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Last updated on April 20, 2014 at 8:28 EDT

Five Centuries of Swedish Silver

July 27, 2007

By Welander-Berggren, Elsebeth

Recently, a unique collection of silver from the Rohsska Museum in Goteborg was exhibited in San Francisco, Ottawa and at Scandinavia House in New York. Here, the exhibition’s curator explains what is so special about Swedish silver. SWEDEN IS ESPECIALLY KNOWN FOR ITS SILVERSMITHS AND glasswork and it is not by chance that these materials have such an important place in Swedish culture. Both are dependent on light to reveal their charm. Light, in its most diffused, gently refracted form, typifies much of Swedish design. The rich palette of gray tones that slowly break with the dawn, the pale blue shadows, the azure light-all bring out a richness of nuance in things that appear monochromatic, making the materials shimmer.

Swedish silver has a long and strong tradition. The Vikings, from A.D. 550-800 used a lot of jewelry, but we do not know much about their workshops. However, the first known silversmith in Sweden set up his workshop as early as in 1298. During that time it was mostly the church that ordered silver, which they needed for ceremonial functions.

The first known silversmith in Stockholm dates from 1413. A little more than a century later, King Gustav Vasa ordered all Swedish churches to turn over every chalice and crucifix in silver to the crown so that the king could melt them all down to make silver coins for his troops. For about a decade, silversmiths had no customers, never daring to order any silver or gold. But in 1531, when King Gustav Vasa was about to marry a German princess, royal commissions to the capital’s silversmiths began to appear. The king wanted his court to be as splendid as other European courts. So the 1530s became a turning point for Swedish silver; again, the churches and nobility began buying silver objects.

Within a century, Sweden had become a country of great power and soldiers and nobles returned from the wars on the continent with trophies of war. In old days, many Swedes collected their wealth in the form of silver; farmers especially collected silver spoons. The spoon remains a special form of silver. Even today, a baptized child is given a silver spoon. Throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, especially in rural areas, it was customary to reward pallbearers with silver spoons.

In 1473 a regulation was established requiring all goldsmiths and silversmiths to create four masterpieces to qualify for the rank of masters; in Stockholm at the time these pieces were two knife handles, one piece of jewelry and a ring with a stone setting. In the 17th century, required masterpieces were a German-influenced tankard, a ring and a signet. In the 18th century, a coffeepot and, to a lesser degree, a teapot were the most frequently occurring masterpieces. Today, it is up to silversmiths themselves to decide whether or not to make a masterpiece and they have the freedom to make what they want. Swedish silversmiths belonged to a guild system from the Middle Ages until 1845, when the system was abolished.

Sweden adopted early a unique marking system enabling identification of the maker if a piece, the city and the year of production. Starting in 1485, all silver and gold pieces were required to have a master mark. In 1596 it was decided that master smiths also place a city mark on their work. In 1689, Stockholm began requiring a date letter indicating what year a piece was produced. Four years later Goteborg’s silversmiths and goldsmiths also started stamping a date letter on their work. Sweden’s larger cities copied the practice and by the end of the 17th century a variety of marking systems were in use in the country. A royal decree in 1759 finally called for all of Sweden to employ the same marking system. This system began with the letter A; in 1760 a B was used, and so on. When the entire alphabet was used up in 1783, they started again with A2. Thus, Swedish silver pieces from 2007 are marked H12. This system is unique in Europe; scarcely anywhere else can one determine exactly what year a piece is made.

Pieces were not always designed by the silversmiths themselves; they were often helped by architects or artists. Also, Swedish silversmiths frequently consulted pattern books and ornamental engravings published in France, England and Germany for inspiration.

At the beginning of the 18th century there were 54 silver- and goldsmiths in Stockholm, which then had about 50,000 inhabitants. The entire country had 250 smiths serving a population of approximately 1.8 million.

During the 17th century almost all silver manufactured in Sweden came from old silver melted down. Sweden’s single mine, the Sala silver mine, first mentioned in 1511, produced about 300 tons of silver in all, just enough to make the nation’s coins. For elaborate objects, silver had to be imported, mainly from Sumatra via Amsterdam. Another way for Sweden to “collect” fine silver was through war booty.

Swedish silversmiths anxious to become masters went abroad as journeymen, mostly to Germany. However, Sweden developed a special style and a special quality in its silver. If you lined up 1,000 silver objects from the 17th and 18th centuries, like skulls in the catacombs, and you mixed in 25 Swedish silver pieces, I am sure that any expert of Swedish silver could point out all 25. Swedish silver is less decorated than most other silver and is heavier and all made by hand.

During the baroque period, when Sweden was a major economic power, the country was much influenced by Germany, even when it came to interior design and crafts. But in the 1680s Nicodemus Tessin the Elder, architect to the Royal Court and designer of Stockholm’s Royal Palace, traveled to Paris, bringing back copperplate engravings by the architects Berain and Marot. As a result, French taste gained increasing influence in Sweden. But Swedish silver design grew more minimalist than French design and attained an unmistakable Swedish character. It is often noted that Swedish crafts of the provinces did not maintain the same high standard as the work produced in the capital. This is not true when it comes to silver. The situation changed for Swedish silversmiths in the latter half of the 19th century. Whereas earlier they were working craftsmen, they now became businessmen. Most production was mechanized and the smiths also began selling large amounts of imported objects as well. Insofar as Swedish silversmiths made their own pieces, they often used to create silver designed by others, including the Swedish Society for Industrial Design, which published patterns from 1873 to 1904.

Swedish silversmithing was reborn in the 20th century. While Art Nouveau became the fashionable style, it never gained as strong a foothold in Sweden as elsewhere in Europe; Sweden loved its national romantic style. As craft has made a comeback, many young Swedish silversmiths have achieved great success both at home and abroad working with traditional methods. Today’s silversmith is both an artisan and an artist. The sober, restrained style that won Sweden and international reputation in the 1950s and 1960s continues to inspire the silversmiths in the 21st century.

Bowl, ca. 1725. Maker’s Mark of Johan Friedrich Straub, Goteborg. Parcel-gilt silver, cast fruit-ornamented handles. 13.9 cm in diameter.

Teapot and Lid, 1813. Maker’s Mark of Erik Adolf Zethelius, Stockholm. In shape of Roman oil lamp with Medusa-head base. 117.5 cm high.

Goblet and Cover, 1908. Maker’s Mark of K. Anderson, Stockholm; designed by architect Ferdinand Boberg for King Gustav V as a royal gift to Tsar Nikolai II of Russia. Gilt silver with domed lid in shape of royal crown; the body is decorated with King Gustav V’s monogram in rubies, emeralds, sapphires and rock crystal. 34 cm high.

Cocktail Shaker, 1937-38. Maker’s Mark of Sweden’s Count Sigvard Bernadette. Cylindrical body with engraved geometric design. 16 cm high.

Ewer, 1971. Maker’s Mark of Olle Ohlsson, Stockholm. Shouldered silver with everted frilled rim. 28.2 cm high.

Bowl and Ewer, after 1944. Maker’s Mark of Swedish Count Sigvard Bernadette. Silver, gadrooned body. Bowl diameter is 25.5 cm. Ewer height is 16.5 cm.

Coffee Service, 1923. Maker’s Mark of Wiwen Nilsson. Made for the Jubilee Exhibition in Goteborg. Coffeepot is 25.7cm.

Ewer and Basin, 18th century. Maker’s mark of Ferdinand Sehl the elder, in Stockholm. Silver, helmet-shaped body applied with Regence ornament, harp-shaped scroll handle, mask below the spout. Ewer is 13.5 cm high. Basin diameter is 30 cm.

Teapot, 1768. Maker’s Mark of Johan Christoffer Jungmarker, Goteborg. Silver in an unusual shape with two symmetrical curved spouts. 25.7 cm high.

Sugar Bowl and Cover, 1796. Maker’s Mark of Pehr Zethelius, Stockholm. Parcel-gilt silver, pierced support, body with engraved acanthus and insert plaque. 23.2 cm high.

Elsebeth Welander-Berggren is Director General of Prince Eugen’s Waldemarsudde in Stockholm and Associate Professor of Decorative Arts at Goteborg University. She is the former director of the Rohsska Museum of Design and Decorative Arts, for which she curated the Swedish silver exhibition.

Copyright American Scandinavian Foundation Spring 2007

(c) 2007 Scandinavian Review. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.