Georg Jensen: The Danish Silversmith

by Jorgen E. R. Moller


This is a summary of the above titled book.

Georg Jensen was born on August 31st, 1866 in the small town of Radvad, a tiny rural factory town north of Copenhagen surrounded with the beauties of nature. A small nearby marsh was filled with blue clay, to which a child Georg Jensen began to play and experiment with turning his visions of nature into the small figures he enjoyed. The local bricklayers would encourage the young sculptor and praise his works, and his father, Jorgen Jensen, cultivated his instincts to understand nature for it beauty.

At the age of 14, Georg Jensen's family moved to Copenhagen where his parents had hoped to provide a better future for their son whom showed so much talent and promise. He began working as an apprentice to a goldsmith in a tiny shop where he often worked from 6am till 10am every day except for Sundays, when he attended The Massman Sunday Schools where they offered free technical education. He did not give up his passion for clay however, and in his little spare time continued to sculpt. In 1884, he finished his apprenticeship at the age of 18, and continued to burn with the passion for sculpture. He completed a bust of his father, and courageously presented it to Professor Theobald Stein, successor to the renowned Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, and taught at the Royal Academy of the Arts and was taken on as one of his students. In 1891, his first major sculptural work called “The Harvester”, depicting a young farmer working his crops, was accepted  for the spring exhibition at Charlottenborg, where it was met with favorable reviews. A year later, Georg Jensen graduated the Academy and with his new wife, Antonette, born Marie Christiane Antonette Wulff, were off to face the world.

Unfortunately, times were tough for the young sculptor. Although “The Harvester” was highly praised, it did not sell, and with a young family to take care of, Georg Jensen joined his friend, Joachim, a painter to start a pottery venture to help with finances as he continued with his sculpting. Business was only modestly successful at the best of times, and in 1897, the troubled young artist was crushed with the death of his wife. Alone with his two sons, Vidar and Jorgen, with no business and no money, things seemed dire if it were not his introduction to Johan Rohde, whom after Georg Jensen's sculpture, “Foraret” (the Spring) was rejected by the Academy, allowed it to be displayed in his newly formed “Free Exhibition”. Although the sculpture did not sell, the showing boosted his confidence and his new connection with Rohde would prove fruitful later in life.

In 1900, a new century began and with it came the World Exhibition in Paris, where Pietro Krohn had chosen a number of pieces to display at the Danish booth's Arts and Crafts portion. Amongst them, “The Maid on the Jar”, a piece crafted by Georg Jensen was present and he and Joachim had set up independently to sell their wares as well. This was to be a turning point for the young artist, as the sculpture was praised by the Danish art critic C.A. Been, and of their own booth, sales were brisk and they received an honorable mention at the event. He even received a grant from the Danish Academy with allowed for him to travel for 2 years and absorb the rich artistic traditions of Paris, Florence, and Rome.

His stay in Paris was immediately fruitful, introducing him to the new Art Nouveau style which was taking hold, and reacted against the manufactured items that were taking hold from the last century's marvel with the industrial process and combined it with new naturalistic stylings that resonated with Georg Jensen's birth home. It was also here where he met with Ejnar Nielsen, the Danish painter, with whom he spent much of his travel time to Florence and Rome speaking with of the new styles and formulated ideas for later on. Once in Paris again, Ejnar had painted the well known portrait of the young Georg Jensen which would later hang in the Museum of Decorative Arts in Copenhagen and be issued as a stamp in 1966 commemorating the 100th anniversary of Goerg Jensen's birth.

The trip was also transformative for Georg Jensen, as he learned to appreciate the artistic merit of household items while studying the museums of Paris, and upon his return to Denmark, was convinced this was his new path.

Money however, was still an issue and he took up his work as a ceramicist with Joachim again, establishing a small workshop outside of Copenhagen. Unfortunately as before, sales were modest at best, and so the young artist began to supplement his income by becoming a silversmith for Mogens Ballin, one of the silversmiths that was also highly interested in Art Nouveau, which few firms were following at the time. Also unusual was for a firm such as Mogens Ballin to allow individual artists to sign their own pieces in the exhibitions they showed at, however he allowed for Georg Jensen to do such and to make a special commission on his pieces at these showings. The most famous of which was the Adam and Eve belt buckle, which now resides at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Copenhagen.

The addtionally income allowed for Georg Jensen to finally rent a tiny room which he would turn into his first workshop above the gateway to the most fashionable and prestigous streets in Copenhagen, Bredgade, and on April 19th, 1904, he opened his shop for the first time, and hung a small display case with a number of small silver objects beneath a small lantern at the gate's entrance. The shop itself was tiny and modest, with illustrations and sketches lying about, the necessary tools about the work table, and a young apprentice as well as a hired goldsmith assisting the young artist. Visitors stopped by more out of idle curiosity than anything else, until Autumn of 1904. It was then that he was able to display as an independent silversmith at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Copenhagen for the first time. Immediately success came, and each day orders started to grow. His stock quickly diminished and he hung a sign saying “Closed for Repairs”. The same year he remarried with Magne, born Maren Pedersen, who had been keeping house for Georg Jensen since his first wife passed away in 1897. Towards the end of the year, Magne gave birth to Vibeke, a daughter.

The first few years of the shop were exclusively devoted to the creation of jewelry, which due to practical reasons were more reasonable than larger hollowware pieces or sets of cutlery. These pieces were beautifully adorned with the Art Nouveau stylings he loved, with natural elements from his childhood, and executed as only a sculptor might, proving a culmination of his life's experiences. Especially popular at the time were hatpins, which were a necessary item of the time as women would often wear large magnificent hats which required to be affixed to the wearer's hair to prevent it falling off. These functional items were also often decorated with natural motifs and had matching knobs affixed to the sharp end. These proved especially popular for Georg Jensen and these jewelry items allowed the new “Jensen style” to spread. Typically, he would sell these pieces himself from the workshop, although salesmanship was not his strength, and kept a fairly regular routine of working until lunch, where he would routinely sit at his local cafe, eat a few homemade sandwiches, and make small sketches for his later designs. In the beginning of his popularity, he also began a small “school” for silversmithing where he attempted to instruct a number of the young girls who were enamored with Art Nouveau. Many of them gave up or showed little skill, with the exception of Inger Moller, who in 1922 would form her own workshop and go on to become a silversmith of high regard. It wasn't long till he grew tired of this and closed up the instructional classes. He also clearly recognized the talent of others and had collaborated on a number of designs, most famously the Dove Brooch, designed by Christian Mohl-Hansen, one of the most iconic Georg Jensen pieces to this day.

Success with jewelry eventually allowed him to branch out into hollowware, but at first this was a limited run of pieces which typically sold at exhibitions. His first teapot, shown at the 1904 exhibition, was a prototype for the famous Magnolia coffee and tea service which would sell worldwide.

In 1905, Georg Jensen began to work with Johan Rohde, whom he met at the Free Exhibition years ago. Johan Rohde was an extraordinary artist of many fields, many of which he utilized for his own household needs. He was also a painter of some renown, and collected French Impressionist works before they were recognized which he hung along side his own inside his own home to which he himself was the architect and designed, not only the frames and the moldings, but the beds, cabinets, tables and chairs, inside. His need for cutlery led him to create clay models which he then approached Georg Jensen to execute in silver, whom he admired not for his style but for his incredible execution.

Rohde's personal aesthetic tastes were also before their time in a way. He preffered matte finishes and oxidations in his reliefs which were techniques Georg Jensen used, however he also kept this stringency in his actual designs, keeping design elements to a minimum, who pored over his own designs, often redone with only the smallest of changes. Georg Jensen, on the other hand, would embellish his objects often with sweeping florals, and rarely overworked his designs.

Rohde, however was so happy with Georg Jensen's execution of the requested cutlery that 2 years later, in 1907, he started working more permanently with the silversmith and cooperation and respect for each other resulted in a complimentary design style which broadened the definition of the “Jensen Style”. In 1916, Johan Rohde designed the Acorn Pattern of flatware, which has become one of the most popular of all Jensen flatware patterns. Rohde's hollowware designs also were well received and became some of the most well executed pieces in the history of the Silversmithy. They continued to work together till they both died in 1935.

Back to 1906, though, Georg Jensen and family had moved to Copenhagen to make traveling to the shop easier, as he was spending more and more time working to keep pace with increased sales. Unfortunately, it was also during this time that Magne was slowly become more and more ill and died in January of 1907. The apartment reminded him so much of his deceased second wife that he soon moved back out, this time to the suburbs of Charlottenlund. In November of the same year, he married for the third time, Johanne Nielsen, whose youngest sister, Tabita, had met the silversmith during his time at Mogens Ballin.

The demands of the workshop did not make it easy to have a family life, with the inquiries and orders increasing daily. His new extended family, however, helped to support him, sometimes lending a hand in the shop, with Henry Pilstrup, his apprentice, who would later become the foreman of the team of goldsmiths and a designer of a number of pieces, Kaj Bojesen, another apprentice, whom would start his own workshop and become renowned in his own right (primarily for his beautiful wooden toys), his wife's previously mentioned sister Tabita, whom stayed aboard till 1915, and Alba Lykke, who would later wed Just Andersen, the famous danish pewterware maker. By this time, he had 9 people working within the tiny shop, and each item was still handcrafted.

In 1909, the silversmithy finally started to branch out and the first shop to carry Georg Jensen pieces was opened by Carl Dyhr in Berlin. Carl Dyhr was not unfamiliar with the Danish Silversmith (which is the name of which his shop became known throughout Germany). In fact, Dyhr had been an art dealer out of Aalborg in Jutland and had noticed a number of German art dealers amongst  Georg Jensen's clientele as well as having a personal interest in Georg Jensen's work. Dyhr was also responsible for taking that interest and spreading it throughout Germany (who was going through a revival in Nordic interests) through his efforts to include his works in various exhibitions and willingness to lecture upon the silversmith's works. During this time until the first World War had caused the shut down of the German market, approximately 90% of the tiny workshop's products were sold through the Dyhr's storefront. In 1912, the demand was so great that Georg Jensen had to find a larger workspace, which he did on Knippelsbrogade and a new shop location at 21 Bredgade.  His success also came from his showings at exhibitions such as the Brussels World Exhibition in 1910 where he won a gold medal, and the Salon d'Automne and Art decoratif exhibitions in Paris.  It was in fact, at the Salon d'Automne where Georg Jensen had found incredibly rendered mechanically made silverware, which impressed him enough to slowly introduce the mechanical process to his factory.  In 1914, the German market began to tumble, due to the war, the Baltic Exhibition in Malmo, Sweden allowed him a new market to fall towards.

One of the other biggest boons to the business was the decision for Harald Nielsen, brother in law to Georg Jensen, to join the firm as a daughtsman, whose talent lay with being able to take a single drawing from either Georg Jensen or Johan Rohde, and render, for example, a sugar pot, into a complete set of schematic drawings for an entire service. This was very important as it freed much needed time from both of the masters. Harald Nielsen also started to show interest in creating designs of his own, kicking off the start of a more modern “Jensen Style” for the 20's. Also around this time, Gundolph Albertus was brought aboard as a sculptor to supply for designs, however, he quickly studied the field of silver and gold smithing in order to understand how to execute his designs. This later helped when he acted in and advisory fashion towards the development of the larger Ragnagade factory built in 1918. A year after in 1919, he married Inger, Johanne's sister, and joined the family.

Even with this added assistance, the firm grew exponentially over a short period of time, and it was nearly impossible to keep up. Markets kept expanding, and after the 1915 World Exhibition in San Francisco, (where William Hearst purchased a large portion of the inventory exhibited), Georg Jensen decided to incorporate the firm as Georg Jensen Silversmithy Ltd., and with he himself as the director and artistic leader. Immediately, two people, Thorolf Moller, husband to Maria,  Johanne's oldest sister, and the Swedish gentleman Nils Wendel, one of Georg Jensen's biggest customers raised enough funds to quadruple the initial capital within the first year. Unfortunately, this lead to a situation almost immediately which  Johan Rohde predicted when he advised against opening up ownership to the public. Nils Wendel was extremely dissatisfied with the existing Copenhagen shop and the way the silver was displayed and demanded that either the shop be rebuilt or he take it over. Rather than having someone who was not Danish in charge of the flagship shop, Georg Jensen capitulated and plans were drawn up to have the shop rebuilt and new displays put into place, designed by Johan Rohde.  Soon after the completion of this project, Dyhr had proposed opening new shops n Paris, London and New York. The Paris shop was the first to be constructed in 1918 on the Rue St. Honore, and London was scheduled to be established next when on August 9th, 1918, his wife, Johanne, died from the Spanish Flu which had ravaged Europe. Heartbroken and discouraged, he turned to his work and the new shop to distract him from his heartbreak, and in 1919, the  Paris shop opened.

Unfortunately, the economic promises of a post World War Europe were quickly souring, and with it the business started to crash in 1921. It was fortunate that around this time, Thorolf Moller had discovered Frederik Lunning, an art and book salesman from Odense. Lunning had shared the same passion for Jensen silver, and was a fantastic salesperson. By 1920, Lunning had arranged for a large exhibition in Charlottenborg, Copenhagen of Georg Jensen wares. This was also the first time the foreign markets were truly recognized, and Denmark became aware of the silversmithy as an internationally renowned company. By 1921, however, customers began to delay orders or simply cut back on ordering silver wares. Pedersen and Moller had tried to delay the hemorrhaging from the quickly grown business with the injection of more funds, but sales were needed to help it sustain. To this end, markets abroad needed to be expanded and the London store was to be set up on Maddox St. in 1921 by Lunning. Unfortunately, this was not as successful as hoped, and Lunning was sent about again with a significant portion of inventory to try his luck with New York.

Immediately, sales began to come in, however, it was through Lunning's exhibitions in the upscale hotels which catered to a small wealthier clientele. By 1924, Lunning was able to establish his own New York shop, the precursor to the well known 5th Avenue shop.

With the crisis averted, stock shares were consolidated, and due to Pedersen and Moller's infusions of capital, the result was with Pedersen being the major shareholder and controlling interest in Georg Jensen Silversmithy Ltd., and with Moller controlling the majority of Georg Jensen & Wendel. This left Georg Jensen himself still as artistic leader of the firm, however now an ordinary board member. Unsatisfied with his new restrictions, and desiring more artistic freedom, Georg Jensen had made trips to Paris to start a new workshop in 1925 and reside with his new wife Agnes, and the rest of his ever growing family. Unfortunately, he was unable to find enough business to make ends meet and returned to the silversmithy in 1926. In the same year, Dyhr had reopened in Berlin with a new shop selling Georg Jensen wares, which survived until the bombings on Berlin in 1943.

The final decade for Georg Jensen was depressive for him. While he continued to work for the silversmithy, he often withdrew and only attended when necessary, focusing his energy towards his creations in his small basement studio in Hellerup, where his family now resided. He continued to win awards, such as the Grand Prix on three occasions at the World Exhibition in 1925 in Paris, in 1929 in Barcelona, and in 1935 in Brussels as well as being the only foreign exhibitor at an exhibition at the Goldsmiths' Hall In London in 1932,  however he did not possess the drive he had earlier on. His designs continued to change with the times. As Functionalism became the height of fashion, his designs reflected more of a Functionalist approach. This would be reflected in some of his later commissioned pieces, such as the Chairman's Bell for the Iclandic Althing, or the chairman's gavel  for Copenhagen's City Council, and his last piece, a church chalice in 1933.

Georg Jensen died on October 2nd 1935, and has been hailed as one of “the greatest craftsmen in silver for the last 300 years” who crafted “antiques for the future”, statements which reflected a lifetime of hard work and talent.