The Great Dane

Copenhagen is a town full of jewelry. Its proximity to the Baltic Sea means amber is everywhere—carved into sculptures and set into silver and gold jewelry designs that are popular with tourists. And one of the city’s top sightseeing stops is the underground Treasury at Rosenborg Palace, where the glorious—and heavily guarded—Crown Jewels of Denmark are on view. Many jewelers enjoy prime locations on Strøget, the main pedestrian shopping street. One, Halberstadt, has a window display that makes it a “must-see” for any visitor: A tiny, diamond-encrusted 18k gold train pulls carts of emeralds, rubies, diamonds, and sapphires around the perimeter of the display.

But despite all this gilded opulence, Georg Jensen is still first to mind when anyone mentions Danish jewelry. The company—which celebrated its centennial in April—is still going strong, with more than 100 stores in 13 countries and a new focus on expansion in the United States. There are four stores in the United States, and the company plans to open more.

The Jensen flagship store is located on Copenhagen’s Amagertorv Square, a popular meeting place along Strøget. Recently reconfigured, it exhibits the sleek yet functional look typical of Danish design. Designed to resemble an art gallery, its three floors feature black slate walls, white sandstone floors, and display cases that lend an open, airy quality to the space. In one area, a waterfall runs from the ceiling to the floor—a measure of respect for Georg Jensen’s primary influence, nature.

To learn about Georg Jensen himself required a trip to Hellerup—a wealthy, residential section of Copenhagen just north of the city center. There, an exhibit titled “The Unknown Georg Jensen” was held April 30 through Aug. 1 at the Øregaard Museum. Arranged in conjunction with the Georg Jensen Society, the exhibit focused on Jensen the man—not the brand.

The man behind the brand. “We wanted to put this on because everything now is about the name,” says Ellis Tauber-Lassen, great-granddaughter of Georg Jensen and board member of the Society. “We wanted to make it about the man, about the period of time before and after his work with the company.” The exhibit focused on lesser-known aspects of Jensen’s life: his exceptional talent as a sculptor, his earliest jewelry designs, and the silver items he created for family and friends in his home studio during the last 15 years of his life.

Many of the pieces had never been on display before. Totaling more than 300 items, the show presented his early ceramics (produced with his friend Joachim Petersen) as well as sculptures dating from his student days, including his first sculptural work: an impressive plaster bust of his father from 1887.

Also on display were the rare original design drawings Jensen created in 1909 at the request of Anton Rosen, architect of Copenhagen’s illustrious Palace Hotel. Rosen asked Jensen to design the hotel’s silverware, which was produced in silverplate by London’s Mappin and Webb. The silverware was dispersed in 1964 when the hotel was sold, but Tauber-Lassen says pieces can occasionally be found at auction.

Other design drawings also were displayed, providing insight into Jensen’s creative process. “He was drawing on everything,” says Tauber-Lassen. “Every day he came home with many drawings for inspiration.” That was evident in an original Jensen production drawing presented alongside his ebony-handled wine jar from 1932. The page not only shows the accuracy with which his designs came to life but also is complete with side doodles and small, sketched variations on the jug’s shape. In the upper left-hand corner there’s even a scribbled seating plan for what must have been an upcoming dinner party.

Any display of Jensen’s drawings is particularly rare, since most were destroyed. “Unfortunately for us, all his drawings and all his papers were burned,” says Tauber-Lassen. “It was his wish that they be burned so that others would not get them,” so after his death, Jensen’s wife (his fourth—he was widowed three times) honored his request and burned them in the stove.

A large percentage of the show was devoted to Jensen’s jewelry, ranging from early pieces—including a simple pendant made during his apprenticeship—to the pieces that made his name during the “Modern Danish Applied Art” exhibit at the Danish Museum of Decorative Art in 1904, and finally to individual items he created for family members in later years.

Despite his excursions into ceramics, Jensen never abandoned jewelry, which generated a steady income. His style—which he said was greatly influenced by the beauty of the town in which he grew up—also was informed by both the Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movements that were popular at the time. In his designs, the sensual, sinuous plant and animal motifs of Art Nouveau—known in Germany as Jugend and in Denmark as skønvirke—were married to the Arts and Crafts philosophy, which declared that good, handcrafted design should be accessible to all and not simply the elite. Jensen accomplished this by creating jewelry of the highest standard that remained reasonably priced through the use of semiprecious stones such as amber, moonstone, malachite, and amethyst.

An English-language catalog for the exhibit will soon be available. Information can be found on the Georg Jensen Society Web site, www.gjsilver.org.

‘A shared universe.’ Back in central Copenhagen, a distinctly different exhibit was on view at the Statens Museum for Kunst. Created in honor of the centenary by Oscar-winning Danish director Bille August, “Georg Jensen 100 Years: Silver Design and Danish Art” (which closed on August 15) brought together Jensen silver and Danish paintings of the past 100 years in an impressive display of Nordic creativity.

“To me, the unique and remarkable thing about Georg Jensen silver is its timeless quality, a trait it shares with all other excellent pieces of craftsmanship,” says August in his catalog introduction. “The paintings selected from the museum collections also possess this timeless quality. I wanted the two art forms to meet in a shared universe where the eternal and universal reign. Quite simply, the exhibition is intended to be a journey of light, forms, shapes, and sensuousness.”

August believes that Scandinavian culture, because of its northern location, is deeply and unavoidably influenced by the cycle of the seasons, so he used the four seasons—with the addition of a fifth, “Thaw”—as the common thread of the exhibit. Each room was designed with as much precision and thought as a scene from a movie—as one would expect from an award-winning director.

The exhibit was a labyrinth of small rooms, with light and color contributing to the sense of each season. It began in “Summer,” with light, bright walls and lighting and organic, natural themes in jewelry and painting—but moving deeper into the maze and further into “Autumn” and “Winter,” the atmosphere became darker, the silver and artwork more abstract.

The seasonal summer/floral, winter/abstract, spring/playful themes worked well with the silver pieces, as they mirrored the progression of Jensen company design. The early, nature-inspired skønvirke designs by Jensen himself gradually morphed into the later pieces designed by company workmasters—such as Henning Koppel’s Covered Fish Platter of 1954—in which any Art Nouveau embellishments were stripped away to reveal the simple, clean curves underneath.

The dark “Winter” gallery was particularly powerful. Midnight blue walls and tiny beams of light scattered across the floor suggested an arctic winter atmosphere, with sculptural silver bowls and platters—their fluid lines frozen into shape—grouped in the center of the room and lit from above. On the far wall, a ring and watch display was set into the wall amid another constellation of tiny lights. The pieces, mostly contemporary diamond designs, were lit to emphasize their own beams of light.

In “Thaw,” the viewer emerged from the darkness of winter into bright, diffused light and natural tones of beige. A long corridor, lined with a series of tea/coffee sets on stippled columns, showcased designs that became less abstract and more organic, leading to the arrival of “Spring,” with warm yellow tones and an emphasis on playful, lighthearted design. Here Henning Koppel’s 1948 “Pregnant Duck” pitcher shared the room with Allan Scharff’s “Ibis” pitcher from 1991, while the lavender-colored exit wall was covered with hundreds of “Daisy” brooches. The small and large silver or white enamel brooches—from an original 1940 design by A. Michelsen in celebration of the birth of the current Danish Queen Margrethe II—were arranged haphazardly into a vine-like form that progressed along the wall toward the exit.

In May, the exhibit was burglarized and a number of Jensen pieces were stolen. “They [the intruders] got through eight locked doors, so they were professionals,” said Maria Jankuhn, a Jensen company representative. “But when they got in, all they took were items that are still in production—nothing that we couldn’t immediately call up and replace, thankfully.”

While the company was able to replace the items, none of the stolen pieces have been recovered. “Unfortunately,” said Jankuhn, “in an effort to conserve energy, the museum had put the lights down very low, so only shadowy figures showed up on the security cameras. It could have been anyone in there for all you could tell—it could have been Santa Claus or even the Queen herself!”