A Glimpse of Danish Jewelry in the 20th Century

by by Jacob Thage, director of exhibitions for Gl. Holtegaard, and Lise Funder, art historian 

Based on the text accompanying the 2002 exhibit for the Museum of Modern Danish Jewelry of the same name 
Read More About Danish Jewelry

Jewelry in itself has always served many functions, and in the earliest of times doubled as legal tender, its precious and semiprecious stones, as well as other components, could sometimes function as negotiable tender or used to barter. As such, jewelry also has its roots in denoting class and station amongst its wearers, and as such, the finer the jewelry, or the higher the value of the stones, the higher the ranking of its wearer. As such, jewelry has always seemed to speak more its owner more than itself. As the 1880's brought with it the Women's Liberation Movement, styles began to change, and the desire to express one's individuality grew, and jewelry started to take on the role of not just denoting rank, but individuals stylistic tastes amongst women, whom were also finding their personal lives outside the world of their husbands and family. Another influence to jewelry, which started a bit earlier on during the middle to late 19th century was the industrialization, which lead to mass produced, and fairly inexpensive goods, which in turn challenged the dominance of handcrafted goods. Secondarily, during this time period a renewed interest in nationalism and the national handicrafts. What emerged was the Old Norse style, one of the first truly Danish inspired movements, which was inspired by the old Viking designs. The style grew favorable not only nationally but also internationally in places such as England and France, though not truly achieving the popularity of later movements. That would come with Skonvirke, which in turn was part of a greater movement, inspired by France's Art Nouveau and Germany's Jugendstil, with its nature inspired themes and emphasis on hand craftsmanship, and its use of less expensive materials for the time; silver in place of gold, and with semiprecious stones rather than the diamonds and other stones of older jewelry. This also led to the recognition of individual artists in the realm of jewelry as well as the renown of specific manufacturies and smithies.

Much of the inspiration of this earlier jewelry owes itself to the works of Thorvald Bindesboll who with his organic designs inspired artists like Mogens Ballin and Georg Jensen. Technically inspiring was also the Japanese silver works which were brought into the country at the time, where its liveliness and distinct hammer marks which in turn gave Skonvirke its unique handcrafted style.

During the middle of the 20th century once again reinvented itself and “Danish Design” became internationally renowned. Post World War II, created shortages in gold and silver and as such newer jewelry was created utilizing the materials of the time, including iron and bronze, as well as ivory and enamel in place of the lack of stones, conserving silver for more ornamental needs. The restriction forced new innovation which inspired many to experiment with the properties of the materials themselves as well as greater experimentation in design. The goldsmith's guild also helped contribute to the spirit of innovation, and held various competitions starting in the 50's, as with many other handicrafts and industries which all contributed to this new found “Danish Design”, which brought forth a number of prominent designers such as Nanna DitzelHenning Koppel, and Bent Gabrielsen, who was one of the first students at the University of Goldsmiths, established in 1951, which encouraged the development of artists whom passed their exams as journeymen. Furthermore, some designers had not only experienced travel into other countries, being forced out during war times, but post war, were encouraged to do so, (such as with the Lunning Prize), gaining inspiration from their travels, incorporating the artistic cultures they encountered. This development continues to this day, where training in the craft still precedes the act of designing itself, whereas other countries allow for designers to design jewelry without ever truly becoming familiar with their materials. In fact, the University of Goldsmiths lives on today, as the “Institut for Aedelmetal”, where it continues to inspire its students.

As such individuality amongst the designers gave rise to studio or workshop jewelry, in which one off or limited runs of particular designs were created and sold directly from the workshops of the designer. At the same time, larger firms, such as Hans Hansen, Georg Jensen, and A Michelsen found success abroad, particularly in the United States, and also at home helped to educate later generations of gold and silversmiths. By 1978, the first gallery devoted to jewelry opened in Copenhagen, where the works of both Danish artists as well as foreign designers could be displayed for all.

Jewelry by this time had finally become not a symbol of status, but one of personal style, both of the artist that created the pieces, as well as the owner who wore them. Jewelry is not necessarily crafted from precious metals, nor its design lessened from it. It has become almost an artwork unto itself, utilizing the wearer's body in its adornment.