Flag-Bearer Of Fine Silver

By Wendy Moonan

Michael James was 18 when he bought his first piece of antique Georg Jensen silver. ”I had never heard of Georg Jensen when I bought the four-piece ‘Blossom’ tea set,” said Mr. James, an Englishman who began selling antique silver as a teenager. ”I’d never seen anything that amazing and different in my life. Everything else looked rehashed.”

Jensen, the Danish silver company, was founded in 1904, and by the 1920’s it had shops all over the world: ”In New York, Buenos Aires, Paris, London, Stockholm and Berlin,” said Mr. James, co-managing director of the Silver Fund, dealers in vintage Jensen silver. ”By the 1950’s, Jensen had a shop on the Queen Mary, the Concorde of its day. The Jensen name has always carried an assumption of quality. The silver was always made in the most expensive way possible.”

In the 1980’s Mr. James decided to specialize in antique Jensen silver and kept buying. His timing proved fortunate. ”Silver prices were depressed after the Bunker Hunt boom,” he said, referring to the attempt in 1980 by Nelson Bunker Hunt, the Texas oilman, and his family to inflate the price of silver by accumulating large amounts. Then the bubble burst.

To cater to the demand for vintage Jensen silver, Mr. James and Alastair Crawford, another veteran English dealer in antique silver, put together a group of investors in 1995 to form the Silver Fund. They amassed an inventory of 50,000 antique Jensen pieces, including estate flatware, jewelry and holloware. They opened a small shop in London and started selling estate Jensen silver at American fairs like the Palm Beach International Art and Antiques Fair and the Modernism show at the Seventh Regiment Armory in Manhattan. In 1996 the Englishmen created thesilverfund.com, a surprisingly successful Web site.

”All of our best clients buy on the Internet,” Mr. James said. ”You have to have a brand people trust. Think of it this way: if you were going to buy a tie online, you would buy an Hermès tie because you can trust the quality. There is safety in the brand. It’s the same with Jensen.”

Now his business has expanded again. Six months after opening their first United States store, at 1001 Madison Avenue, at 77th Street, in Manhattan, they moved their London shop. Last week they opened the new, three-floor Silver Fund store at 1 Duke of York Street at the corner of Jermyn Street in the St. James’s neighborhood of the West End.

The Silver Fund is now the single largest source in the world for vintage Jensen silver, Mr. James said. ”We are also the largest buyer,” he said. ”We buy estates. We buy from other dealers. We buy at Sotheby’s and Christie’s.” It is the choice for people as fashionable as Karl Lagerfeld and as powerful as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

There is a lot of antique Jensen silver in existence, about $800 million worth of it, Mr. James estimated. He calculated the volume in sheer manpower hours. ”In the 1930’s the firm probably had some 200 silversmiths,” he said. ”In its heyday in the 1950’s it employed 250. Now it has 12.”

At one time Jensen made 33 flatware patterns, 23 of which are no longer produced, and about 1,200 holloware items: bowls, candelabra, pitchers, tea sets, trays, vases, wine coolers, covered fish platters and more. Like Georg Jensen jewelry, many holloware pieces were embellished with semiprecious stones like amber, amethyst, garnet, lapis lazuli, malachite, opal and quartz.

Within a given flatware pattern, like the ever popular ”Acorn,” Jensen created as many as 272 separate pieces: serving pieces, fish knives and forks, ice cream spoons, you name it. One full set is on display in Copenhagen in the small Jensen museum next to the shop selling products made by Royal Scandinavia, the current parent of Georg Jensen.

Why would people buy vintage Jensen flatware when they could order a brand new set at the Jensen shop in New York? ”We are 40 to 50 percent cheaper, and we have more selection,” Mr. James said. The Silver Fund also has a bridal and gift registry.

Jensen silver comes in three distinct styles: Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Modern. Georg Jensen himself was a follower of the Art Nouveau movement. His signature motif, the cluster of grapes, is part of his repertory of forms from nature, including berries, leaves and fauna, which he combined with lightly hammered plain surfaces.

Over the years before his death in 1935, Jensen hired a series of talented designers who were allowed to go their own ways. The most noteworthy include Harald Nielsen (1892-1977), the young brother of Jensen’s third wife, Johanne Nielsen; Count Sigvard Bernadotte (1907-2002), the second son of Gustav VI of Sweden, who was known for his classic geometric shapes, especially cylinders, spheres and streamlining elements; and Henning Koppel (1918-1981), a radical modernist whose unadorned biomorphic designs have become icons of their time and are in great demand.

In the end Jensen’s greatest talent may have been his ability to find and nurture other talents. Jensen did not lead an easy life and did not die a happy man despite his success and recognition.

The son of a blacksmith, Jensen grew up in a poor family in the little industrial town of Raavad, north of Copenhagen. He always called it ”a paradise on earth,” fondly remembering its powerful oaks, towering beeches and blue clay, which he used to sculpture human figures. As a boy, he was sent to work at a foundry to help support his parents and seven siblings.

When he was 14, his family moved to Copenhagen, and he apprenticed with a goldsmith. In his spare time, he took drawing, geometry, engraving and modeling courses. He decided to become a sculptor.

”It was an improbable ambition for a working-class young man,” Mr. James said. ”Jensen was driven to realize his dream. He passed the entrance examination of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and joined its sculpture class in 1887.”

After graduating in 1892 he made art pottery. Nothing sold. He married and had two children, but after his wife died he decided he had better return to his old craft, metalsmithing, to support the family. He designed and made silver jewelry.

Finally in 1904 he opened his own shop in Copenhagen. Soon he had 60 people working for him. His designs were a success; his business skills were not.

”He struggled most of his life,” Mr. James said. ”He always needed new investors.”

His life was also filled with personal sorrow. He lost three wives, Mr. James said. He also lost control of his company. In 1925 Jensen left the company and moved to Paris to start a new workshop. It didn’t work. The next year he was back in Copenhagen. He agreed to become the company’s artistic director, a role that was fairly limited, though he continued to design for the company until he died. Today he is recognized for his immense creativity and productivity, especially outside his native country.

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