THAT BENGEL BUILT"
Mary Sue Packer, a
collector living in Munich, is the co-author with Sabine Kurz of ‘Strass’,
Heyne Verlag, 1997.
|Picture it -
the world’s largest science & technology museum replete with
locomotives, airplanes, submarines, a planetarium - even a coal mine you
can descend into if you’re not alert about following directions, - past
the model dirigibles to the chemistry section where a little surprise
awaits you beyond the glass flasks and vials: stunning Art Deco
loaned by an academic couple devoted to the hunting and gathering we can
all identify with, who have spent two decades tracking down and assembling
a comprehensive collection of chrome and galalith creations from perhaps
the most important German producer of costume jewelry in the 1920s and ‘30s.
Thanks to the tireless perseverance of Dr. Heribert and Dr. Margarete Händel, these remarkable pieces could be traced to their source and given their proper historical context.
When this jewelry began appearing in European collectors’ markets in the 1980s, not only was its provenance questionable, but it was also presented as ‘manufacturer unknown’ in the literature when it did appear. Paper tags stamped ‘Original Julienne’ indicated French origins to interested dealers and collectors, who believed the elegant designs and workmanship could only be French. But quite by chance, in 1993 the Drs. Händel came across a sample book from an unidentified German costume jewelry firm in which they found a postcard dated 1935 from the German Consulate in Algiers to the Jakob Bengel Company in Oberstein/Nahe (today Idar-Oberstein) concerning an unpaid bill.
They were then able to unearth other company sample books enabling them to complete and document their collection as well as determine why they were finding pieces in London and Brussels in the 1980s; namely, the Jakob Bengel Company had sold its sample collections in 1978, mostly abroad, where the first pieces began turning up. Imagine the sensation, not to mention disbelief, when the German watch chain manufacturer Jakob turned out to be the source!
The Händels were able to convince the Deutsches Museum in Munich that the chemical compounds utilized in the manufacture of this particular jewelry would indeed qualify its presence there - a classic case of technology serving art. Galalith, also know as ‘milkstone’ (Milchstein’) was developed in Germany in 1897 by combining the milk protein casein with formaldehyde, and in the early 20th century it was used in industry and for household items, being relatively simple and inexpensive to produce, easy to color, and heat-resistant.
It is interesting to note that in 1913 30 million liters of milk were converted to 1.5 million kilos of galalith - 6% of total production for plastic instead of cheese! But I digress....
Founded in 1873 by the inventive locksmith Jakob Bengel, the company first produced pocket watch chains in brass, tombac and silver, as well as a nickel alloy called ‘Doublé Americaine’. The foresight and business acumen of Bengel’s son-in-law Ernst Hartenberger enabled the firm to secure lucrative contracts abroad and create the solid foundation which in the early 1930s permitted the company to undertake an uncertain creative experiment, i.e., to prevail over the traditional historic designs in ‘imitation’ jewelry with a completely new genre in keeping with the times and current trends - namely, ‘real’, original costume jewelry.
The liberation of everyday, ‘artifical’ materials, those having no intrinsic value, for jewelry design was first possible in Europe in the early years of the 20th century. First-rate artists and designers then experimented with everything that lent itself to jewelry - glass, horn, enamel, textiles, brass and other alloys, e.g., tombac; with hard rubber, celluloid, bakelite, paper, paint and wood. ‘Material snobbism’ was rejected by young designers, who spurned imitating ‘real’ jewelry, the new materials being ideally suited to the severe lines of Bauhaus and Art Deco designs, the latter an epoch with its origins in France, especially in the decorative arts.
Auguste Bonaz, son of the French comb manufacturer César Bonaz, had added galalith to their program with the idea of uniting it with chrome in unusually elegant necklaces often combined with bakelite in designs strongly influenced in the 1920s by the ‘Wiener-Werkstätte’ and in the early 1930s by the Bauhaus in Dessau as well as the 'Union des Artistes Modernes’, founded in 1929 by the most significant French jewelry designers. These young artists developed the new designs promoted by the 1925 Paris ‘Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes’ whence originated the designation ‘Art Déco’ and where 400 jewelry companies were represented, including 40 manufacturers of ‘fantasy’ pieces. (Germany and America were not invited to participate.) A further exhibit in Paris five years later was dedicated entirely to ‘Bijouterie de Fantasie’.
Thanks to Coco Chanel, instrumental in making costume jewelry socially acceptable and an absolute ‘must’ for every well-dressed woman, Jakob Bengel could combine the influence of Parisian taste and the French avant-garde jewelry designers with Bauhaus purity of form to create its own jewelry designs, as seen in its sample catalogs dating from 1924-1939, with a period when artistic innovation didn’t exactly thrive in Germany, requiring a balancing act between keeping abreast of international trends and kowtowing to the Germanic pretensions of the National Socialists. (These sample books also verify that classic designs in bakelite and galalith were produced for Henkel & Grosse, the later Christian Dior/Germany manufacturers in Pforzheim.) This addition of ‘experimental’ jewelry in the then-avant-garde styles to the original assortment was greatly successful, as the combination of the already versatile brass and chrome chains with different geometric elements of colored galalith in distinctive designs and pure forms corresponded to the taste of the modern woman of the time and, because of its high quality and price, bespoke her social status and self-esteem. The ‘New Woman’, more worldly and independent, had emerged, her image propagated by the current magazines and fashion trends.
The formal severity of Jakob Bengel jewelry does adhere to the Bauhaus dictum ‘form follows function’, but contrary to the further principle that ‘decoration weakens structure, the simple designs are perfected by the clear colors and versatile material malleability of galalith. This simplicity and clarity of design as well as the technical workmanship were enhanced by the firm’s ability to construct its own specialized tools and machines, allowing an extensive repertory of designs to be developed.
The machine aesthetic is elegantly served in the ‘brickwork’ chains where links are woven together to create this effect and allow such pieces to truly ‘fit’ the wearer, who often had the choice of donning a perky painted necklace or bracelet, or the plain one with its silvery sheen on the flip side.
Some jewelry was produced with crystal or rhinestones rather than galalith, and some pendants were designed to be worn with silk or velvet cords, fashionable at the time. The firm’s concurrent production in the mid-1930s of military insignia and trinkets was not unique - the Theodor Fahrner Company in Pforzheim also produced jewelry incorporating NS symbols. Many Jakob Bengel necklaces also had a small ring in the front, where a small galalith swastika could be hung. Whether or not Bengel offered this option voluntarily or under pressure is still unclear.
Most of the firm’s production was exported. More than one Czech firm appears in the order books, notably in Gablonz, itself long a costume jewelry manufacturing center; and a bracelet pictured in the Bengel catalog is even stamped ‘Tchechoslovaquie’ - perhaps destined for further export to France! The exclusive Paris department stores included the lines in their collections, of course not as originating in Germany, and not ‘signed’ or ‘stamped’, but under their own labels, (The Bengel company did have its own manufacturer’s mark - an oval depicting a cannon and pyramided cannon balls.) Still-existing correspondence records indicated a world-wide client base built up from successful presentations at important trade fairs, where first-class design from provincial Germany, unrecognized and un-credited as such, began its journey around the globe.
The use of galalith for jewelry was prohibited was prohibited in 1939 at the outset of WWII to save raw materials, and Jakob Bengel’s signature jewelry production thus came to an end. The firm manufactured military insignia for the Belgian army after the war.
That the Drs. Händel have spent the last quarter of the last century garnering and researching prime examples of Art Nouveau and Art Deco jewelry, as well as Christian Dior jewelry manufactured by Henkel & Grosse from 1958-1972, clearly puts them mega-cuts above the normal garden-variety collector. Certainly their professional backgrounds stood them in good stead - his as a legal scholar, hers as a psychologist - and trained them to pay strict attention to detail - not to merely acquire, but also to really delve in and ferret out the not-always-obvious find, the ‘sleeper’, propelled by the thrill of the chase, discovery, and the fascination (if not obsession) of collecting and documenting.
The five years after the Händels found the key to the Bengel puzzle (the postcard from Algiers) were spent intensively seeking out the pieces scattered throughout Europe and abroad. In 1998 they established contact with the Idar-Oberstein Museum, the Jakob Bengel heirs, the Trier Academy/Idar-Oberstein (jewelrydesign), the Museum Association of Rheinland Pflaz and the Rheinland-Pfalz Cultural Foundation. Due to their tenacity and extraordinary dedication in identifying the staggering production and history of an ‘obscure’ company, the Händels were subsequently able to persuade the City of Idar-Oberstein of the value of a project concerning the Jakob Bengel firm, and to interest the Arnold Press in producing the comprehensive catalog compiled by the eminent jewelry historian Dr. Christianne Weber.
This opulent book is not just a catalog accompanying the exhibit, but a scholarly work of impressive proportions and content produced by this prolific art historian. Her doctoral dissertation, ‘Jewelry of the 1920s and 1930s in Germany’, published in 1990 by the Arnoldsche Press, set the critical standard maintained in this impressive volume describing the production history and processes as well as the sociological context of the Bengel company during its 130-year existence - an exciting chapter in art craftsmanship - and elaborated by excellent photo documentation, chronologically presented and precisely captioned, showing the unlimited fantasy of the designers, which gave the firm its creative edge during its Déco heyday. This literary work in German and English belongs in the library of every serious collector and Art Deco design enthusiast.
And - coming soon, to a ‘theater’ near you, if you happen to live in New York...this wonderful collection will be at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in Decorative Arts, in cooperation with the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, date to be announced.
Art Déco Jewelry/Jakob Bengel, Idar-Oberstein, Germany, by Dr. Christianne Weber. Arnoldshe Art Publishers, Stuttgart, Germany, 2002. ISBN 3-89790-179-X. Available in the US for $75. from the Antique Collectors Club, Easthampton, tel. 413 529 0861
P.S. Due to the intact infrastructure of the Jakob Bengel Company, the firm continues to function, producing anodized aluminum chains for commercial and residential use, and has even been manufacturing jewelry again! Two years ago old tools, machines, dies and designs were found in the attic, a small firm in Italy was located which still made galalith, and the tool-master Fritz Fries was able to reconstruct the manufacturing process, resulting in ‘re-production’ of classic designs, some in limited editions (the fabulous necklace featured on the catalog! ) with profits returned to the Jakob Bengel Foundation in Idar-Oberstein. Further information can be obtained from the company at www.jakob-bengel.de or Jakob.Bengel-Stiftung @ t-online.de.
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