The German knack for engineering is well documented. Its car industry is a world leader; it has an international reputation for cameras and optics; some of the best watches on the market are made in Germany. And, dangling at your earlobes or wrist, there could well be a further example of why the German talent for working with metals and mechanisms has made its companies industry leaders in so many fields. A piece of jewellery could be considered a more personal, expressive equivalent of a BMW engine or a Leica shutter. The German jewellery market was, at the most recent estimate, worth €103m, and the country exports jewellery worth over €1.3bn every year.
‘The requirements for craftsmen in Germany have always been extremely discriminating,’ says Beatrice Müller, owner and designer of the Glanz und Gloria brand, which earlier this year picked up the platinum prize for men’s jewellery design at the Platinum Promenade Awards, a national jewellery design event. ‘Historically only masters were allowed to establish a trade of their own, which is to say designing, making and selling their own products.’
Form follows function
Three other factors have also helped Germany become a jewellery leader, with bigger names including Thomas Sabo, Wempe, Niessing, Wellendorff, Hellmuth and Bijou Brigitte – a retailer with over 1,000 outlets worldwide. First, the country founded some of the 20th century’s most important design movements, notably Bauhaus, and, while Bauhausian design does not in itself characterise the breadth of jewellery available today, a strong ‘form follows function’ ethos has shaped timeless designs that have helped ensure longevity for many brands. One of Gloria und Glanz’s most striking recent designs has been its double ring, which can be worn in multiples – each ring comprises two bands connected slightly off their axes, so one fits around the finger and the other seems to float above it. It’s simple but effective.
Set trends, don’t follow them
Second, Müller suggests, is a growing readiness among consumers to ignore brands in favour of picking a distinctive piece. Third, many German jewellery brands have little concern for matching jewellery designs to fashion. ‘We don’t follow the trends at all,’ says Muller. ‘We digest contemporary or socially important topics, of course, but process them so that our designs set trends rather than follow them. It’s about constantly launching new, original ideas. That means we’re not afraid to use new, unexpected materials – lava stone or feathers or Teflon coating.’
A further factor in the success story of German jewellery is an appreciation of smaller, independent designers. German designers and makers taking a more handcrafted, individual approach to jewellery include Ralf Stautner, Christa Lühtje, Anne von Waechter, Georg Spreng and Daniela Osterrieder. Even the hallmarking is independent in Germany, as there is no official system. There is also a readiness to nurture new creative talent, through, for example, the Akademie der Bildenden Künste München (Academy of Fine Arts, Munich), the Berufsfachschule für Glas und Schmuck (Vocational School of Glass and Jewellery) in Neugablonz and the Akademie der Bildenden Künste Nürnberg (Academy of Fine Arts, Nuremberg).
‘Those art schools have an especially strong tradition in goldsmithing, so you have the chance to be particularly well educated in jewellery design at these schools, even if your work, like mine, doesn’t necessarily include working with jewels,’ explains Osterrieder, who works with the surface treatment of gold and silver, mixing in unexpected materials such as rubber, lacquer, cord and even horsehair.
‘People are increasingly saturated by the impersonality of mass-produced jewellery – they want something unique and personal,’ says Osterrieder. ‘And handcrafting ensures that every piece looks that little bit different – it’s that difference that makes it precious. Some of the techniques used may be 2,000 years old or more. But when you can get the same things around the world and cheaper than ever, there’s a special quality not only in people being able to see how a piece is made by one person in a workshop, but also in using slow processes that are more experimental.’
A readiness to change is at the heart of the industry. Gold has been the historic mainstay of the Germany jewellery industry, with gold jewellery production centred around the town of Pforzheim, on the northern edge of the Black Forest. It is, perhaps, a sign of the recessionary times, that the industry has swiftly introduced intriguing designs in silver too. The Hammer Group, one of Germany’s biggest jewellery manufacturers, for example, last year launched its first silver line. And the silver pieces retain the same characteristics as more expensive German jewellery: elegance, simplicity and the highest quality.