On the night of May 19, 1962, Peter Lawford, hosting a Democratic Party fundraiser for JFK at New York’s Madison Square Garden, ceded the podium for one of the most famous performances of the 20th century. Having snuck away from the set of her latest film, Marilyn Monroe strode into the spotlight and launched into a breathy, suggestive rendition of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.”
The singing may have been average, but Monroe wasn’t. When she slipped out of her fur coat, she stood wearing a flesh-colored, skintight Jean Louis dress—it had literally been sewn onto her—and sparkled in the spotlight: The dress had been stitched with 2,500 Swarovski crystals.
It’s rare that a brand name is so synonymous with its product, but Swarovski happens to be one of those cases. There’s a catch, though: while everyone knows the Austrian family firm makes sparkly crystals, they probably don’t know just how ubiquitous those little gems have become. Swarovski stones have shown up everywhere from the jeweled curtain at the Oscars to stage costumes for Elvis, Madonna, Lady Gaga and Rihanna. Through its many divisions, Swarovski sinks its crystals into watches, hangs them from chandeliers and assembles them into home décor items and gifts. But nowhere are the stones more visible than in the fashion realm, whether as part of the company’s own jewelry line or on clothing created by some 150 high-end designers.
Born in Bohemia in 1862, Daniel Swarovski was the son of a glass cutter and an inveterate tinkerer who invented an electric cutting machine at age 30. Bohemia was famous for its leaded-glass crystals, which had always been cut by hand, and Swarovski’s machine allowed precision cuts that rendered crystals that sparkled so brilliantly, they were confused with actual diamonds. That luster gave Swarovski a selling proposition that, according to Robert Buchbauer, CEO of the company’s consumer goods business and a great-great-grandson of its founder, remains to this day: “The core is still very close to our founder’s thought,” he said, “to provide a diamond for every woman.”
Meaning: an affordable diamond—so close to the real thing that it might as well be. Thanks to the stones’ incomparable dazzle and reasonable price, Swarovski crystals glinted their way onto the silver screen (Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers and Holly Golightly’s tiara in Breakfast at Tiffany’s were both Swarovski encrusted) and eventually into the lives of consumers. Swarovski’s watches, jewelry and gifts fill its 2,800 retail locations worldwide. Meanwhile, partner brands have stuck the crystals on everything from sneakers to dog dishes to Mercedes-Benzes.
Indeed, it’s the range of product collaborations that, Buchbauer said, has “kept us in the game.” But it’s also something else: the undeniable magic of bling. “Once [a] product is enhanced with stones,” he says, “it becomes so incandescent that people want to keep it for a long time—it adds value to almost any kind of product you can imagine.”