On a flight from Toronto to Munich, I was seated next to a young man named Nathan who was on his way to visit a young German woman who’d been an exchange student at his high school. With great excitement, he told me about their plans for his visit, their time together at school, and all the things that are central in a young person’s life. After we landed, he scanned the airport crowd, and I also studied the faces. The young woman was easy to recognize—her face showed the same anticipation Nathan’s did. Their reunion at the airport reminded me how such love is a driving force in the jewelry industry. It also reminded me of one of the reasons I work in this industry—for the privilege of sharing moments like these.
I was en route to the Inhorgenta Jewelry Trade Fair in Munich, with a side trip planned to Pforzheim, Germany’s jewelry manufacturing center. One of my motivations for attending Inhorgenta is that traveling great distances and meeting new people is tremendously stimulating. It gives me a renewed sense of purpose and fresh ideas, not to mention business contacts. The new Munich fairgrounds are enormous but well designed. I began my exploration in the 130,000-sq.-ft. building that housed fine jewelry from leading European manufacturers as well as the fair’s Platinum Pavilion. (The total fair covers more than 900,000 sq. ft.) The booth configuration made it easy to navigate and see the jewelry, even with 30,000 visitors in attendance.
Most of what I saw had been executed by goldsmiths whose handwork methods have been developed by generations of craftsmen over a span of more than a thousand years. As I assessed the execution of the jewelry, I often asked permission to examine a piece with a loupe and was never refused. In virtually every case, the craftsmen had paid close attention to choice of materials, details, stone setting, and the quality of the overall finish.
A majority of the booths offered jewelry with fine- quality diamonds set in 18k white gold or platinum, occasionally married to 18k yellow gold to produce contrasting colors and textures. Colored stones were less evident in the mainstream manufacturers’ area but more prevalent in the designer section. Many pieces incorporated distinctively cut colored gemstones, including some from the Munsteiner family, renowned for their imaginative gem cuts. Their work appeared in several designers’ one-of-a-kind creations. One design—an 18k yellow and white gold pendant set with several carats of diamond pavé-enveloped the natural shape of a large piece of amber, a material not often associated with fine jewelry. The effect was stunning. All the jewelry I saw was of exceptionally fine quality. The stones were securely set, and I saw no cheap-labor “cast in place” settings. Many of the stone setters I spoke with had invested in or invented laborsaving devices and had mechanically set almost everything, resulting in clean lines and straight settings.
The Designer Showcase area featured fashion-forward creations by established designers as well as award-winning pieces crafted by students of some of the jewelry trade schools in Germany. These were well worth seeing, as these students often contribute more to the industry than they are given credit for.
GZ magazine sponsored a free Internet accessbooth, located in the main entry hall, which made it possible for attendees to let the folks back home know how things were going. I ended each day this way—given the time difference, it was easier than calling home.
Day two. I spent the second day investigating the tools and equipment hall, looking at hundreds of items I had never seen before. Many were recent evolutionary improvements to existing tools. There were labor-saving devices, jewelry workstations designed to reduce fatigue and improve productivity, and equipment that eased the tedium of repetitive tasks by streamlining some production processes. One stone setter, Wilhelm Kling, demonstrated some recent innovations in setting techniques. A workbench designer had mounted a bench-top power hone (a commonly used graver-sharpening device) flush with the top surface of an automatic height-adjustable workbench. At the touch of a button, the bench top rises or drops to adapt to different height requirements. The company also markets an air-powered tool called a Gravermeister that allows a jeweler to perform many stone-setting procedures more quickly and with less physical stress.
So many jewelry manufacturers are located in Germany that improvements such as these are rapidly put to use. I spoke to one goldsmith who had been invited to Inhorgenta by a tool supplier who was manufacturing an invention of his: a self-adhesive emery paper that’s applied to a file and trimmed to size and that can be peeled off and re-applied without leaving a gummy residue. It resists tearing because it adheres so well and performs beautifully because it bonds perfectly with the file surface. The goldsmith holds the patent and profits from the distribution, but since he still works at the bench he also profits from his own ingenuity. I felt as though I’d profited from speaking with him. There were clever developments in packaging and display merchandise, such as colored paper gift boxes that appeared to be handmade, beautiful presentation trays made from burlwood, and showcase props of all descriptions. There was also an innovative ring display that positions rings upright on a padded, perforated surface of a case, where they’re easy to pick up and try on, while remaining securely attached by fine steel cables running through the perforations. Decorative brass weights on the other end of the cables hang inside the case and are visible through glass. When a customer puts a ring back, it falls naturally into its original position, standing upright.
Back at the hotel, I examined my options for the evening. I found my way to a tiny pub packed with people who all seemed to know one another. It was the middle of “Fasching,” the Bavarian version of Mardi Gras, when many dress in flamboyant costumes and, with the assistance of copious amounts of beer, become someone other than themselves. (In Bavaria, beer is considered one of the major food groups.) Before long I was dancing along with the rest of the crowd.
The bar closed suddenly at 11 o’clock, and the party moved to another crowded bar just steps away. The barkeep was singing and playing “air guitar” as she strutted back and forth behind the counter, serving her customers. Over American and British classic rock, I had a long conversation about the Beatles with an older gentleman who recited lyrics from his favorite Beatles tunes, gesturing with his mug and occasionally breaking into song. The locals love to sing, and even those who didn’t speak English fooled me with their lyrical accuracy.
On my way out, a woman stopped me at the door and said I wasn’t leaving until I’d danced with her and her friends. This turned out to be a “bonding” exercise for a group of new workmates—aircraft designers—who assured me that they didn’t act like this all the time.
Day three. Next day, carrying my backpack and two bags full of tool catalogues, promotional material from numerous jewelry manufacturers, European trade magazines, and a mittful of business cards, I set off to visit the jewelry center in Pforzheim, via Baden-Baden.
I bought my train ticket, then went to buy a soda. I set the ticket on a ledge below the counter and forgot to pick it up. I returned a minute later, but the ticket was gone. One hundred and fifteen deutsche marks (about US$45) later, I had a new ticket and a fine lesson in the advantages of staying alert. My itinerary included two transfers, and, of course, I missed one—a mistake that took me more than an hour out of my way.
I’m a big fan of hostels. My Hostelling International membership allows me to stay in hostels for as little as US$15 per night, making a trip such as this possible even for those of modest means. I have almost always found the hostels clean and the operators friendly. Most facilities are modern and generally located in nice areas. Hostels in the state of Bavaria don’t allow guests over the age of 27, so I couldn’t stay in one in Munich, but in Baden-Baden, age was not a problem. But when I arrived in Baden-Baden, I discovered the exception to the “clean and comfortable hostel” rule. I spent the night, but in the morning I went in search of better lodgings and a tour of the city.
Day four. Baden-Baden is strikingly beautiful, with centuries-old buildings neatly set into a storybook landscape. Here the Romans built elaborate baths fed by natural hot springs, and some of the ruins remain. The Freidrichsburgh Roman Bath is monstrously large and incredibly old and worth the price of admission just to study the architecture.
Day five. Next day, I was off to Pforzheim. Waking early for the trip was no problem: My hotel room window looked out on the behemoth bell tower of a neighboring church. (This explained the room rate of about US$25, including breakfast.) Sleeping past 8 a.m. would have been impossible for anyone but Quasimodo. Still, it was the best lodging value I had encountered thus far, and breakfast was delicious.
Pforzheim is a small city but known worldwide as one of the most important centers of jewelry manufacturing. My first stop was an Internet café-I hadn’t sent a message home in more than four days—but it was closed. (Fasching, it seems, shuts just about everything down). I wandered farther afield and—serendipity!—stumbled upon the Schmuckmuseum.
“Schmuck” is the German word for jewelry. The museum boasts a large collection of important jewelry pieces dating back to Roman times and includes contemporary pieces that are mind-blowing in their execution. In 90 minutes I saw the past and the present and even got a glimpse of the future of the art of jewelry making.
I also visited two manufacturing companies that day: Schofer, a major chain manufacturer, and C. Hafner, a precious-metals refiner and producer of stock supplies for many major jewelry manufacturers. At C. Hafner, I toured the facility and watched many of the refinement processes, such as sheet and strip forming, wire drawing, and die forming. I spoke with an operator who was die-forming a specific profile of thick 18k wire, to be used in the production of watch bracelet links for Chopard. My host, Daniel Schnell, told me the company had just celebrated its 150th anniversary of supplying precious metal goods of all kinds to companies all over Europe and is currently investing nearly US$10 million in a new refining operation.
Until this trip, I had found Pforzheim to be visually unappealing. The Allied bombing campaign of World War II had leveled the city center, and the buildings that replaced what was lost are typical of new construction found anywhere in the modern world. But centuries-old buildings survive in the city’s extremities, and my hostel was built within the ruins of an ancient castle perched on a hilltop. Pforzheim lies on the periphery of the Black Forest, and my room overlooked a valley. For about US$18, I enjoyed a modern room with a washroom and shower, numerous photographic opportunities, and a traditional German breakfast—crusty rolls, deli meats, cheeses, heavy rye bread with marmalade or jam, coffee, orange juice, and granola with yogurt.
That evening, I found an Italian restaurant in the valley below the hostel, where the owner—whose German was about as good as mine—built me a magnificent pizza. I bid him farewell in Italian, figuring I might as well struggle with as many languages as I could.
Days six and seven. It was time to go home, and I was determined to return to Munich with time to spare. I did, but without a hotel reservation, and everything was booked solid. I was left with no choice but to spend the rest of the afternoon in a pub, jotting notes and eavesdropping on an (unintelligible) argument among the few patrons.
I returned to the train station, bought my ticket to the airport (immediately placing it in my bag) and boarded the train … which was heading in the opposite direction. This time, with a night to spare, I found the situation humorous, so after an hour of travel, I settled back in my seat to enjoy a nighttime tour of suburban Munich. At the last stop, the train reversed course and headed for the airport, more than two hours away.
I arrived at the airport at about 9:30 p.m., knowing the night ahead would be a long one. In the morning, bleary-eyed, I had a cup of coffee in the company of a pair of intoxicated Bavarians, one of whom worked at the airport—in security. He told me stories of his years spent in Alberta, my home province, where he had worked as a farrier and blacksmith, making and fitting horseshoes. Later he specialized in breaking horses, until one kicked him in the head, causing a blood clot to form in an inoperable area of his brain. I wondered if he was trying to rinse it away with blood-thinning alcohol.
The flight from Munich to Toronto passed quickly. On the connection to Edmonton there was more serendipity: I ran into the wife of my first mentor, from the time I was an apprentice goldsmith. He had passed away in 1986.
Journey’s end had brought me back to my roots. Being reminded of a significant person in my professional life who has been gone a long time made me realize just how far I’ve come.