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The fine jewellery manufacturing business known today as E. Wolfe & Co was established in 1850 by Johann Jacob Wolff (also known as J.J. Wolff) in Bedford Square, London.
He quickly built up a successful workshop of skilled craftsmen and was soon creating beautiful pieces for the finest London jewellers such as Hancocks & Co. and Garrard the Crown Jewellers. As the business grew he entered into two successive partnerships but by 1862 he was running the company alone again and so it remained until his death in 1869 when it was taken over by his nephew Ernest Wolff. Ernest continued to build on the foundations laid by his uncle and was soon employing over fifty craftsmen. The archives reveal a huge output of stunning jewellery during the later years of Queen Victoria’s reign including impressive corsage ornaments, tiaras, necklaces and brooches all set with diamonds which were becoming more and more available thanks to the output of the South African mines.
In 1902 they received their first significant Royal commission when Carrington & Co. requested they make the coronation crown for Queen Alexandra. This crown was designed with a more European aesthetic featuring extra arches and a lower profile and was the first consort crown to be set with the impressive Koh-i-Noor diamond. Soon after, the company made the extremely beautiful Connaught Tiara with its delicate loops of forget-me knots, a present for Princess Margaret of Connaught from her parents on the occasion of her marriage to the future King of Sweden in 1905. Orders for tiaras from the crowned heads of Europe were received on a regular basis, either directly or on behalf of other jewellers such as Carrington and Garrards, and the firm soon became known as ‘The Tiara Makers’ creating more than a thousand, all of which were recorded in the company archives. Significantly, these included the The Imperial Crown of India worn by George V for the 1911 Delhi Durbar and now on display in The Tower of London, the Cambridge Lover’s Knot Tiara made for Queen Mary in 1913 and soon after the Russian Fringe Tiara also made for Queen Mary which was worn by both Queen Elizabeth II and her daughter The Princess Royal on their respective wedding days.
Around this time they also mounted the famous diamonds Cullinan III and IV into the brooch that is now affectionately referred to as ‘Granny’s Chips’ by the Queen. And there was also a wonderful choker made for Queen Mary during the early 1920’s which was influenced by Art Deco design and was set with emeralds that she had been given in India. This piece was famously worn as a bandeau by Princess Diana after she was given it as a wedding present by the Queen. The business continued very successfully throughout the early 20th century with significant royal patronage and clients from as far a field as Moscow and St Petersburg. The last member of the Wolff family to head the business was Monty Wolfe (he changed the second f to an e) and when he decided to sell up in 1932, two of his designers stepped forward to buy the firm between them.
William Cornelius and William Davies had both joined the company in the wake of WWI after returning home from service wounded and in need of work. Davies had moved his family down from Birmingham to London and lodged with the Cornelius family in Tufnell Park with both men soon gaining employment as designers under Monty Wolfe. They settled in quickly and by the mid 1920’s they were travelling to Paris to study and research jewellery design. During one of these trips they dined out with a friend who was also a designer and as inspiration sparked between them, they covered the restaurant table cloth with ideas and sketches for new pieces.
Fast forward a few years and Cornelius and Davies both borrowed money from their respective grandmothers in order to buy E.Wolfe & Co. from Monty Wolfe. The loans were provided interest free but came with the condition that they employ their younger brothers, which of course they accepted! The company now broadened their range of designs and as the Art Deco style was extremely fashionable at this time, they started making jewellery which reflected these artistic ideals with double clips and plaque brooches in delicate platinum settings proving particularly popular.
The end of this decade saw the decent into WWII during which jewellery production ceased. The craftsmen exchanged working with precious metals for manufacturing Spitfire airplane parts and weaponry for the Admiralty and Air Ministry. William Cornelius’s son Alan who was apprenticed to the firm during this time remembers “One of the floors was filled with heavy machinery – grinders, lathes and milling machines. Gauges and obscure parts of even more obscure weapons in copper, steel and sometimes silver, were made by day and by night shifts.” He also recalls the time a bomb landed nearby and blew all the windows out. The following morning he and his fellow apprentice were tasked with sweeping up the broken glass when suddenly his colleague spotted a loose diamond amongst the shards. It had been lost some time before but finding it covered the cost of all the new windows so it was a very fortunate find indeed.
Towards the end of the war Alan Cornelius was called for service with the RAF and it was whilst stationed in Egypt that he first received a collection of animal and bird sketches from his father. From these early drawings were born the vast array of delightful and characterful brooches for which the company is still renowned today. They became hugely popular during the 1950’s with new breeds and designs continually added to the range enabling clients to collect their very own gem-set menagerie. The brooches crossed the Atlantic in 1967 when Alan made his first trip to America where they were warmly received by stylish clients looking for something a little different to grace their lapels.
Meanwhile the royal commissions continued and included a suite of heart-shaped diamond jewellery and a beautiful clasp with interchangeable centres, one a Welsh dragon set with rubies and the other an English rose. Alan’s son Richard joined his father and grandfather in the family business and continued with the tradition of investing in handcrafted jewels whilst also focusing on building strong relationships with both private and business clients. During the 1980’s the workshop moved to its current location in the famous jewellery district of Hatton Garden and today Richard is joined by his daughter Victoria who is the fourth generation of Cornelius at E.Wolfe & Co. Together they work with their award winning team to continue producing jewellery that delights a truly international clientele, made in a workshop that upholds the values of traditional craftsmanship.