Thirty seven years old, widowed and with two young sons to provide for, Georg Jensen gambled his life savings on opening a tiny silversmithy in the spring of 1904, a decision that would change not only his life but also the history of Danish silverware and jeweller...
Jensen was born in 1866, the seventh of eight children, in the town of Radvaad north of Copenhagen where his father worked as a knife grinder in the local factory. His creativity exhibited itself early on and his family encouraged his artistic nature, moving to Copenhagen when he was 14 so that he could be apprenticed as a goldsmith with the firm Guldsmed Andersen. In his spare time he attended a technical school and also indulged his hobby of modelling clay. After four years he left to pursue his interest in sculpting which he studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 1892, after which he immediately began to exhibit his work. Whilst well received, his sculpture was unable to secure him a steady income and having married and fathered his first child the previous year, Jensen had to look elsewhere to provide for his family. He found work as a modeller at the Bing & Grøndahl porcelain factory which gave him the experience necessary to set up his own small pottery workshop in partnership with Christian Petersen in 1898. Tragically his wife had died the year before leaving him with two young sons to raise and the desire to build a stable future for them was never far from his mind. Their pieces were well regarded but sales were slow and by 1901 he had made the decision to change direction again, seeking work as a silversmith and designer with Mogens Ballin. After three years he felt the time was right to strike out on his own and in the spring of 1904 he opened a small silversmith workshop at 36 Bredgade in Copenhagen. That same year he married his housekeeper Maren, with whom he had one daughter, but within three years tragedy stuck again and he found himself a widower for the second time.
With his training in metalsmithing coupled with his education and experience in the fine arts, Jensen’s new profession enabled him to combine his talents and fulfil his desire to create pieces that were useful and/or wearable as well as beautifully made. The first years of his new business saw him focus largely on making jewellery, primarily due to economic reasons as the amount of silver required was far less than for hollowware or flatware. He made all types of jewellery including rings, brooches, earrings and hat pins, always in silver and sometimes set with inexpensive gems such as amber, malachite, moonstones and opals which he valued for their appearance rather than their intrinsic worth. The natural world provided endless inspiration and botanical motifs were prevalent in his work, although they were usually impressionistic in style and not related to any specific plant or flower. His finely worked pieces, many of which were modelled like tiny sculptures, reflected the aesthetics of the Art Nouveau movement whilst simultaneously injecting them with “a distinctive vigour”. He was instrumental in defining the character of Skønvirke, the Danish equivalent of the English Arts and Crafts movement which, like Art Nouveau, valued beauty created by artist craftsmen and rejected the industrial processes of mass produced pieces.
He contributed pieces to a hugely successful exhibition at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Copenhagen which brought him much attention and sales grew quickly, so much so that he sometimes had trouble keeping up with demand. He created his first set of flatware in 1906 which featured a beautifully hammered finish to the handles; he named it ‘Continental’. It was immediately popular and would go on to become a bestseller for the company. In 1907 he married Johanne Nielsen and not only did this union bring him much longed for happiness and stability at home but it also proved to be of professional significance as several of her siblings would go on to work for the company.
By 1908 Jensen was employing nine staff and mentoring two apprentices. Right from these early days Jensen was keen not only to foster new talent but also to collaborate with other designers and craftsmen. Somewhat unusually for the time, he always fully credited those he worked with, and over the years, collaborations would gradually become synonymous with the Georg Jensen company. In 1912, increasing success necessitated the workshop move to larger premises on Knippelsbrogade, whilst a tiny sales shop was opened at 21 Bredgade which was run by Johanne’s sister. Another sister became the bookkeeper, her eldest brother photographed every new collection for the company and most significantly, her youngest brother Harald, a hugely talented draughtsman, became an indispensable part of the team. He created detailed technical drawings for the silversmiths to work from and often completed the detailed work on Jensen’s designs; he became so accomplished that Jensen would later admit that he sometimes had trouble telling their designs apart. He would eventually succeed his brother in law as artistic director of the company and ensure that the tradition of finding and training young people in the Jensen style continued.
In 1915 Jensen contributed work to his first fair in America, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, where his pieces were highly praised for giving “equal emphasis to shapes, ornamentation and execution and, by doing so, he achieves the highest degree of perfection.” Further exhibitions both at home and abroad helped to secure his reputation for beautiful pieces that were expertly made, combining form and function in wonderfully tactile, sculptural works. By 1918 his staff had grown to 125 and another move to larger premises became necessary as well as a newly designed elegant shop from which to sell the work. Despite the pleasure his career was finally providing him, Jensen once again found his personal life turned upside down with the death of his beloved wife that same year. They had had three children during their eleven years together and her loss was a tragic and bitter blow to him.
Throwing himself into work to distract from his grief, Jensen opened a shop in Paris on the rue Saint-Honoré. This was followed three years later by one in London and in 1924 he was finally able to capitalise on his early success in America by opening a boutique in New York; it was immediately successful. Jensen briefly moved to Paris in 1925 during which time the Copenhagen workshop was left in the capable hands of business partners that had been brought into the company over the years to aid with capital investment. He returned to Copenhagen a year later and resumed his position as artistic director of the company, continuing to help it grow and winning numerous awards at World Fairs including Paris in 1925 and Barcelona in 1929.
He had married for a fourth and final time in 1920 going on to have two more children, the second of which was born just days before his 61st birthday in 1927. He spent much of the time during his final years in a small workshop he had built at his home in the affluent suburb of Hellerup, north of Copenhagen. In the preceding decades he had imbued his eponymous firm with his strongly held ideals concerning both artistry in design and excellence in craftsmanship and this tradition has been adhered to throughout the twentieth century. Although Jensen himself was a proponent of the Skønvirke style, he had the wisdom and foresight to allow his designers their own freedom of expression which expanded the stylistic scope of what the firm produced and allowed it to keep step with the changing times. Over the years, many talented designers have contributed to the company’s distinctive design and style including Nanna Ditzel, Arne Jacobsen, Vivianna Torun Bülow-Hübe, Henning Koppel and Johan Rohde. Rohde was one of Jensen’s earliest and most significant collaborators, working with him from 1905 until his death, and whilst the men were polar opposites in terms of character they both held huge respect for the others artistry and talent.
Georg Jensen died in 1935 leaving a wife, eight children and a legacy of silver design and craftsmanship that will last forever.