The Tiffen Story

By Wilson, Anton | American Cinematographer, February 1982 | Go to article overview

The Tiffen Story


Wilson, Anton, American Cinematographer


The latest in this journal's series of tributes to manufacturers of outstanding equipment for the motion picture and video industries

Say the name "Tiffen" to anyone. If they don't think "filters," they probably wouldn't think "film" at the mention of Kodak. Tiffen is quite a unique company. Very rarely does a single product line enjoy the combined reputation of being both the highest quality and the most popular in its field. Tiffen now manufacturers more than 1 ½ million filters a year, which makes them the largest filter manufacturer in America and very likely in the entire world. In addition to products bearing the Tiffen name, Tiffen also manufactures filters for Nikon, Canon, RCA, Panasonic, Norelco and many others.

The amateur market obviously accounts for much of the overall sales, but the Tiffen professional line currently accounts for a very significant portion of the business. Tiffen feels that innovation from the professional sector is the lifeblood of a good product line and, thus, a large R & D program is dedicated to the professional market. This research coupled with the unique Tiffen manufacturing techniques has resulted in a prestigious line of Tiffen professional products. Tiffen's professional filters, including the diffusions, low contrasts, and fogs, enjoy a large and loyal following among top cinematographers, and are also the choice of the worlds largest professional rental organizations, including Panavision.

Like most people, I was quite aware of Tiffen's large product line and their reputation for quality. However, I knew very little about the history of Tiffen or what made their products so highly regarded. That situation was rectified recently when I paid a visit to the Tiffen factory. Nat Tiffen was my personal guide for a very illuminating tour through the world of Tiffen and filters.

The history of the Tiffen company goes back over 35 years. The three brothers, Nat, Sol and Leo, had each been involved in related fields since 1938, but it was not until after the war, in April of 1946, that they united to form the present-day Tiffen Company. The beginnings were modest. The small facility in Brooklyn, NY, housed only three employees; Nat, Sol and Leo. Over the next two years business increased and the brothers hired three more employees. By the end of 1947 they were ready for the move to their new larger facilities on Beckman Street in New York. This move was accompanied by a jump to 20 employees.

During this period the products were predominantly metal rings for filters and adapters. It was about 1948-1949 when Tiffen began to get involved with the glass and optics. Originally the glass was manufactured on the West Coast and shipped East for assembly. By 1950, Nat Tiffen took over responsibility for the glass manufacturing processes and everything was done under the one roof in New York. In 1952 with more than 50 employees, the Tiffen brothers were once again looking for larger facilities. A move back to Brooklyn in 1952 was quickly followed by another relocation in 1954 to Jane Street in Roslyn Heights, L.I. Tiffen continued to expand during the 24 years at the Roslyn location and by 1978 employed about 100 people.

In 1978 a tragic fire destroyed much of the Roslyn Heights plant. The complete inventory was lost, including $200,000 worth of products ready for shipment. This calamity was compounded by the loss of many one-of-a-kind specially mixed colors and discontinued dyes. Undaunted, the Tiffen Brothers regrouped at the present facility in Hauppauge, New York. This plant is 40,000 square feet, doubling their previous area. With 130 employees, the new plant quickly regained momentum and even surpassed previous levels of production. The professional market continues to grow and Tiffen is quite involved with video applications, including behind-the-lens filters and filter wheels.

Originally, Nat Tiffen supervised most of manufacturing, while Sol handled sales and Leo ran the office. …

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