Luxury jewelry maker Tiffany & Co. broke ground Wednesday in Lexington for a new manufacturing plant, its first outside the Northeast. It will employ 125 people.
Lexington's quality of life was among the top reasons that the company — known worldwide for its high-quality jewelry in the iconic blue box — says it chose Lexington for its expansion.
"For us, it was a little bit of the intangible that we really just liked the feel of Lexington" and the quality of life here, said John Petterson, senior vice president of operations and manufacturing. "The people, the hospitality, the friendliness and the warmth of the community."
The company was founded in 1837, and its products — which include diamond, gemstone and sterling silver jewelry and gifts, watches, china, fragrances and accessories — have become synonymous with luxury. Its image has been bolstered by its flagship store, on New York's Fifth Avenue and a tourist destination in its own right, appearing as a setting in the classic film Breakfast at Tiffany's and more modern-day fare including Sweet Home Alabama.
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The addition of a company with that status brings the possibility of luring others like it, said Central Kentucky businessman Bill Lear, who helped secure the deal while working with Commerce Lexington on economic-development issues.
"They say you're known by the company you keep," Lear said. "Any time you're dealing with the business community, it helps to have someone who is at the very top of their industry.
"We have other examples of companies here that are at the top of their industry, but not all of them are known worldwide like Tiffany."
Working at the site
The 25,000-square-foot manufacturing plant will be on more than 4 acres in the Bluegrass Business Park, on Innovation Drive near Georgetown Road. It is expected to be operational by spring.
New York-based Tiffany & Co. already has hired nearly 60 of the people who will eventually be employed at the plant, where they will set stones and do polishing and finishing work before items are sent to New Jersey for shipment to stores.
The product lines to be made in Lexington include engagement jewelry; single-stone settings, such as diamond pendants and diamond stud earrings; and the Tiffany "Keys" collection.
Those already hired have been quietly manufacturing jewelry at a temporary plant here since early summer.
"We wanted to make sure we could find the talent we need," Petterson said, explaining the temporary work.
The jobs will pay $18.96 hourly and will include benefits. He said the company is looking for people with either a background in jewelry or working with diminutive items such as computer chips or small parts. The new employees will be trained.
Tiffany has already set up a training school, Petterson said. "So far, it has been very successful."
Some Lexington jobs are posted on the company's careers Web site, Tiffanycareers.com.
Landing the deal
Lexington began luring the company about two years ago, when a Tiffany consultant first identified the city among 64 to be considered.
In the end, Lexington competed with Tampa, Fla.; Greensboro, N.C.; and Austin, Texas — "cities of very high caliber ... with bigger airports and easier access," said Mike Mullis of Memphis, whose site-selection consulting firm, J.M. Mullis, helped Tiffany.
An economic-incentive package offered by the state figured into Tiffany's decision, he said. "But the real incentive was the leadership of this area, and the workforce" of people with good manual dexterity and coordination.
Mullis said Tiffany also is looking at the University of Kentucky's Coldstream Research Park as a possible site for research and development. "So it all fits," he said.
It might seem surprising for a company to be expanding in a recovering economy, and a luxury company at that, Petterson said, but "our business today is very healthy."
In its most recent quarter, worldwide sales for Tiffany & Co. (NYSE: TIF) rose 9 percent to $668.8 million. Profit in the quarter rose to $67.7 million from $56.8 million in the same quarter a year earlier. Tiffany stock closed Wednesday at $53.90, down 20 cents, or 0.37 percent.
"Especially in tough times, people turn to a brand that they trust," he said. "People trust the Tiffany name."
Petterson said state and local officials created attractive tax incentives — the state in April approved the company for a $2.75 million deal — and was attentive to the company's needs and questions.
In an early meeting, Petterson said, Gov. Steve Beshear brought his wife, Jane, into the governor's office to tell the story of how Steve, then a young lawyer in New York, bought Jane her engagement ring at Tiffany & Co.
At Wednesday's news conference, the first lady wore the ring, which Petterson described as a classic, six-prong ring with a 1-carat diamond.
The quality of life that Lexington would offer the company's employees also figured into clinching the deal.
"I want to be employing people in areas where I think they are going to have a great quality of life," Petterson said, noting the city's arts, history and sports activities. "That's important to us at Tiffany."
Mayor Jim Newberry noted that those qualities draw other companies, too. "Those characteristics are key building blocks of economic-development success," he said.