Once upon a time in a simpler world, it was generally understood that for those of us accustomed to the finer things life offers we would expect our leather goods were Italian, our wine was French, and our silver and preferably nannies were English. For those who could afford such luxuries, this was the status quo.
And then everything changed. The two world wars that ravaged Europe scattered artisans in particular far from the established centres of creativity and led to new growth and changes in what was once taken for granted. The new world welcomed these craftsmen with open arms and inspired them with experiences and cultural emersion that moulded and shaped the work they then produced. This led to a flowering of creativity in the places these artists landed and lead to styles that otherwise would not have come to be.
Far from a refugee but of similar pioneering spirit was Carl Poul Petersen. He was an apprentice under the great Danish silversmith Georg Jensen until the onset of WWI. After the war ended Petersen eventually married Jensen’s daughter Inger and continued working and studying under him. Work resumed after the first war for the Jensen’s but as the prospect of another skirmish on an even greater scale loomed, many artists like Petersen fled for a better life.
Prior to the start of WWII Petersen took his wife and immigrated to Montreal where he found work with Canada’s foremost jeweller and silver producer, Henry Birks. Working a great deal of his life for Birk’s and eventually independently, C.P. Petersen carried with him a distinct style imparted from his training, but as his career progresses, the sensibilities of a new era and influence start to show.
His pieces are highly sought after and carry distinct hallmarks reminiscent of the Scandinavian and particularly Jensen style. Petersen’s work can be found in private and museum collections with one of his greatest claims to fame being his design of the Canadian hockey trophy, the Stanly Cup.
One country with a rich history of sterling silver is Mexico. One of the finest sources in the world with mines of great purity, most associate Mexican silver with turquoise jewellery and traditional ethnic patterns. At about the same time as Petersen was leaving Europe and settling in Canada, a great number of silversmiths and artisans were settling in Mexico to take advantage of the resources there.
William Spratling was possibly one of the finest examples of these craftsmen, having relocated to Mexico in the late 1920’s to the town of Taxco. This particular town had a long history of mining the metal, but very little known history of producing any fine goods with it. Spratling was deeply enamored of the culture of Mexico and became instrumental in introducing its arts to the people of America. He was one of the first foreigners to circulate amongst the intelligencia and artistic circles of Mexico and indeed was one of the first to introduce such greats as Diego Rivera to the galleries of New York.
Following Spratling’s designs, the design studio in Taxco grew and expanded to mentor the talents of local and international apprentices and incorporate the skills of other fine craftsmen. He took inspiration from his surroundings and its history and in particular incorporated pre-Columbian elements of design and architecture in everything he produced. During the Second World War, the European goods America had become accustomed to were no longer available, and this sent demand for the wares of Taxco through the roof and exposed his talents to a much wider audience. More than that it also brought valuable attention to Mexican arts and crafts and lead to the popularity of their wares throughout North America.
Like Petersen, Spratling brought an established design sensibility to a new frontier and allowed his new surroundings to influence him while he also became the catalyst for a new paradigm and esthetic to emerge.
This article was published in Antiques and Art Magazine Queensland (March-July 2013).