages, ranging from the era of Alexander the Great, to Queen Elizabeth I, and to rare and humble 1652 New England shillings. “There is great art and beautiful sculpture in coins,” he said. Working with ancient seals, as well, Claflin created a variety of chic rings enhanced with colorful gems. Always inventing, and spoken of as “one of the most respected jewelry technicians in America”, Claflin also designed popular hoop earrings for Bulgari. These hoops were described in the press as “a continuous line of diamond baguettes.”  This design may be the unusually-shaped  Bulgari hoops vertically-set with graduating baguettes that occasionally appear on the market.

Claflin was honored in the jewelry business and valued as a teacher. He was asked to join the judges of the De Beers Diamonds International awards for 1978. A gifted teacher, he was fondly remembered by students for his jewelry design classes at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Intriguingly, one student recalled Claflin had taught him to design “trompe l’oeuil” jewels. In early 1979, in the last event covered by the press, he traveled to Fort Worth to receive an honorary award for jewelry on behalf of the Bulgari family. Texans fondly remembered him from his earlier visits while employed by Tiffany and looked forward to his arrival.

Suddenly, on October 5th, 1978, Claflin died, at the early age of 44. No information exists as to whether his death resulted from an illness or accident. Three obituaries were placed in the New York Times. One, placed by his family, his two sisters, his five nephews, nieces and grand niece, gave the details of his memorial service at Frank E. Campbell.  Warm words also came from those who seem to have appreciated him and known him best. In their announcement, André Chervin and the staff of Carvin French wrote in their notice: 

“We feel richer and better for having known you and created with you for over two decades. You have brought warm, human feelings in your high standards that went much further than the fabrication of jewels. In much of our life we will always keep you with us.” 

Gianni, Paolo and Nicola Bulgari wrote: 

“With deep sadness and personal sorrow the friends and associates of Donald Adams Claflin face the death of this fine human being and talented American designer. All who knew him were touched by his exceptional gifts, his generosity and special warmth. He will be remembered.”  

Another tribute to Claflin came from Howard Gilman, Chairman of the Gilman Paper Company and heir to the fortune it had generated over three generations. Later characterized by the Guardian as “a gay arts philanthropist”, Gilman made extraordinary gifts, both in artworks and funds, to museums, ballet theater, medical research, and organizations working for the preservation of endangered species. He also funded the thriving jewelry studio at Dartmouth College, his alma mater, and named it in honor of his “good friend” Donald Claflin. So little is preserved concerning Claflin’s personal life and social circles that it is reassuring to know of the gestures of colleagues and friends who valued him. 

Like Tiffany’s Harry Platt, as well as David Webb, Claflin was a dashing and popular “confirmed bachelor”. For representation’s sake, it is important to acknowledge that Claflin was a gay man, according to verbal sources reporting historical memory. He must have contended with the many obstacles and veil of secrecy imposed on gay men by the conventions of the time. Like Aldo Cipullo, Claflin may be another unacknowledged victim of the very early stages of the AIDS epidemic. 

The full story of Claflin’s life and work has yet to be fully explored. Some of his jewelry is featured briefly in Tiffany’s publications. His gem-set and enamel Walrus brooch was included in the 2006 Exhibition “Masterpieces of American Jewelry” at the Musée Carnavalet, Paris. A more extensive analysis of Claflin’s original and experimental designs, including archival research by David Webb, Tiffany & Co. and Bulgari, would help preserve the legacy of this gifted designer and generous mentor of the 1960s and 1970s jewelry world.

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