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The Gifts of Georg Jensen

BUCKS Magazine: Nov/Dec 2007

Silver’s an interesting subject for a column called “For What It’s Worth.”  Time was when silver was a far more precious metal than it is now. Since the high old days of the Hunts of Texas, the price of silver has declined as a commodity. And with so many people living a casual life style, there are fewer buyers in the market for grandma’s service for twelve. What has held value are works by the great designers of silver – both tableware and jewelry. Here we’re talking about Tiffany, Spratling, Cartier and, of course, that most desirable master of Danish Modern, Georg Jensen, and his circle of artists. We know a lot of people who would whoop and holler to see a piece of Jensen emerge from a frappe of gift wrap and tissue this season.

The name Georg Jensen has become synonymous with iconic silver pieces, from Art Nouveau-inspired jewelry to sleek, modern flatware and hollowware. The Danish company is as influential today as it ever was, and in its more than one hundred years, Jensen has crafted some of the most enduring silver designs of the twentieth-century.
The man behind the Jensen name was more than just a figurehead—he was an artist, designer and businessman who brought the company to life in 1904 and directed its artistic output until the day he died on October 2, 1935.

Georg Jensen was born to working class parents in the small town of Raadvad, Denmark in 1866. His father was a knife grinder and by the age of 13 (as was common for the time) Jensen became an apprentice in a metalwork factory; by 17 he had his journeyman’s certificate. Yet it was sculpture that entranced him from an early age. He studied at the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen, winning several awards before completing his education.

When Jensen couldn’t make a living as a sculptor, he instead turned to a career in the applied arts, influenced both by financial considerations and the growing Arts and Crafts movement of the day. The movement, begun by British scholar John Ruskin (1819-1900) and artist William Morris (1834-1896), responded to the industrial revolution, calling for a return to the handmade, championing functional objects and the individual craftsman who made them.

At first Jensen worked in ceramics. In 1900, he returned to his roots, joining the shop of master silversmith Mogens Ballin. There Jensen would come into his own. In 1904, at the age of 38, he made the historic decision to open his own shop.

Jensen had the technical and artistic knowledge to become a great silversmith, but it would also be the arts and crafts principles of beautiful, handmade, functional objects that would guide the company forward.  Jensen began with jewelry, which met with critical success almost instantly. His work was shown extensively in Western Europe and soon the Jensen name was known for excellence. With his fellow designers, Harald Nielsen and Johan Rohde, he branched out into flatware and hollowware, with Jensen inspecting every piece that went out of his shop.

Although the company was always admired, commercial success was elusive. The challenges of World War I took a toll and critical acclaim generated a surprisingly small audience for Jensen’s wares in Europe. His fortunes turned in 1922, when he took the advice of a clever business man, Alfred Lunning, and looked to the U.S. Lunning took two trunks of wares to New York City. By 1924, there was a Jensen flagship store on Madison Avenue. In bringing Jensen to New York’s upper crust, he influenced a generation of American silversmiths and secured Jensen’s company a lasting success.

Jensen always believed in the principle of promoting the designs of others. Because of this, his company was able to adapt to the changing styles of the times. In the 1950s, Henning Koppel’s biomorphic pitchers and flatware defined the day. In the 1960s, Viviana Torun Bulow-Hube and her edgy moonstone necklaces were de-riguer for the fashion forward.

Since Georg Jensen opened his doors, nearly eighty artists have crafted work under the Jensen name. They have created some of the best-known and best-loved silver of the twentieth century - designs that look as modern and beautiful today they did the day the debuted on the showroom floor. Small wonder work from the shop of Georg Jensen remains so coveted.

What to look for:

Marks: Jensen employed a number of marks over its history. The most common is an oval of dark pin pricks encapsulating the George Jensen name.

Early jewelry: When he began, Jensen did not have the financial wherewithal to work frequently in gold and precious gems and he actually preferred silver and warm, semi-precious stones in keeping with the Arts & Crafts philosophy. The style that characterizes the best of Jensen’s own work is called Skonvirke - "Plump and Beautiful." Look for curvaceous and organic forms - flowers, leaves, birds - refined and abstracted in silver. Look for amber, malachite, moonstones, coral, and lapis, usually cabochon.  You’ll note the influence of Celtic design.

Later jewelry: Functionalism is the signature style of the firm’s later work, characterized by unembellished, clean lines. Nielsen and Malinowski were the first to work in this modern style in the 1930s, with foliate and naturalistic motifs in clear outline.  After WWII, Henning Koppel introduced biomorphic shapes, unadorned or inlaid with bright enamel. Some bear the monogram "HK" beside the Jensen mark. Nanna Ditzel also produced silver enamel pieces for Jensen. Look for Ditzel benchmarks "NJ" or "ND" stamped alongside the Jensen mark. Other remarkable designers who worked for Jensen in and around the 1960’s and whose work we love are Viviana Torun Bulow Hube (designer of the moonstone necklace pictured) and Astrid Fog.

At one time, the Jensen company made more than 30 flatware patterns and 1000 hollowware pieces, As with Jensen jewelry, the style may be Jensen’s own signature Skonvirke, Art Deco or Modern.

More than 1000 hollowware pieces including candelabra, pitchers, bowls, tea sets, trays, vases, covered platters and wine coolers. Some will be embellished with semiprecious stones. All are jewelry for the table.

Still in production: Acanthus, Acorn, Beaded, Bernadotte, Blossom, Cactus, Cypress, Lily of the Valley, Old Danish, Pyramid. Early examples bring a premium. Acorn and Pyramid are the easiest to find. The most popular flatware pattern, Acorn, can be had in well over 200 separate pieces from servers to fish knives and ice cream spoons.

Out of production: Akkelie, Bittersweet, Blok, Caravel, Continental, Dahlia, Elsinore, Fuschia, Koppel, Margrethe, Mayan, Nordic, Parallel, Rope, Scroll, Viking.


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