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Henry B. Platt, 91; scion who gave Tiffany sparkle

Henry B. Platt with Audrey Hepburn, the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” star, at a publicity event in 1961.
Henry B. Platt with Audrey Hepburn, the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” star, at a publicity event in 1961.(Paramount Pictures)

NEW YORK — Never mind breakfast at Tiffany’s. Caviar and champagne were more the style of Henry B. Platt, Tiffany’s former chairman, who was the great-great-grandson of the store’s founder.

Mr. Platt, who helped steer the Tiffany & Co. empire for 34 years, luring in brand-name jewelry designers and marketing newly discovered gemstones like tanzanite, which he named, died July 22 at his home in Palm Beach, Fla. He was 91.

The cause was complications of pneumonia, his nephew, Timo Platt, said.

With deep blue eyes set below bushy eyebrows, Mr. Platt — better known as Harry — was famous for winning regattas, throwing biennial galas at the St. Regis hotel that were the envy of A-listers, and, as one profile put it, never saying, “‘Home, James,’ till the wee hours.”

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His impeccable dress and lineage made him a society mainstay, and he could often be found squiring women like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Henry Barstow Platt was born on Feb. 1, 1924, at the Fifth Avenue home of his parents, Louise Lusk Platt and Thomas Collier Platt, a lawyer. If he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, you can be sure it was stamped Tiffany & Co.

Christmases were spent at the Madison Avenue mansion of his great-grandfather, Louis Comfort Tiffany, the developer of the distinctively stained and opalescent Tiffany glass, who passed out $20 gold pieces to the clamoring children gathered there.

“I always remember that both sheets on every bed were changed every day,” Mr. Platt said of summers at Tiffany’s Long Island estate, near his parents’ own house in Laurel Hollow. “That made an impression on me.”

Mr. Platt studied international relations at Yale University and served in the Navy during World War II before briefly joining the State Department. But the family business was his destiny, and he joined in 1947, trying his hand at accounting and even packing china.

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“It was a great shock because ‘gentlemen’ didn’t go into sales,” Timo Platt said in an interview. “Yet he had an affinity for sales.” Over time, his uncle transformed the gemstone and jewelry department from a sleepy, neglected backwater into a powerhouse.

While visiting a lapidary in Europe in 1968, Mr. Platt spotted a transparent, velvety dark blue gemstone that had been mined near Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania. He won the rights to sell the newly discovered stone, which he called tanzanite. It became one of Tiffany’s best sellers.

“I could have named it Plattite or Tiffanyite,” Mr. Platt later told New York magazine. He also named tsavorite, a green stone found in Tsavo National Park in Kenya.

Mr. Platt also updated the store’s image by encouraging a new generation of jewelry and silver designers, including Elsa Peretti, Paloma Picasso, and Angela Cummings.

“We didn’t have one top jewelry designer in the company,” Mr. Platt told The New York Times in 1981. “We had an 85-year-old man who had been with us 65 years.”

After Avon Products acquired Tiffany for $104 million in stock in 1979, Mr. Platt briefly served as chairman and chief executive in 1981 before being pushed out. When he retired from the company a few months after his ouster, he said: “I have my goals and my style. It speaks for itself.” (Avon ended up selling Tiffany to an investors’ group five years later for $135.5 million.)

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Mr. Platt spent the next few decades pursuing his passions: sailing, traveling, playing tennis, and throwing elaborate parties. He is survived by an extended circle of family and friends, his nephew said.

Timo Platt likened his uncle to Louis Comfort Tiffany, who believed deeply in making beautiful industrial design available to ordinary people.

When he was chairman, Mr. Platt always kept a blue Tiffany box tied with a bow on his desk. It was, he said, “a constant reminder never to accept mediocrity.”