The term “iconic” is much used—and abused—to refer to people or objects that are widely agreed to epitomize a particular style. When it comes to modern silver, iconic is indeed the fitting adjective for the world-renowned Danish designer Georg Jensen.
The most important silversmith of the 20th century, Jensen combined art and an artistry that resonate in the huge body of work bearing his name and distinctive style. His influence continues to this day.
Jensen was born to a working-class family in Raadvad, a Copenhagen suburb, in 1866. He apprenticed to a goldsmith, then trained in sculpture and ceramics at the Royal Academy of Art. However, fine art proved to be an unreliable way of paying the bills for a growing family.
In his mid-30s he made a European tour which exposed him to avant-garde movements such as Art Nouveau and Arts & Crafts, as well as classical, medieval, and Renaissance works. His design genius grew in large part from his ability to appreciate and creatively synthesize a wide range of influences without losing his own originality. He forged an artistic balance incorporating his life-long love of the natural world, his knowledge of contemporary as well as historic styles, and his respect for Scandinavian design traditions.
In 1904 Jensen opened a small silver workshop and salesroom in Copenhagen. There he displayed this motto: “Do not follow fashion, but be guided by the present if you want to stay young in the struggle.” Jensen wares remained best-sellers long after his retirement because from the beginning he’d successfully imbued the company with this forward-looking philosophy.
His earliest designs were for jewelry and small personal items such as belt buckles. Jensen’s creations demonstrated from the first the defining characteristics of his enduring style:
Functionality combined with beauty
Encouraged by the success of his fashion accessories, Jensen began to produce the imaginative and beautifully crafted tableware, hollowware, and presentation pieces that soon created an international reputation.
Jensen was an artist and craftsman, not a businessman. In the early days of the new business venture, he took coins from the cash drawer to buy his lunch. Fortunately, the striking originality of his work was soon recognized in the international market, where it continues to be widely admired and collected. Jensen silver began to be sold outside Denmark, and in a few years the Georg Jensen store in Berlin accounted for more than 90% of his sales.
The outbreak of World War I in 1914 put an end to Jensen’s German business; he turned to the United States. The conservative East Coast luxury retailers weren’t ready for his innovative designs, so Jensen went west, to the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. William Randolph Hearst bought almost every item in Jensen’s booth. The Danish silversmith whose designs had an Arts & Crafts flavor (Arts & Crafts was the most admired style in California architecture and decorative arts) became an enduring California favorite.
In the early years Jensen’s work was entirely handmade. One of its distinctions was a matte surface showing hammer marks, a characteristic rooted in the Arts & Crafts esthetic, which prized evidence of the artisan’s hand.
Georg Jensen’s thirty-three flatware patterns, ten of which are still in production today, are among the most recognizable and best-loved designs of all time. Collectors are mostly interested in older pieces and discontinued patterns. With vintage five-piece place settings available for less than $1,000, the old Jensen is a good buy, especially compared with the prices for current production items.
Jensen’s first complete cutlery pattern (“Continental” in English, “Antik” in Danish) appeared in 1906. In a startling departure from ornate Victorian styles popular at the time, this design, inspired by traditional Scandinavian peasant woodenware, was restrained and almost abstract.
The ten years from 1908 to 1918 were Jensen’s most successful and rewarding on a personal level. The business was thriving yet still manageable, and he enjoyed unparalleled creativity. He and fellow designers Johan Rohde and Harald Nielsen were creating patterns that are among the most sought-after Jensen creations, culminating in Jensen’s own “Grape” design, seen by many as his most characteristic and beautiful.
As often happens, success had unforeseen consequences. Jensen went from artisan shop to industry in 1916, with the biggest order he had ever received. The United Steamship Company ordered 1,000 copper boxes, 100 in silver, and one in 18kt gold, all in the same design, as commemorative gifts for their fiftieth anniversary.
That same year Georg Jensen became a joint stock company. The business expanded rapidly and soon employed dozens of craftspeople. In 1919, Jensen, although he retained a seat on the board and the title of artistic director, largely retired from day-to-day involvement with the business he’d founded.
Disillusioned and restless, Jensen went to Paris in 1925 and opened a small workshop, producing entirely handmade items for the luxury market. These rare pieces were marked “Piece Paris Unique” or simply “Paris” with Jensen’s French maker’s mark. It was an attempt to return to the early days in Copenhagen, when he had personally supervised every aspect of his workshop.
The Paris business was not a financial success, and Jensen returned to Denmark in 1926. During the last years of his life he had minimal involvement with the silversmithy, continuing to make one-of-a-kind signed pieces in his home workshop.
Jensen’s influence on design in the 20th century is immense. Although he worked primarily in silver, the principles he championed—functionality, simplicity, organic form—were the core of Mid-century modern design in all forms and materials.
It’s still possible to acquire very affordable examples of Jensen’s inspired designs. Skinner regularly offers these modern masterpieces in its Silver, Jewelry, and 20th Century Design auctions. For those who weren’t born with a silver spoon, the pleasure of acquiring one, or an entire table service, gleaming bracelet, or sleek pitcher, awaits.