Theodore Fahrner Jewelry
between avant-garde and tradition

By B. Leonhard and D. Zuhlsdorf 
Reviewed by Mary Sue Parker

Photo of the bookcover from "Theodore Fahner Jewelry, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, the 1950's"

Before we launch into our review of this marvelous book on our subject, a few words about the extraordinary man whose artistry and inspiration spanned the two major design movements of the last century. 

Fahrner was born in 1859 in Pforzheim, Germany, four years after his father co-founded the jewelry firm Seeger & Fahrner, which the senior Theodore Fahrner continued operating after the early demise of his partner. His son specialized in steel engraving at the Pforzheim Art Academy, where he demonstrated unusual artistic and technical talent, enabling him as an accomplished draftsman and designer to take over his father’s company after his death in 1883.

The period of great stylistic change in the offing coincided with the junior Fahrner’s accumulating experience in the company and his increasing professional recognition. Conversely, the dwindling stock of rings which were a staple of the senior Fahrner’s production coincided with the ongoing decline of Historicism, that preoccupation with antiquity which dominated the artistic styles and designs during the second half of the 19th century. Fahrner aligned himself with the new design trends and engaged freelance artists, painters, sculptors, and architects, among others - to create modern jewelry designs, always toward the goal of elevating the artistic quality of mechanically - or partly-mechanically-produced jewelry to the level of art jewelry. More far-reaching and consistent than his competition, Fahrner worked as a progressive, decisive and bold entrepreneur with artists from Darmstadt, Berlin, Munich, Stuttgart, Pforzheim and other cities, engaging them to design jewelry which his firm would produce and subsequently market, with credit given to the artist - a concept we take for granted today. During this period (from 1895) Fahrner registered his first technical devices and innovations, as well as patents and designs; by 1913 fifteen patents were registered.

Fahrner’s ‘designer jewelry’ was particularly esteemed in England as well as Germany. His vast style repertory and versatility of techniques bespoke the artistic freedom he entrusted to his artisans, and his efforts to combine sophisticated formal requirements with quality craftsmanship and technical processes embodied the Deutsche Werkbund principles long before it came into being. Fahrner’s goal of continuous innovation required cooperative artisans, and his ideal of first-class artists designing for mass production met with positive resonance in the renowned artists’ colony in Darmstadt, leading to a long successful working relationship and establishing a sound basis for the modern mass production of art jewelry. This entrepreneurial far-sightedness and artistic sensibility stood him in good stead in dealing with the ambivalence of individuality and mass consumption.

Significantly, Fahrner was practically the only one of the large group of Pforzheim manufacturers to produce quality art jewelry while distancing himself from the frenzied infatuation with French botanical Art Nouveau. He had early recognized its limits for mass production due to technical restrictions, and perhaps also registered that its successful realization resided only in the hands of the famous Paris jewelers. Nevertheless, Fahrner received a Silver Medal at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, where his “Künstlerschmuck’ was a great success, although his ‘democratization of luxury’, his mass-produced art jewelry, was scoffed at by the French press. After all, they had Lalique and his exquisitely fanciful unique creations, whereas Fahrner presented industrially-designed metal jewelry in simple formats. Ironically, both shared the credo that the value of a piece of jewelry was not only determined by the intrinsic value of the materials, but also by the artistic synthesis of the material components with formal design.

So, what about the man? Turn to page 42 of the book, which you will have bought, and check out the second gent from the left, looking very much like Teddy Roosevelt, on a camel, yet. Would you have risked a trip to Egypt in 1907? Well, Theodore and his wife Martha sure did. And who was the only person in Pforzheim in 1905 to have an automobile?

 Right, the man. He even silver plated the nail out of his first flat tire from one of his first rambles around town. The family lived large in an upscale downtown manse design-furnished by well-known artists, and probably included one of the first telephones, in keeping with his interest in new technical inventions. His park-like garden was in no way diminished by two garages built in1910, one with a room for his chauffeur. The estate itself was the nucleus of an elegant social life which reflected Fahrner’s dynamic and expansive personality as well as the family’s love of music and culture in general.

Theodore Fahrner died in 1919 after a long illness. Martha Fahrner sold the company to the jeweler Gustav Braendle at the end of that year, with the stipulation that all current employees be part of the package, thence known as “Gustav Braendle, Theodore Fahrner nachf.’(successor). Braendle had returned to Esslingen in 1918 after the war, and rather than move into his father’s jewelry business, he opted to take over the already established and well-known Fahrner company and continue its glorious tradition.

In 1921 both the terms of copyright for the ‘TF’ trademark and the ‘FAHRNER SCHMUCK’ font were extended by the Reichspatentamt. The following year Braendle presented a new collection, intended to gradually distance himself from the pre-1918 Fahrner style. This assortment included the standard decorative silver jewelry, but distinctively featured new enamel and marcasite jewelry in combination with semi-precious stones. These new designs owed their uniqueness to the application of enamel (the Braendle company had its own enameling department specializing in matt surfaces) and met with enthusiastic reception.

In 1928 the company moved into impressive new quarters in a noble office building in Pforzheim and maintained production warehouses with in-house sales departments in Berlin and Düsseldorf. In 1929 a huge ad campaign for ‘Original Fahrner Schmuck’ (jewelry) extolled the divine designs in the elite style and ladies’ magazines of the day, and presented a costly top-of-the-line selection as ‘evening’ jewelry. This was in the 1920s quite a new concept in fashion consciousness - that high-society ladies could acceptably wear costume jewelry in the evening, as opposed to ‘real’ junk. (Am I misquoting Chanel here?) There were certainly design parallels to the French Art Déco jewelry in the late 1920s, but Braendle’s point of departure differed: he produced first-rate industrially-manufactured costume jewelry in a pleasing formal aesthetic with quality craftsmanship, while foregoing the costly precious materials utilized by the Paris jewelers.

Gustav Braendle’s personality and charm played a key role in the success of his enterprise (not to mention that he resembled Spencer Tracy, at least in his photograph on page 178) as did his tireless search for new markets, his savvy dealings with customers, and his grasp of fashion trends. He continued the tradition of fantasy and avant-garde jewelry in the 1920s style, and the Fahrner name remained integral to the company, as did the firm’s successful business philosophy. Contrary to Fahrner, however, Braendle maintained an anonymous stable of designers, identifying only his sons and the Viennese painter Anton Kling as freelancers.

The politics of style in the 1930s were reflected in the world economic crisis and the stipulation of a ‘national style’ for the German woman. Fanciful ornament was ‘discouraged’ in favor of rather homely, predictable, sometimes rather boring designs, and the extravagant creations were exported to England, the United States and Latin America. Harbingers of the sinister times ahead were the sketches for swastika jewelry which appeared in the sample design catalogs for 1933, and the following year saw shortened work time resulting from the economic crisis. Part of production during the war years (1939-1945) switched over to technical items, enabling the firm to continue manufacturing and exporting, since the jewelry technicians and artisans were kept on, but with certain restrictions.

Two of Braendle’s sons died in the war, and in 1945 the company building and archives were destroyed when Pforzheim was bombed. During the postwar years Braendle and his third son Herbert strove to revive the company and resume jewelry production, but never succeeded in retrieving the former prominence. Braendle died in 1952; his son continued operating the firm until his death in 1979, when it was subsequently dissolved and its records destroyed, thereby ending the chronicle of one of the most interesting and creative jewelry establishments in Europe.

What a boon for serious jewelry buffs like us that the Arnoldsche has seen fit to re-issue the fabulous Fahrner catalog as an impressive hardcover no personal library should be without! Where else would you find such comprehensive photo documentation of the jewelry which set the standard for artistic and technical innovation between 1900-1930 - jewelry which embodied the Art Nouveau/Jugendstil metaphors and practically eclipsed other design styles through its almost instantly recognizable idiom in the Art Déco years? It’s in German, but as Mel Brooks would probably say, ‘So what!’ You can probably figure out from the photo captions what you’re looking at, and just let the sensation designs work on you. What’s not to like?

THEODORE FAHRNER SCHMUCK Zwisechen Avantgarde und Tradition. B. Leonhard and D. Zühlsdorf, Eds. Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2005. 288 pages, 639 photographs (446 in color), ISBN 3-89790-225-7. Available for $60. from the Antique Collectors Club, Easthampton, Mass.

This book is also available in English from Schiffer Publishing.

Review reprinted with permission

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