When Ann Ziff talks about jewelry, her eyes light up like a woman in love. “I’ve worn jewelry my whole life,” she tells Haute Living at her Upper East Side boutique, Tamsen Z. And today is no exception. As Ziff chats about hunting for precious gemstones—her favorite part of the design process—her baubles catch the light, casting sparkles against the purple walls. “I always have four rings on, sometimes five,” she continues with a smile. “If I had three more rings on, I might say that would be too much. And a lot of other people might say that what I have on now is too much, but I’m so used to it.”
Ziff’s love affair with jewelry began at an early age. As a child, she was always fascinated by the elaborate stage jewelry worn by her mother, famed opera singer Harriet Henders. After collecting Pre-Columbian, Art Deco and Art Nouveau pieces for years, Ziff’s late husband, publishing executive William B. Ziff Jr., encouraged her to begin buying stones and creating original jewelry. “When I started out, the only thing I could make were necklaces,” she reveals. As Ziff’s necklaces gained popularity, she began traveling to gem shows across the country, scouring for precious stones for rings, bracelets and earrings.
From rare Australian black opals to prized Paraiba tourmalines and extraordinary Colombian emeralds, Ziff’s stockpile has evolved into one of the world’s leading collections of privately owned gemstones. “I draw up every design myself. Opera is always playing while I’m designing. Sometimes I might listen to country, blue grass or jazz, but for the most part, there’s opera blasting in the background because it inspires me,” she explains. “The designs pour right out of me. It almost never takes me much time because I have all the colors of my stones in the back of my head.”
Despite the competitive nature of the jewelry industry, when Ziff decided to take the plunge and open her own store in 2010, she did not want to make any reference to her last name, despite its clout in Manhattan’s high-society. “It was a big step for me to go public, and when I realized I was willing to open a store, I decided that it had to look and feel like me. But I was not quite ready to call it Ziff or Ann Z, so I used my first name, which is Tamsen,” she clarifies.
Earlier that year, Ziff generously donated $30 million to the Metropolitan Opera, the largest single gift from an individual in its history. “Because I was chairman, I thought I should lead by example because I want other people to do the same. The money went directly into the operating budget,” she explains. “I didn’t want a say at how the money was spent. What the organization needed the most was unrestricted funds for operating, and I believed in the organization, so I gave it to them unrestricted. I could not imagine naming something after myself. I did not even put Ann in front of my jewelry store! It is just my personality.”
Though Ziff is hard-pressed to pick a favorite piece from her store, declaring that it varies based on her mood or her daily activities, she concedes that she has a soft spot for opals. “I love opals. I think that I have more opal jewelry in this store than anyone in the country,” she admits. “A lot of artists say that their most recent piece is their favorite, and sometimes that happens, but I have some pieces that I made early on that I’ll always love. I have a snake bracelet that wraps eight times all the way up the arm with diamonds all the way around. It’s definitely a statement piece.”
Another standout is a jewelry line that Ziff created in 2009 using loose crystals from the iconic starburst chandeliers at the Metropolitan Opera House. “The economy had just tanked and I did not want to keep buying big gemstones, but I wanted to keep making jewelry, so I made a line of jewelry using the crystals left over from the chandeliers,” she says. “I used sterling silver and stones that I could not use for my precious jewelry. I donated all the materials and the Met received 100 percent of the proceeds.” Those looking to own a piece of Met history can still purchase the crystal jewelry, which includes a selection of necklaces, rings and earrings, at Tamsen Z and the opera house’s gift shop.
Ziff, who also serves as vice-chairman of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, once again combined her passion for jewelry and philanthropy when she created a diamond pin to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the organization. “I took our logo, which was a very specific number 50, and did the whole thing in pave diamonds,” she reveals. “Each pin had .98 karats of diamonds in it, and I gave that as a gift to everyone who donated a certain amount of money. I thought it would be a wonderful thing to do for the big donors. They wear them all the time.”