The Second Viking Conquest: Scandinavian Modern Jewelry

[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 recent book, European Designer Jewelry, explores jewelry in 13 countries. She also wrote “The Mystery Designers for Georg Jensen USA” for the June 1996 issue of Heritage. This is Part I of Moro’s article on Scandinavian Modern Jewelry from 1945 to 1975; Part II will appear in the next issue of Heritage.]

An invigorating design aesthetic, expressed in angular lines and cool silver jewelry, swept from Scandinavia like an Arctic wind across international borders into post-war Europe and America. Nordic silversmiths and industrial designers triumphed at European trade and jewelry shows with this fresh, revolutionary approach. Scandinavian ingenuity (challenged and subdued by the long war years of deprivation) was rewarded with top prizes at the Milan Triennale International Design Showcases of 1951, 1954, 1957 and 1960. It was time for a cultural rearmament and a new design vocabulary; “Scandinavian Modern” was born.

What motifs and design sources helped to define this period? And who were the Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and Finnish artists who effected this change? A small journey into Scandinavian history helps to answer that question.

Beyond Berserk: The ancient sources of Scandinavian and Danish design included Norse and Crusader legends. In Finland, uniquely, the Viking motifs were merged with Eastern Baltic and Russian cultures.

The largely misunderstood Vikings have long suffered a reputation for piracy and pillage in the lands they conquered. Norse literature describes their exultant battle madness as beserkgangr and “berserk” subsequently entered the lexicon. In spite of their brutal nature, once settled in conquered lands they became able administrators and traders and left a further legacy of Viking words, nation-states and archaeological heritage. Jewelry and objects from graves of this period inspired medieval folk jewelry as well as Scandinavian Modern design. Twentieth century art movements also profoundly affected Scandinavian design.

Modern design movements: The German Bauhaus school, with its minimalist approach, espoused Functionalism (1925-1940). Scandinavians eagerly adopted and modified this concept as a healthy reaction to the flamboyant excesses — the whiplash curves and tendrils — of the French and Belgian Art Nouveau period. Nordic artists reinterpreted Functionalism with straightforward simplicity. Design lines were simple and geometric, without the extravagant flourishes of French Art Deco or the uncompromising Machine Age style of German Bauhaus of the same period.

Scandinavian Modern artists (1945-1975) combined old craft traditions with modern production methods in serially produced jewelry, glassware and furniture, often employing the same motifs in different disciplines. The stark, the 1930s Functionalist lines gave way to the undulating shapes of the “biomorphic amoeba” design in the late 1940s. The “atomic burst,” “boomerang” and “artist’s palette” motifs of the 1950s silver jewelry also were used in furniture, clocks and textiles. In the 1960s, alternative materials such as plastic, steel and bronze were deemed “more democratic” because their cost made them more available to the masses than gold or silver. These design statements and the materials used reflected a socially conscious (and Socialist) Scandinavia.

The impact of radical Scandinavian design and techniques was felt in Europe and the U.S., and the ideas were inevitably copied. Individual Scandinavian artists were promoted in the press as “stars of an independent movement.” A new “Design in Scandinavia” exhibition traveled in North America from 1954 through 1958, further fomenting interest. At his Georg Jensen shop on Fifth Avenue in New York, Director Frederik Lunning promoted the work of Scandinavian designers, many of whom received the Lunning prize awarded annually (1951-1970) to two outstanding young Scandinavian artists to fund their travel for research abroad (see “The Mystery Designers for Georg Jensen USA,” JCK/Heritage, June 1996, pp. 168-175).

Silversmithing was a centuries-old tradition in Scandinavia, but serially produced jewelry was a new commercial concept for other Europeans. France, renowned for luxury goods, was not hospitable to mass production. And the German town of Pforzheim, which had mass produced jewelry, was razed by Allied bombs, making such production impossible for 10 years. Yet machine production was needed in the post-war years to bring affordable jewelry to the masses. With other jewelry centers unable to meet the need, quantities of sterling brooches with gemstone cabochons from Denmark and guilloche enameled silver pendants from Norway filled the new demand.

An understanding of Scandinavian design spread like wildfire with the exhibition Formes Scandinaves at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. National characteristics emerged. Unique to Scandinavia, the Arts & Crafts Societies of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland supported local artists with contemporary exhibitions and prizes awarded at silversmith competitions. National Applied Arts museums bought, exhibited and publicized their avant-garde work.

Neo-Norse in America: “Tailored” jewelry (precious metals without gemstones or rhinestones) presented a minimalist alternative to glitz, which was considered too ornate for the ubiquitous cashmere twin sweater sets worn by college girls and housewives in the U.S. in the late 1940s and 1950s. Scandinavian Modern was suddenly hot.

U.S. sterling silver trademarks evoked “Norsemania.” Such brand names as Danecraft emanated from Providence, R.I., not Copenhagen. Vikingcraft was made in New York, N.Y., not Oslo or Stockholm. International Sterling Craft Associates of Meriden, Conn., produced individually crafted jewelry by Kurt Eric Christoffersen, who had trained with A. Michelsen, Royal Danish jewelers. And the Coro and Napier Cos. of New York, N.Y., produced their own interpretations of Nordic motifs in silver or silver gilt.

This Neo-Norse influence in the U.S. went beyond ideas. Scandinavian emigre-artisans settled in the upper Midwest, bringing their considerable craftsmanship and expertise to the U.S. market. Danish silversmiths contributed Jensen-esque designs to the Kalo shop in Chicago, Ill. Even American Modernist studio jewelers were not immune to the Nordic influence. William Spratling, the American who single-handedly revived the silver industry in Taxco, Mexico, in the 1930s, used Scandinavian design motifs.

Leif “The Lucky” Eriksen of Iceland discovered but did not settle in North America around 1000 A.D. Nearly athousand years later, America discovered Scandinavia, and the Scandinavians were here to stay. Scandinavian Modern jewelry was the second Viking conquest.

NORWAY

Norway is especially rich in Viking folklore. Thor, or Tor, the warrior God of Norse mythology, supposedly protected the Cosmos against the forces of evil. Thor’s legendary hammer (photo 3) was depicted as an iron or silver amulet pendant (usually cast, with filigree decoration). Pagans wore the hammer as protection; it was said to endow the wearer with strength and courage. The hammer amulet was eclipsed by the cross after the 11th century Crusades, but is still worn today for its decorative beauty and simplicity of form.

Of all the Scandinavians, the Norwegians excelled at ancient enamel techniques. In the late 19th century, Jacob Prytz created delicate plique-a-jour masterpieces for the J. Tostrup workshop. Plique-a-jour enamel filters light like miniature stained glass windows, an effect achieved by removing the metal groundplate after firing. The sturdier champleve technique fills depressions channeled into the groundplate with opaque enamel. Cloisonne, another enameling process, involves soldering cells (cloisons) created with copper wire to the groundplate and then fusing with a transparent enamel. This is later polished flat. The latter two enamel techniques are better-suited to 20th century Scandinavian design.

Here’s a look at some leading designers and design companies from Norway.

  • Grete Prytz (b. 1917) designed curving foliate silver enamel brooches on a larger scale than those of her contemporaries (photo 12).
    Educated in Paris and at the Art Institute in Chicago, she was awarded the Lunning Prize in 1952. Rather than make machine-incised guilloche enamel brooches, she engraved the metal ground freehand under the glowing transparent enamel. She also created unusual necklaces by combining Venetian glass segments by Paolo Venini with silver.
    (She added her married names Korsmo, later Kittelsen, to her pieces.) Grete Prytz-Kittelsen continues the craftsmanship established by her great-grandfather at J. Tostrup.

  • David-Andersen Co. was founded in 1876 in Oslo. When David Andersen died, his son Arthur took over and hyphenated his father’s name. Many fine modern designers worked for the firm, specializing in all enameling techniques (photos 2 and 5).
    This jewelry is stamped “D-A” (for David-Andersen) NORWAY and INV. (for “Inventor,” which means designer). The silver fineness is marked 925S (“S” stands for solv or solje [silver]).
    Bjorn Sigurd ostern designed some of the most original David-Andersen pieces in the 1960s. The silver pendants he created depicted stylized birds, runes (the ancient Nordic script), harps and graceful variations of Thor’s hammer with basse-taille (a transparent enamel applied over a design raised or chased in bas relief). These are stamped “INV.B.S.O” in a rectangle.
    Harry Sorby was with the company from 1946 to 1970. His silver brooches were biomorphic shapes set with amazonite cabochons or modern versions of old Nordic folklore motifs with spoon dangles. These are signed “INV.H.S.,” “D-A.”
    Other artists who designed for David-Andersen include Uni David-Andersen, a fourth-generation member of this jewelry family (who started her own workshop in the 1970s, producing abstract geometric brooches), and Thor Lie-Jorgensen (d. 1961), who worked with pressed enamel. In the 1970s, the company’s mass-produced, multicolored enamel animal and bird brooches lacked the design originality of the earlier pieces and were phased out. David-Andersen still produces hollowware, flatware and other household items in Oslo.

  • Aksel Holmsen Smithy, located in Sandefjord since 1932, is best known for silver and enamel floral brooches (photo 6) made in the 1950s and abstract grids with enamel made in the 1960s. The maker’s mark for this workshop is crossed jeweler’s bench tools.

  • Tone Vigeland (b. 1938), daughter of famed sculptor Gustav Vigeland, is an independent woman and artist, conforming only to her own high standards of craftsmanship (photos 7 and 9). Fifties “atomic-burst” earrings and silver link bracelets were designed for Norway Silver Designs at Plus, an arts & crafts community in Frederikstad, south of Oslo. The models she designed as an apprentice were industrially produced. An extraordinary 1958 design of “sling” earrings that swoop without screws or pins from above the ear to dangle below the lobe made Vigeland famous. These are stamped with the conjoined “ND” for Norway Design, and her “T” within a “V” bench mark. That mark was used until 1979, after which “Tone Vigeland” was stamped in script.
    By the 1970s, Vigeland had evolved into the most original talent in Norway; her work was represented in the major museums of the world. She worked enormous collar confections out of feathered steel, silver, gold and even 19th century handforged iron nails. “Harmony between the jewelry and the body is very important to me,” Vigeland explains. Working with oxidized silver chainmail mesh, sometimes as an understructure, she crafts jewelry that moves with the body, flexible and fluid, without fastenings. These could have been worn by the Vikings or the Samourai! (She is avidly collected in Japan.)
    Vigeland’s current creations are increasingly dramatic. Tiny, muted gray sterling saucers are forged and fused to form cluster bracelets (4.5 inches in diameter) or long lei necklaces.
    A retrospective of 80 works by Tone Vigeland gathered by the American Federation of Arts (with some pieces on loan from New York’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum and the Museum of Modern Art) will tour America and Canada this year and next. (The exhibit schedule: Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Montreal, Canada, now through Sept. 1; The Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, N.H., Jan. 31-March 30, 1997; and the Cooper Hewitt Museum, New York, N.Y., April 25-June 20, 1997.)

SWEDEN

Less influenced by the Viking lore than Norway but still deeply traditionalist, Swedish jewelry designs reflect the restrained nature of the Swedish people in the early 20th century. Here’s a look at some leading designers from Sweden.

  • Wiwen Nilsson (1894-1974) was the master of a geometric Art Deco style, soberly executed (photo 10). Outsized custom-cut rock crystals or Brazilian aquamarines and citrines were set in stepped silver or gold mounts. The effect was monumental, austere and classically cool. Nilsson was appointed court jeweler (like his father before him) after receiving a gold medal at the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Decoratifs. His beautifully proportioned pendants and bracelets were exhibited at the Paris Exposition des Arts et Techniques in 1937 and at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. His jewelry also was sold alongside Swedish crystal at the exclusive Orrefors Gallery on 57 St. in New York City, where it was much admired until the gallery closed after the U.S. entered World War II.
    Back in Stockholm, however, Sweden’s neutrality allowed jewelry production to continue in a uniquely healthy economy, even though the silver supply was curtailed. Nilsson was commissioned to create ecclesiastical silver and altar crosses of large emerald-cut rock crystals for 200 churches. These crystals were especially cut for him and were effectively adapted into cross pendants, starting a secular fashion worn by Swedish opera stars and actresses (rather than young girls newly confirmed in the church).
    “The only artistic effect which I strive to achieve is to make the rhythmic relationships inherent in its proportions come to life in my jewelry,” Nilsson declared.

  • Sigurd Persson (b. 1914) did not go with the flow nor emulate any Swedish designers of his time (photos 11, 13 and 14). He was inspired to “Think Big” by the Egyptian arts displayed at the Glyptotek in Munich, where he studied. This was counter to the German and Swedish taste for tiny, naturalistic pieces in the 1930s. During the war years, he designed serially produced pieces for Baron Erik Fleming’s Atelier Borgila. He opened his own workshop in 1945, working mainly in silver.
    In 1952, Persson studied cloisonne enamel techniques at the French Benedictine monastery St. Martin (where Braque and Chagall also worked). His colorful thread enamel (a simplified variation of cloisonne) rings and brooches were a novelty when he returned to Sweden. He designed serially produced “ball and cube” chains for the Atelier Stigbert in 1953.
    Persson finally achieved international recognition in 1965 when he devised jewelry themes around the hand, arm, ear and throat for exhibitions at the Nordiska Kompaniet department store. These were revolutionary creations, with sprays of chalcedonies and rose quartz jutting out on slender stems from the throat or wrist, webbed earrings held in place by loops passing over the ear and high-standing rings with large faceted quartz stones.
    The Georg Jensen store in New York City mounted a major exhibition of 150 Persson silver and gold pieces, with prices ranging from $68 for cuff links to $8,200 for a bracelet. A Jewelers’ Circular-Keystone article in April 1965 pronounced Persson “solely responsible for raising the standards of Swedish design to their present heights. He is extravagantly creative with a sophisticated sense of order.”
    For Persson, jewelry designing “is a kind of joy. To succeed, you have to be a servant of beauty.” Persson continued his service to beauty in the 1970s with molded red elevated plastic shells mounted on silver band bracelets. An extraordinary salute to Botticelli and the Goddess of Beauty and Love, his “Birth of Venus” pendant featured a carved ivory hand with an emerald ring holding silver tresses on a 23k gold shell.
    Persson has applied his considerable talents to silver hollowware, glass (for Kosta Glassworks) and industrial design. Now 82, he is still active, working with assistants in his Stockholm atelier. Persson’s maker’s mark is “SIGP,” stamped together with the Swedish triple crown hallmark, “S” for silver and the date letter (a coding used in Sweden and Finland). His work is represented in the major art museums of Scandinavia, America, England and Germany.

  • Count Sigvard Bernadotte (b. 1907) is the son of King Gustav VI of Sweden and the brother of Queen Ingrid of Denmark. He began to design Neo-Classicist silverware for Georg Jensen in the 1930s. In 1980, Georg Jensen in Copenhagen mounted a 50-year retrospective of his hollowware and jewelry. Sigvard still produces jewelry, though his total output has been small. A sterling wreath, #301, was designed in 1938 (photo 4). The Danish press admired Sigvard’s “clean Swedish lines of form and ornament, and aristocratic understanding of decorative values.” His maker’s mark is “Sigvard” in script.

  • Baron Erik Fleming (1894-1954) was another working aristocrat in the Swedish welfare state. Fleming, who trained as an architect and engineer, became a silversmith by chance. After studying in Berlin and Munich in 1920, he opened his Atelier Borgila silversmithy in Stockholm.
    Many of the Swedish artists designed freelance for Fleming, including Persson, Haglund and Stig Engelbert. During World War II, three Borgila exhibitions of jewelry by Persson and Atelier Stigbert were shown in a former basement bank vault, surprising the Swedish public with the fine craftsmanship. After Fleming’s death, his son, Lars, continued the workshop with metalwork, but only occasionally accepted custom jewelry commissions.

  • Birger Haglund (b. 1918) apprenticed four years at Erik Fleming’s Atelier Borgila before opening his own atelier in the war years (photo 4). Always independent, he traveled and worked extensively in South Africa and Afghanistan, returning to his homeland each time a changed man (and craftsman). The Swedish perfectionist now allowed the rough edges to show, while keeping the essential design simple.

  • Viviana Torun Bulow-Hube was born in Sweden in 1927 and worked in Stockholm from 1948 to 1956. Since then, she has maintained design workshops in France, Germany, Denmark and Indonesia.
    In 1958 in France, a short, bald man with intense black eyes watched Torun gather pebbles along a beach and asked what she would do with them. Torun said she was going to mount them in a silver necklace. The stranger was so impressed with her imagination that he gave her a solo exhibition in the Picasso Museum in Antibes. Torun had not recognized the painter on the beach.
    Even earlier, starting in 1954, Torun Bulow-Hube’s jewelry was displayed at the Galerie St. Germain-des-Pres in Paris. She had admired the sculpture of Brancusi in his Paris atelier and brought the spirit of his minimalist curves to her jewelry. Her silver neck ring with rutilated quartz or agate pendants was widely copied in the 1950s. In the Viking Age, neck rings doubled as cash; they were hung with pendants used as currency. Torun’s modern Viking wore her jewelry as sculptures for the body.
    Since moving her studio to Djakarta, Indonesia, in 1978, (where she uses indigenous materials,) she has been known as “Vivianna.” For a recent retrospective of her 40 years as an artist (20 of them for Georg Jensen, photo 8), she was inspired by the life-giving form of the double spiral as a symbol of eternal movement. Silver spiral bracelets and earrings symbolize for her “the great vibration of life, the infinite and heavenly creation.”

The Scandinavian Modern designers shared a certain crispness of line and clarity of vision. But each had a different approach. The curvilinear shapes of biomorphism (traceable to the 1930s sculpture of Jean Arp) coexisted with rectilinear Modernism and the rejection of applied ornament. These aesthetics were reflected in the post-war design of jewelry as well as the applied arts into the 1980s, when Beyond Berserk became Beyond Modern.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

BIZOT, Chantal. Les Bijoux de Torun, Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, 1993.

OLAF OLSEN, exhibition curator. From Viking to Crusader. Uddevala, Sweden. 1992.

Holmquist, Kersti. Silver Smeden, Wiven Nilsson, Lund, Sweden. 1990.

JENKINS, David. “The Jewelry Artistry of Sigurd Persson.” Jewelers’ Circular-Keystone. Radnor, Pa. April 1965.

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

MORO, Ginger. “The Mystery Designers for Georg Jensen USA.” Jewelers’ Circular-Keystone/Heritage, Radnor, Pa. June 1996.

RAINWATER, Dorothy. “Kurt Eric Christoffersen, Designer and Jewelsmith,” Silver Magazine. Rancho Santa Fe, Cal. July 1995.

ROMERO, Christie. Warman’s Jewelry. Radnor, Pa. 1995.

WIDMAN, Dag. Sigurd Persson en Mastere i Form. Stockholm, Sweden. Carlssons, 1994.