Monday, August 25, 2014

Wearable Beauty

QUESTION: My mother has a beautiful silver bracelet that my dad gave to her on their tenth wedding anniversary. The letters GJ are inscribed on the inside. I’ve always admired this bracelet and hope that one day it will be mine. Can you tell me who made this bracelet and perhaps something about it.

ANSWER: Your mother’s bracelet comes from Georg Jensen Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark, although I’m sure your dad purchased it at one of the company’s retail stores here in the U.S. Jensen is one of the premier jewelry companies in the world and continues to be known for its unique jewelry designs.

Born in 1866, Jensen was the son of a knife grinder in the town of Raadvad north of Copenhagen. He started training to be a goldsmith when he was 14 as an apprentice with Guldsmed Andersen. But in 1884, he decided to study sculpture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Jensen had dreamed of being a sculptor ever since childhood. In 1887, a plaster bust of his father gained him admission into the Royal Danish Academy of Art. He exhibited his first sculpture at the 1891 Charlottenborg Spring Exhibit in Copenhagen and graduated the following year.

Although his clay sculpture was well received, making a living as a fine artist proved difficult, so he turned his hand to the applied arts. First as a modeler at the Bing & Gr√łndahl Porcelain Factory and, beginning in 1898, and then with a small pottery workshop he founded in partnership with Christian Petersen to make ornamental ceramics. Their ceramic jug, The Maid on the Jar, was selected for the arts and crafts exhibit in the Danish Pavilion at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris. The public and critics loved their work, but sales weren’t strong enough to support Jensen, who his point a widower, and his two small sons.

Through his ceramic work, Jensen received a travel grant award which allowed him to tour Europe at a time when the Art Nouveau movement was in full force. The work of these artists in beautiful, yet useful, objects inspired him. Upon is return Denmark, he became increasingly involved in designing and making jewelry. In 1901, he took a job as the foreman for goldsmith Mogens Bailin. Finally, in1904, he opened his own small shop in Copenhagen, employing an apprentice and a helper.

Jensen's early designs were primarily in the tradition of Arts & Crafts, with an emphasis on hand-beaten surfaces' and semi-precious stones. This was a time when the cost of materials was high, and wages for skilled labor was low. The stones Jensen selected---amber, moonstones, lapis lazuli, green agate, garnet, ebony, hematite and small bits of coral—were relatively inexpensive.

Georg Jensen never followed fashion, he created it. He opened his first retail store in Berlin in 1909. In 1912 he expanded his workshop and opened a large retail shop in Copenhagen. It's also important to note that from the beginning, he laid the groundwork for Georg Jensen as a brand, versus that of one artist, hiring talented artisans, craftsmen and designers. When other studios gave no credit to their designers, Jensen always did.

Jensen's training in metalsmithing along with his education in the fine arts allowed him to combine the two disciplines and revive the tradition of the artist craftsman. Soon, the beauty and quality of his Art Nouveau creations caught the eye of the public, assuring his success. Before the end of the 1920s, Jensen had opened retail outlets in New York, London, Paris, and Stockholm.

In 1905, he held his first exhibition outside Denmark at the Folkwang Museum in Hagen, Germany, and the museum purchased a number of his designs. In 1910, he received a gold medal at an exhibition in Brussels.

What really catapulted him to international fame, however, was his first U.S. exhibition at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco. In addition to being awarded more gold medals, an entire showcase of jewelry was purchased bythe newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.

At the time of his death in 1935, the New York Herald Tribune proclaimed him as "The greatest silversmith of the last 300 years.” His vision lived on through the employees he had trained and his small workshop developed into a worldwide company. Designers like Henning Koppel, Vivianna Torun Bulow-Hube, Manna Ditzel, and Arno Malinowski brought the company to the forefront of international design.

There has been no designer with the sustained appeal of Georg Jensen. His work continues to attract top collectors and museums throughout the world feature his pieces. For five generations his legacy has grown, unrivaled by any other 20th century creator. He is, quite simply, unique.

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