Situated in Legacy Corner in the Da Vinci Hotel by Nelson Mandela Mall in Sandton Central, my shop, Bancroft is in effect one of the stores that make up the greater Sandton City complex. We are thus ideally positioned to serve not only our established and growing collection of loyal local clients, but also the business travellers who stay in one of the several adjacent luxury hotels.
And so it came as no surprise when just before closing one evening, I heard the highly-polished clip of a smartly suited gentleman’s shoes activate the shop’s welcome chime. In a cultivated accent that evoked images of clean Swiss lakes and crisp Alpine air, he asked if we had anything South African that he could take back home to his wife as a gift – “elegant and sophisticated, yet unusual”.
I smiled, not sure whether he was referring to his wife or the gift he required for her, and led him over to our display of vintage 20th century jewellery by South African designers. He was soon enthralled by each piece and the story behind it: the selection of the materials, the inspiration behind the design, and the biography of the designer who made it. The first piece I took out for him to view was a sterling silver ring by Margaret Richardson, the bold shape complimented by simple 9ct yellow gold geometric shapes applied to the top surface. This particular ring originally came from the collection of Ann van der Riet in Robertson, who previously had the following to say of her reclusive late step-mother: “Margaret was born in 1908 in the German city of Konigsberg, the onetime capital of Prussia, but then moved to South Africa after World War II. Johannesburg Fair 2013She loved nature and the outdoors, from which she drew inspiration for her Modernist one-off designs, and consequently many of her unique designs featured semi-precious South African gemstones. She first lived in Cape Town, and then moved to Johannesburg in the late 1950’s where she continued to design and make her jewellery. Even in her final years she exercised her passion in her little workshop in the garden of my house”.
I next realized that a striking ring fashioned in brushed 9ct yellow gold and set with a raised circular Tiger’s Eye disc had caught my client’s eye. Having read some of Professor Fred van Staden’s comprehensive internet blogs entitled “South African Goldsmiths Research Project”, I knew something of the history of the designers of this ring. It was crafted by cousins Hans Georg Blum and Rolf Waizenegger. In 1953 the two of them took over the Johannesburg workshop founded by Swede Birger Haglund. Interestingly he was famous for paying his black and white staff equal wages, something that was rarely seen during the days of Apartheid. This ring with its San rock art motif is an example of their departure from the workshops earlier Scandinavian aesthetic, as they embraced African cultural and wildlife imagery in their designs.
He then noticed a particularly stunning set of rectangular 18ct yellow gold cufflinks set with a decorative motif in ebony, which I think he would have liked for himself. “Don’t worry, you can view them again anytime on our website, anywhere in the world”. Reassured, my client then settled on another creation by the German-born jeweler Erich Frey as the ideal gift to take home to his wife.
A few days following my delighted client’s visit I chatted to Heleen Bossi of Paisley’s, and she agrees that Fred van Staden, a personal friend of hers, is the authority on the subject of South African gold and silversmiths such as Erich Frey.
“From his research I’ve learnt that Frey, a prolific and much-admired gold and silversmith, spent nearly three decades of his life producing jewellery in South Africa”, she told me. “He started out working in various workshops in Pretoria, before opening the first of his self-named studios in 1961.
“His designs were driven by his desire to free himself from the principles of contemporary design teaching and to follow his own personal fascinations. He was drawn to ancient Etruscan art and he experimented with various techniques of antiquity. These he combined with his love of using organic materials – both flora and fauna – and his designs also very often included locally-sourced gemstones in such a manner that this helped stimulate the local gemological industry.
“Many of the now well-established names were taught by the master, Erich Frey, including Stephen Colegate, and also Maia Holm who was one of a few pioneering female jewellers at a time when the industry was dominated by men. Both apprenticed under him, and both took over various studios that Frey had initially started before he finally returned to Europe in 1974”.
Intrigued by what I had uncovered so far, I contacted David Stockenstroom at Kay’s Antiques in Cape Town. “One cannot deny the great impact Erich Frey had on the local jewellery industry. However a study of his career impels one to take a step backwards and take note of the pioneering role of the designer Giuseppe Calafato. Frey began his career in the studio belonging to Giuseppe – or Joe as he was known – when he first arrived in South Africa.
“Joe, together with his business partner Bob Campbell, produced jewellery under the Candida label, of which we have a good selection in our Cavendish Square store in Claremont. Bob and Joe worked in Pretoria from 1947 until they dissolved their partnership in 1968 after which the latter continued producing some Candida jewellery on his own”.
The overall success of Candida is largely attributed to Calafato. The business prospered, and they were well known as creators of jewellery, much of it going into mass-production. These included various items for the Zionist Church, and unmarked charms of Disney characters. They also produced silverware, presentation items and regalia such as coins for Battiss’ Fook Island fantasy.
Interestingly, as noted in Professor van Staden’s research, Walter Battiss’ influence on the jewellery discipline was far-reaching: Erich Frey was also involved in the development of his Fook Island theme, and a young Stephen Colegate was taught by him while at Pretoria Boys High School.
No sooner had I said goodbye to David and put the receiver down, when the phone jingled: It was Heleen Bossi from Paisley’s again!
“If you are writing about important South African jewellers of the mid to late 20th Century, then you must include Kurt Jobst”.
I turned to Fred van Staden again, from whom I learnt that Kurt Jobst – a Swiss silversmith – arrived in South Africa in 1935 aged 30 after sensing the impending unrest in Europe. Opposed to the ideology of Apartheid, he employed artisans of all races in his workshop. Here jewellery and other precious objects were crafted which were distinctive for their hand-beaten, somewhat chunky and unrefined appearance. These pieces echoed the earlier Arts and Crafts movement in Europe, and often included applied metal wire detailing. The appreciation of his unique artistic language led to several important commissions and also a long-standing appointment as a teacher at Johannesburg’s School for Arts and Crafts at the Wits Technical College.
I felt invigorated by all I had unearthed. The increasing business in my shop and my contact with various SAADA jewellery dealers has led me to conclude that interest in vintage South African jewellery designers has indeed caught fire!
This is hardly surprising when one considers the care taken to create each piece. The way the materials, often locally sourced, are selected and designed to complement each other, making up an individual work of art. The designs appear to be simple yet chunky, and make bold and elegant sculptural statements that evoke a sense of Africa.
“They are very representative of the time in which they were crafted, and yet have a very contemporary appeal”, said Pam Thomson from Reads in Johannesburg. “You would struggle to find something comparative at a modern jeweller in a similar price range. I think it is these qualities that make mid 20th century designer jewellery made in South Africa such good investment pieces, quite apart from their obvious aesthetic appeal. This trend is not just limited to South Africa. Many of the designers considered to be South African were in fact born in Europe and only moved here some years later. Other European-born jewellers established themselves in the Americas at much the same time and in a similar way, and so today there is an equal world-wide interest in vintage jewellery designed in the Northern Hemisphere… But that’s another story altogether!”
My thoughts exactly!
Paul Mrkusic – Bancroft Antiques