The Magnificent Jewels & Jadeite sale will be held at Sotheby's Hong Kong on 6 April.

HONG KONG - Mighty oaks from little acorns grow, they say. In the case of Tamsen Z, the fine jewellery label with a Madison Avenue flagship, it was beads.

For years, Tamsen Ann Ziff made intricately beaded barrettes to pull back her long, straight hair. Though she was married to one of the world’s wealthiest men – magazine magnate William B. Ziff, Jr. – she has always been refreshingly pragmatic. Billy, the gardener at the Ziff’s Florida home, cut her hair once a year with a pair of hedge clippers.

Her jewellery aspires to art. She is one of the few jewellers who reach that level.

Renée Fleming

2015_02_05_SOTHEBYS_ANNZIFF_SHOT_01_0027-fullAnn Ziff in her Madison Avenue boutique, Tamsen Z. Photograph by Eric Ogden.
iris-broochThe “Renée Fleming Iris” brooch, Tamsen Z by Ann Ziff.

After friends and family members kept marvelling at her barrettes, she began making them as gifts. One day, around 2004, her husband suggested she extend her range. “He said, ‘You should do this.’ He took me to a gem show and bought me loose stones – sapphires, emeralds and diamonds – and said, ‘Get to work.’”

The striking necklaces Ziff made drew increasing admiration. She began organising selling shows of her burgeoning line at her Fifth Avenue apartment and at a friend’s gallery.

Following the death of her husband in 2006, she found herself at a crossroads. Ziff filled some of her time by stepping up her already considerable charitable commitments, particularly to the Metropolitan Opera, where she is now chairman of the board of directors and to which she gave $30 million in 2010, the largest individual gift in the Met’s history.

Encouraged especially by her three sons, she also opted to expand her jewellery line and give it a brick-and-mortar home. After one of them said, “Why don’t you look for a space,” she found a prime location on Madison Avenue that had previously housed a Bulgari boutique. Since the doors of Tamsen Z opened in September 2010, Ziff’s creations, known for their audacious colours and unique cuts, have been highly acclaimed – and bought up by a sophisticated international clientele.

On 6 April, her work will reach a new level of visibility when her “Renée Fleming Iris” brooch will be offered in the Magnificent Jewels auction at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. The one-of-a-kind piece – designed by Ziff after a cultivar of an iris and named for renowned soprano Renée Fleming – is made of 18 karat white gold with pavé round-cut diamonds, sapphires, garnets and amethysts.

Ziff modelled the piece directly from the iris that was created by Australian hybridiser Heather Pryor as a tribute to Fleming in 2004. For Ziff, the brooch was an opportunity to create a signature piece, and to honour the great diva.


“Renée has been my closest friend for 25 years,” says the designer. “We met when she was singing in Aspen one summer and from that moment have been great friends. She is one of the smartest and most down-to-earth people. She has tremendous heart and soul.

“After Renée showed me a picture of the iris, I planted some at my house in the country. Then I thought how wonderful it would be to fabricate it in gemstones. The fabrication took five months, because it has so many tiny stones.”

“It is an extraordinary piece,” attests Fleming. “As in all her work, Ann used unusual stones and has a real gift for combining them in special ways. The results are enormously imaginative and delightful. Her jewellery aspires to art. She is one of the few jewellers who reach that level.”

Ziff’s love of music began at an early age. Growing up in Manhattan, the daughter of a retired opera singer and a Czech-born internist, she started taking piano lessons at the age of five. After studying music at Wittenberg University in Ohio, she spent nine months in Europe, where she attended numerous performances at the Vienna State Opera.

Upon returning home, she found a job at Ziff-Davis, publisher of Popular Photography, Car and Driver and other specialty magazines, which was founded in the 1920s by William Ziff, Sr. Ann started as a secretary, a title she says she was happy to have. “About fifteen years later, they had to be called ‘executive assistants,’ but we were all ‘secretaries’ then.”


William B. Ziff, Jr., a polymath with a huge range of interests, had returned from Germany, where he was studying, to run the company following the death of his father in 1953. His romance with Ann was sparked one afternoon when she accompanied him on a walk, and he quoted Baudelaire to her, in French.

The couple maintained an extraordinarily active life for the ensuing decades. Ann went back to school and got a master’s degree in social work from New York University, and spent a decade as a psychiatric social worker for the city of New York. All the while, they travelled extensively, engaged in myriad charitable endeavours and collected an astonishing range of art. “Way too many things!” says Ann with a laugh. “Chinese ceramics, Oceanic, American Indian, pre-Columbian, Art Deco, African . . . . It was such a collaborative process with my husband. A lot of different things appealed to us.”

Mrs Ziff continues to be active, which includes jogging, kayaking and swimming. But she is most often found in her studio or Madison Avenue store, where the starburst-like chandeliers are mates to those at the Metropolitan Opera, made by the same Viennese firm J & L Lobmeyr (Ziff’s do not retract from the ceiling).

Every element of Ziff’s jewellery, each piece one of a kind, comes from her. “I buy every stone, design every piece, hand-make every necklace. I joke that this is a one-person sweatshop. I just never know what idea will be coming out of my head next.”

James Reginato is writer-at-large of Vanity Fair.