The Mystery Designers For Georg Jensen USA

Ginger Moro is an author, lecturer and dealer in antiques and vintage jewelry and early 20th century works on paper. She is based in Los Angeles, Cal. Her most recent book, European Designer Jewelry, explores jewelry in 13 countries in Europe and Scandinavia.

Twentieth century silver jewelry is hot.

Whether it’s American Arts and Crafts or Post-Modern, Mexican, American Indian, European or Scandinavian, vintage silver is filling the vitrines at antique shows. It’s sidling right up to Art Deco and Retro Volutes in sales – sometimes reaching the high four figures.

A recent new field of attention is the 1940s production of Georg Jensen Inc. USA. A great deal of mystery surrounds the designers commissioned by this shop – particularly the silversmiths who signed themselves “La Paglia” and “JoPol.”

The story of Georg Jensen Inc. USA begins in Denmark with Frederik Lunning, an intriguing character and an art and book dealer who also sold Jensen pieces. He was to become the esteemed director of Jensen’s U.S. operation.

Jensen managing directors P. Pedersen and T. Moller first hired Lunning in 1920 to arrange silver exhibitions. This turned out to be the firm’s most successful year, with foreign art critics praising Jensen craftsmanship. But in 1921, grave economic crises in Europe forced massive order cancellations. The Copenhagen factory found itself suddenly overstocked; new foreign markets were urgently needed to keep the company in business.

Lunning was sent to New York with a large collection of the best pieces, which he managed to sell quickly at private showings in such top hotels as the Waldorf Astoria. Lunning’s shrewd targeting of an exclusive coterie of wealthy Americans averted a financial crisis at home. New orders poured into the Copenhagen workshops. (As sales increased, so did the fineness of the silver used, rising from 825/1000 to 925/1000 sterling by 1930.)

Lunning opened a small shop on 53 St. in New York, N.Y. in 1923, went on to weather the Great Depression and moved to a new, prestigious location on Fifth Avenue. But back in Europe, the German invasion of Denmark in 1940 and the consequent end of exports meant that silver jewelry and hollowware made in Denmark were no longer available on world markets. The Jensen factory moved to the Copenhagen suburbs to produce stainless steel products.

Nineteen forty also was a pivotal year for Jensen’s American connection. This was the year in which Lunning obtained sole agency rights in America for 100 years from Royal Copenhagen, the parent company of Georg Jensen, Denmark.

Lunning soon made two major policy shifts:

  • He expanded his Fifth Avenue shop into a three-floor minidepartment store devoted to a mixed bag of decorative items, including silver and gold jewelry, lamps, figurines, furniture and fabrics, clocks, handbags, perfumes and even children’s clothes. Quantity unfortunately replaced quality in the process.

  • He filled the gap left by Danish artisans who were otherwise employed fighting Hitler by hiring two designers in America, La Paglia and JoPol. They were to produce jewelry “in the Jensen style” to be stamped “Georg Jensen Inc. USA” during the 1940s.

Curiously, the Copenhagen home office was not consulted and, in fact, was surprised to discover after the war the existence of the American production. Perhaps Lunning decided that his countrymen were too preoccupied with the Resistance to care about retail sales in New York. Perhaps he reasoned that having saved the day once for Jensen in the ’20s, he could continue the highly successful Jensen silverware and jewelry lines during the war by using his own designers.

Whatever the case, the new American designs were still in production after the war. This prompted lawsuits by the Jensen directors in Denmark, who did not recognize pieces produced outside of the Copenhagen smithy. Lunning had broken the strong tradition of Danish “order” and was called to account for it. Georg Jensen Inc. USA settled with the Copenhagen firm in 1949-’50.

Mystery designer, La Paglia: Precious little is known about the two designers who filled the breach. According to fellow silversmith Martin Fleisher, designer Alphonse La Paglia was of Italian descent. He spoke Italian and reportedly worked in U.S. intelligence during the war, slipping to and from Italian beaches by submarine circa 1942-1945. Simple chronology suggests he began to work with Jensen during this time – and apparently also dabbled in the sale of jewelry out of his pocket after work. Because of Lunning’s legal quarrels with Georg Jensen in Denmark, La Paglia stopped designing for Jensen in the U.S. about 1948. Soon afterward, he worked in a musical instrument repair shop in New York City with his four brothers.

La Paglia designed a wide range of handmade jewelry and hollowware during his time with Georg Jensen Inc. USA. He fashioned sterling coffee services and candelabra as well as suites of brooches, bracelets, earrings and necklaces with sculptural blossoms, flower buds, leaves, seeds and acorns. La Paglia skillfully reinterpreted motifs inspired by the “Magnolia” blossom finial on a teapot originally designed by Georg Jensen in 1904 and the “Acorn” cutlery pattern Johan Rohde designed for Jensen in 1916.

Perhaps it was La Paglia’s Italian heritage that helped make his Jensen interpretations such a success. Jensen himself, on a trip to Rome as a young man, had been delighted by the Baroque exuberance of Italian art and sculpture; similar motifs subsequently surfaced in the sensuous details of his Art Nouveau (called skonvirke in Denmark) pieces. Still, Jensen purists insist that La Paglia could not equal the craftsmanship or the originality of the Danish creations – and La Paglia pieces are priced accordingly in the secondary market.

In 1952, La Paglia was working out of a garage in New Jersey when International Silver Co. proposed underwriting his designs. He accepted the offer but was to enjoy only a year of success in the 200-year-old house in Meriden, Conn., where International Silver set up his workshop. Following a heavy rain in 1953, he fell while cleaning the gutters on his roof and broke a leg. Complications from a blood clot brought on a fatal heart attack.

International Silver bought the business from his widow, Harriet, and continued production for a time using the silversmiths who had worked with La Paglia in the old workshop (called the International Sterling Craft Associates). Eventually, production was moved to the International Silver plant where the “L.P.” designs were altered. Commercial casting techniques replaced the hand-wrought look and pieces contained considerably less silver.

Distinctive marks: La Paglia (pronounced La Pollia) means “straw” in Italian. One of the designer’s several benchmarks was a bundle of sheaves of wheat (or straw) with his initials, L and P, on either side in a double cartouche. This was stamped separately or in conjunction with Georg Jensen Inc. USA. He also used his full name in script or “L.P” or “A.L.P.” in block letters. His International Silver pieces always were stamped “La Paglia designed,” with the design numbers stamped underneath. The same numbers marked identical designs produced for both Jensen and International Silver. “These had no connection to the numbers stamped on Georg Jensen jewelry from the Copenhagen smithy,” explains Michael von Essen of the Jensen Museum in Copenhagen.

Since wheat was an important symbol to La Paglia, it’s possible he was the designer of the famous “sheaf of wheat” brooch and earrings which were depicted in Jensen catalogs of the ’40s in gold or silver, though they are not “in the Jensen style.” Nor do they bear any resemblance to a Jensen gold “Sheaf of Wheat” brooch with diamonds designed by Johan Rohde in the ’20s.

La Paglia made good use of Rohde’s oxidation shadow technique, which threw his lush designs into relief. A chain link bracelet (signed La Paglia no. 130) was adorned with zodiac sign charms sufficiently baroque to be La Paglia’s. Because La Paglia designs were bought by such jewelers as J.E. Caldwell of Philadelphia, Pa., and J.B. Hudson of Minneapolis, Minn., pieces signed simply “La Paglia” may have originated in these stores.

Danecraft and Coro are other American companies that jumped on the Scandinavian bandwagon in the ’40s and ’50s. Jewelry with vaguely Jensenesque motifs bearing a “Vikingcraft” trademark sold well to customers stricken with Norsemania. Hollowware after La Paglia designs was produced by East Coast spin shops (Durham, et al) in the ’60s. Quality was sacrificed in the interests of commercial gain.

Mystery designer, JoPol: The second Jensen USA designer, JoPol, produced jewelry more in the ’50s Danish Modern style, unlike the plump three-dimensional Art Nouveau blossoms of Jensen and La Paglia.

There is much speculation about this silversmith, whose name appears to be a contraction of two names. Could it be someone of Mexican origin? (The artists of Taxco and Copenhagen shared similar techniques and sculptural motifs, and European master-craftsmen such as Frenchman Jean Puiforcat spent months working in the Taxco silver town resurrected by William Spratling in the ’30s and ’40s.) Jewelry historians play a guessing game. If he were Mexican, could JoPol be Jose or Jorge Polanco, for example? Or was he a Pole from New Jersey, Joe Polanski? Perhaps the Mystery Man is actually a Mystery Woman – an Italian from New York, Joanna Polizzi? No archival information is available on him or her, so the puzzle remains unsolved.

No matter what the origin or sex of this designer, he or she left us a delightful series of cat brooches signed “JoPol.” The cat’s head, with one eye closed and the other a malachite or chrysoprase cabochon, was adorned with four long whiskers. This was stamped “Georg Jensen Inc. USA,” no. 256. (Could this be the Mexican connection? A similar cat’s head pin with one eye a silver ball and four curled up whiskers was produced by Hector Aguilar in the ’40s. Which brings up the question: “Which came first?”)

In the 1948 Jensen catalog, a “Sleeping Kitten” brooch with one colored stone eye and a curled crescent body (selling for $15 at the time) certainly was by JoPol, though no designer’s name was mentioned. A sterling bracelet made up of the same circle and crescent elements linked together was signed only “JoPol.” A “Wise Owl” motif was used for a brooch and a bookmark. Two leaves in low relief, one with a flower, were both JoPol pieces; the latter also was stamped Georg Jensen Inc. USA. Leaf earrings with silver balls were numbered 0460. A few simple twists of silver forming a barrette were numbered 0290 for Georg Jensen Inc. USA. JoPol designed a gondola-shaped dish with half moon feet for International Silver, but it’s not known if JoPol produced hollowware for Georg Jensen USA. Nothing, in fact, is known about this artist’s training or how Lunning discovered him or her.

Post-war years: Frederik Lunning’s expansion of the Fifth Avenue store eventually proved unmanageable. The slogan on the cover of the 1948 Jensen catalog – “So Much Beauty In One Place” – proved to be all too true. Diversification had led to too much in one place.

The post-war perspective of the Jensen New York store changed drastically in 1949 when Lunning hired a new manager, a Dane named Kai Dessau. What had become an unwieldy general store selling mostly American-made merchandise was transformed into a trade center for Nordic handicraft and decorative art. Lunning was excited by the high quality and elegance of what in the ’50s came to be called Scandinavian Modern, and decided to supply moral and financial support. His Lunning Prize, a traveling scholarship to be awarded each year to two outstanding young Nordic craftsmen or industrial designers, was first presented on his 70th birthday, Dec. 21, 1951. The $400 awards were funded by profits from the New York Jensen shop sales.

The years of the Lunning Prize Foundation, 1951-1970, span the two remarkably fruitful decades of the Scandinavian Modern industrial and crafts design movement. Prize winners such as silversmith-jewelers Henning Koppel of Denmark, Greta Prytz Kittelsen of Norway, Torun Bulow-Hube of Sweden and Bjorn Weckstrom of Finland all later became internationally known. Ironically, Lunning died the year after establishing the prize – on Aug. 31, Georg Jensen’s birthdate!

There was no further need for American designers in the New York Jensen store, which instead supported a new surge of talent from Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. Lunning brought his Nordic proteges world renown, while their American counterparts remained shrouded in mystery. Jewelry historians urge all modern manufacturers and workshops to store their archival records and photographs for future research and provenance. Mysteries such as the identity of JoPol could be more easily solved!

Epilogue: After Lunning’s death, his son, Just, continued to sponsor the Lunning Prize until he died in 1965. In 1970, his heirs sold Georg Jensen Inc. USA to new owners for $1. The new owners weren’t interested in an exclusively Scandinavian line nor in continuing the prize, which they dropped. Sold and resold many times, Georg Jensen Inc. USA closed around 1980, only to be replaced by the flourishing Royal Copenhagen Georg Jensen store now located on Madison Avenue.

Since 1988, the Georg Jensen Prize has been awarded to Scandinavian designers every two years on Georg Jensen’s birthday. (The prize amount of about $30,000 is funded by the Tuborg Foundation.) Museum directors from the five Nordic countries, including Iceland, form the board that presents the award, following the Lunning tradition.

Georg Jensen design resource publications:

Silver Magazine, Rancho Santa Fe, Cal. May-June 1995 article by Dorothy Rainwater on Alphonse La Paglia and International Silver.

Georg Jensen, The Danish Goldsmith by Jorgen Moller, Georg Jensen & Wendel A/S, Copenhagen, Denmark (out of print).

The Lunning Prize. Editors: Helena Dahlb?ck Lutteman and Marianne Uggla. Nationalmuseum Stockholm, 1986.

Warman’s Jewelry by Christie Romero. Wallace-Homestead Book Co., Radnor Pa. 1995. Scandinavian jewelry chapter.

European Designer Jewelry by Ginger Moro. Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, Pa. 1995. Part II, Scandinavia and Finland.