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Breakfast At Costco

Tiffany storefront with Chinese marketing copy
A Tiffany & Co. location in Shenzhen, China. Photo by Coreamyilsa Lim.

If you are a jeweler by trade, you might know that a Tiffany engagement ring is one in which a single diamond is attached to the base by six prongs, designed to let as much light as possible into the stone while keeping it secure.

If you are a bride-to-be or, more importantly, someone planning to propose, you probably assume that a Tiffany ring comes from, well, Tiffany & Co.

And from now on you’ll most likely be correct.

Referring to a Tiffany setting, regardless of the ring in question’s maker, is common among industry professionals, but it has hardly reached the level of Kleenex or Thermos among the general public. That did not stop Costco Wholesale Corp. from arguing otherwise in defense of its practice of selling “Tiffany” engagement rings with no connection to the famous jewelry company other than the rings’ style.

The courts are unimpressed. In a ruling earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain said Costco owed Tiffany more than $19 million in combined compensatory and punitive damages for using the term Tiffany to describe its engagement rings. This sum represents an increase from the original damages awarded in an October 2016 ruling. Costco has said it will appeal. “Costco was not selling imitation Tiffany & Co. rings,” the retailer asserted in a statement.

Costco was, however, selling rings identified as “Tiffany” by in-store signs, according to the jewelry company’s complaint. While the rings were not sold in the company’s famous blue boxes or stamped with the Tiffany name, it is hard to imagine that most – or even many – Costco shoppers were aware that Costco was referring solely to the type of setting in which the rings’ gems were mounted. The wholesaler had sold about 2,500 of the “Tiffany” rings as of 2013, when Tiffany & Co. filed suit.

I am astonished that Costco did this in the first place, and I am even more amazed that they took this case to trial. Doesn’t anybody there have a daughter to provide a blunt answer to the question, “How would you feel if your ‘Tiffany’ engagement ring came from Costco and had nothing whatsoever to do with Tiffany?”

Apparently not, given Costco’s apparent determination to press forward. In her ruling, Swain wrote that “Costco’s upper management, in their testimony at trial and in their actions in the years prior to the trial, displayed at best a cavalier attitude toward Costco’s use of the Tiffany name in conjunction with ring sales and marketing.”

Swain’s ruling also prohibited Costco from using the term “Tiffany” as a standalone descriptor for its jewelry offerings in the future. Whether the company would be able to use it as a more nuanced descriptor – “Tiffany style” or “Tiffany setting,” for instance – was not at issue in this case. Maybe the judge’s order to write a hefty check to Tiffany will discourage Costco’s bigwigs from pressing their luck. Or maybe it will take a social media reaction from unhappy brides and their luckless spouses to make the message sink in.

Costco is a good store – I do a lot of shopping there myself – and a good brand. But it ain’t Tiffany. I am far from the most brilliant romantic when it comes to stuff like this, but even I know enough not to get snagged on this particular prong.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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