Tiffany & Co. creates controversy with new campaign

Jay-Z and Beyoncé, adorned in Tiffany diamonds, pose in front of Jean-Michel Basquiat's "Equals Pi" (1982) in Tiffany & Co.'s new "About Love" campaign. Via Tiffany & Co.

Launched in print globally on Sept. 2, Tiffany & Co.’s “About Love” marks the luxury jeweler’s first collaboration with the legendary Carter duo as they celebrate modern love. 

“Ushering in a new brand identity, this campaign embodies the beauty of love through time and all its diverse facets, forging a new vision of love today,” the company said in a press release

In pictures from the campaign, the Carters stand illuminated against a heavily shaded white room. Accompanying Jay-Z’s sleek black tuxedo, Beyoncé wears an elegant black cutout dress. Though flashes of diamonds can be seen across their fingers and ears, the coruscating 128.54-carat yellow Tiffany Diamond stands out around Queen Bey’s neck.

Here lies the first major issue with Tiffany & Co.’s seemingly rosy campaign. While adorning Beyoncé in such a striking piece may have been intended to signal the company as embracing a more inclusive view of wealth, critics have labeled the jewel itself as a blood diamond, or a diamond unethically sourced from territory controlled by counter-government military forces. Diamonds sourced in this manner often originate from mines that employ slave labor systems, something the South African (British-controlled) mine, which produced the jewel around Beyoncé’s neck in 1877, has been accused of. While Tiffany & Co. has provided customers with certifications of “conflict-free” diamonds in response to industry-wide concerns of unethical sourcing, the recent campaign has resulted in a new wave of backlash against the company. Can this be a true rebranding of the company’s message and mission if their methods are the same?

Adding insult to injury, something stands out even more than the diamond: the unreleased painting “Equals Pi” (1982) by Jean-Michael Basquiat hanging behind the posing Carters. Although we have become unfortunately accustomed to seeing celebrities steal from lesser-known Black artists, it is nonetheless shocking to see how one of the most famous Black artists can have his artwork appropriated by a white-owned corporation, especially considering the Carters’ apparent dedication to Black liberation and the fact that much of Basquiat’s work is privately owned. Just as the sourcing of the Tiffany Diamond is concerning, there are questions raised about the actual rights to the painting and about its journey into Tiffany & Co.’s hands. 

Some suggest that the light blue color filling the piece was inspired by Tiffany’s signature blue, though it is doubtful whether Basquiat had that in mind. Viewers are incapable of even fully appreciating the piece as the camerawork, blocking and lighting of promotional images are designed to highlight the diamond. Once again, Basquiat’s brilliance is reduced to the background. Whereas it would likely be genuinely valued in a museum or another public viewing space, his admirers are left wanting with this surprising appearance. Many criticize the fact that “Equals Pi” seems more of an accessory than artwork.

This is far from the first time that brands have used and tokenized Basquiat’s work, which only leads one to further question if anything is truly new or unique about Tiffany’s proclaimed new direction. Reebok, Yves Saint Laurent, Uniqlo and Urban Outfitters have collaborated with — although some might say appropriated — Basquiat’s estate to produce equally unique yet mundane collections, they each snatch motifs from his work yet incorporate them in relatively similar ways. This repeated use of a deceased artist’s work has angered many, particularly given Basquiat’s anti-corporate and anti-capitalist values. He was certainly not one to turn down collaboration, but one questions how he would feel knowing his artwork was being used by such large corporations in such a lucrative manner. 

Though Beyoncé certainly makes history as the first black woman to wear the Tiffany Diamond, the campaign is far too controversial to be considered unequivocally successful. Even Tiffany & Co.’s pledging of $2 million toward scholarship and internship programs for historically Black colleges and universities as part of the campaign seems largely performative in light of this larger context. Questions of ethics and human rights over the diamond, the never-ending examination of Black artists and white corporations and the continuous appropriation of a deceased Black artist for money-grabbing campaigns overwhelm the collection and draw attention further away from the collaboration. In its desire to depict the modern love story, Tiffany & Co. somehow overlooked the love shared between an artist, his artwork and his admirers.