The esteemed Austrian jewellery firm of A.E. Köchert is today run by the 7th generation of the Köchert family. The firm’s extensive and wonderfully detailed archives allow us to trace the history of both the people and jewels that made this arguably the most important Austrian jewellery firm of the last two centuries.
The Frenchman Emanuel Pioté arrived in Vienna from Limoges via Pforzheim early in the 19th Century and set up his own goldsmith workshop, officially registering his mark in 1814. Five years later in 1819 he employed a young journeyman jeweller by the name of Jacob Heinrich Köchert who had apprenticed as a goldsmith in his native Latvia before travelling to St Petersburg to work. The two men worked well together and the marriage of Köchert to the sister of Pioté’s wife served to deepen both their professional and personal relationships. Their combined talents and experience of French, Austrian and Russian styles and techniques enabled them to create the sort of jewellery that appealed to the sophisticated tastes and requirements of court fashion.
In 1825 Köchert became a partner in the business which was renamed Pioté et Köchert. The firm was making a wide range of jewellery including brooches, earrings, rings, diadems and bracelets as well as gentlemen’s accessories such as buckles, watch chains, seals and buttons and decorative objet including gold boxes, paper knives, paperweights and picture frames. Their success and reputation was spreading and in 1831 they received their first Imperial commission from Emperor Franz I, a gold box that was to be gifted to a Turkish diplomat. This relatively unassuming piece marked the beginning of a hugely important relationship between the firm and the Imperial House of Austria that would continue for four generations. Pioté et Köchert applied for, and were granted, the role of ‘Imperial and Royal Court Jewellers’ the following year with the Emperor commenting “Both applicants enjoy the highest reputation for honesty, for the excellence and good taste which distinguishes their workmanship and both are known to carry out commissions to the satisfaction of the high nobility.”
From this point on they were frequently called upon to provide the Royal family with personal pieces, as well as official gifts and awards and the two men ensured that they kept up to date with designs and techniques so as to always have something desirable to offer their important clients. In 1844 Jacob’s son Alexander joined his father in the firm and four years later, after gaining his master jeweller diploma, he became his father’s business partner on the retirement of Pioté. Jacob is made the Emperor Franz Joseph’s personal jeweller (jointly with his rival Biedermann) in 1849 and of the many commissions he was given by the Emperor and his wife perhaps the most famous today are the diamond stars that were immortalised in Winterhalter’s portrait of the Empress Elizabeth for which she wore them in her hair.
Over the years Alexander (1825-1879) gradually assumed leadership of the firm as his father spent less time in the business and when Jacob passed away in 1868 Alexander applied for, and was immediately granted the Royal title. He registered his own maker’s mark (his initials AEK – which are still used today) and continued to run the business very successfully. The 1873 World Fair in Vienna was hugely successful for Köchert; they exhibited some exceptional jewellery including the beautiful and original Pheasant Tiara and were duly rewarded with a First Prize. Their pieces were described as “counting among the most outstanding treasures and triumphs” displayed at the exhibition and were judged to be on a par with the work of Mellerio, Boucheron and Castellani. This triumph was shortly followed by the collapse of the Vienna stock exchange which heralded the beginning of a very difficult period for Alexander however he weathered the crisis and when the Emperor inherited a vast fortune from his father in 1878 the increase in orders from the Empress (whose income had tripled over night) helped to fully get the business back on solid ground.
Alexander’s son Heinrich (1854 – 1908) had been working for his father for several years when an unfortunate hiking accident resulted in Alexander’s premature death in 1879. Heinrich retained the Royal patronage and kept both the name of his father and his hallmark for the business which he ran successfully with a wide supporting cast of designers, goldsmiths and craftsmen. He continued to exhibit the firm’s creations at World Fairs and Exhibitions and did much to raise the profile of Austrian jewellery and art throughout Europe. His brother Theodor (1859 – 1936) qualified as a jeweller and joined the family firm in 1882. He invested financially in the company and his head for figures meant that a natural ‘division of labour’ resulted whereby Theodore ran the administration and financial side of the business whilst his brother focused on running the creative and sales side. They were employing about 40 people at this time working from premises at Neuer Markt 15 in the centre of Vienna and as the turn of the century approached the jewellery they were creating began slowly to reflect the changes in aesthetic that were happening across Europe.
Heinrich passed away in 1908 leaving Theodore to run the business alone and it was at this point he suggested to his son Erich (1882 – 1949) that he train and join the family business. Theodore was interested in the Arts and Crafts movement and the Wiener Werkstätte and whilst this is apparent in the jewellery of the early 20th Century, Köchert never lost sight of their inherent Imperial style. Erich joined his father in 1916 becoming partner and his younger brother Wilfried started work as an apprentice with the firm in 1922. By this time the Habsburg Empire had collapsed but whilst Vienna was no longer the political heart of Eastern Europe it was still very much a cultural hub and the 1920’s heralded a new era during which old and new money spent extravagantly on jewellery and fashion. Central to the company’s success during this period was the appointment of Erwin Lang, Erich and Wilfried’s half brother, who was an exceptionally talented designer and was responsible for many hundreds of beautiful designs over the following decades. Köchert embraced the Art Deco style and the archives are testament to the vast array of stunning bracelets, clips, sautoirs and earrings they made during this period. Wilfried was passionate about gemstones and pearls, having trained under two of Köchert’s long term gem suppliers before entering the family business and over the years he became something of an authority on the subject.
After the War, the Austrian crown jewels which had been confiscated by the Germans were repatriated and it fell to Köchert to repair the damage that had been done to the priceless jewels. Erich’s son Gotfrid inherited his father’s share of the business in 1949 and was joined by his cousin Dietrich (Wilfried’s son) and together they worked to strengthen the company’s reputation for classic jewellery made with high carat gold set with fine quality precious gems. Collaboration with artists continued as the firm drew on its long tradition of close ties with the artist community. Today their grandchildren Christoph, Wolfgang and Florian run the business, still housed at Neuer Markt 15, where they recently celebrated their 200th anniversary with a major exhibition honouring the history of the firm.