Before the culture of the red carpet and the catwalk, it was the great, theatrically attired nobility of 18th- and 19th-century Europe, in their gowns, bustles and corsetry, who had the power to set trends and make designers. They were the tastemakers and style barometers of the day, the tilt of their hat or the colour of plush velvet coat decreeing what the fashion would be. And while they kept the couturiers and lofty ateliers of Paris in business, it was often to a small shop not far from the coastal resort of Baden-Baden in Germany that they journeyed for their jewellery.
Off the beaten fashion path? Certainly. But it was here in Pforzheim that a young man named Ernst Alexander Wellendorff had, in 1893, established himself as a craftsman of exquisite, intricate and precious jewellery. More than a century later, Wellendorff has moved from being a name to know in the grand estates of Russia, France and, of course, Germany and established itself as one of the country’s most revered luxury brands.
Wellendorff the man was certainly shrewd in setting up his business so close to the seaside resort used German royalty and nobility as their playground; the jewellery they purchased at his store was then spirited across Europe and admired and coveted at grand balls and state banquets, with the European elite subsequently tracking down this young innovator. What made his designs so enticing? His craftsmanship with gold was unrivalled, and he became renowned for his discreet elegance and quiet good taste in an era of elaborate ostentation.
In today’s age of corporate luxury conglomerates, it’s heartening that an international label such as Wellendorff is still a family-run enterprise. It was Ernst Wellendorff’s grandson Hanspeter who, in 1960, evolved the logo that would become a symbol of discreet branding for the company – the gold W with a diamond emblem balanced on the middle peak of the letter. Today the Brilliant W, as it’s now termed, is subtly incorporated into every piece of Wellendorff jewellery, made of 18 carat gold and studded with a small, full-cut diamond.
Another calling card of the label is, of course, its ‘silk rope’ necklace design. This intricate piece made its debut on the fine-jewellery map in 1978, going on to set a new benchmark in design and act as a physical emblem of social shift. The idea came from the mother of Georg and Christoph Wellendorff, the brothers who were heading the brand at the time. As a child she used to play with the plush silk ropes that tied back the curtains of her home. Decades later, she recalled this and set her goldsmith husband a challenge: to create one in gold that would be as soft and malleable as the ones she used to play with. His design, a series of tactile gold rings bound together, was so admired by the brothers that it was promptly assimilated into Wellendorff’s jewellery line. The result is fluid and entirely handcrafted, the snake-like movement of the piece achieved from a network of wires pulled through the holes.
What it marked was a bold new change in what jewellery should be; that even pieces crafted in 18-carat gold should work easily into your life and daily demands. Across the Atlantic in New York, Elsa Peretti at Tiffany & Co was moulding precious metals into ‘rough’ organic shapes, and the statement from these two luxury titans was clear; jewellery was no longer to be weighty, grand ‘event’ pieces designed purely for dress-up days, but was to chime with the new, on-the-go working woman. So integral to the brand is the silk ring design that Georg Wellendorff maintains that it’s ‘our guideline, our target and our teacher. Everything starts from here.’
For a house defined by classicism and pared-down sophistication (the Wellendorffs even go as far to describe their aesthetic as ‘conservative’), it has made a point of capturing the zeitgeist, the mood of the moment. Each year, the brand unveils a Ring of the Year, a limited-edition piece with a suitable emblem or motif worked on to it. The tradition, which began in 1997 when Hong Kong was handed back to China, sees this year’s theme as Guardian Angel, a reaction to the uncertainty the world has gone through during these past 12 months. With Wellendorff’s emphasis on constant evolution and reaction to social ebbs and shifts, while never straying far from its original tenets of quiet, polished taste, the Brilliant W symbol will no doubt be just as celebrated in 100 years as it has been throughout the decades.