1932, a Year of Crisis – and probably no time for founding a goldsmiths’ society

Chapter extracts from:The Golden Network – The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Goldschmiedekunst During the National Socialist Period

© 2019 Societäts-Verlag, Frankfurt, authors, translator. ISBN: 978-3-95542-361-2

[However,] Director General Waetzoldt reportedly took a skeptical approach to Wilm’s plans at first and was initially, it seems, “simply horrified”.[1] To some people, given the economic depression that was prevailing in Germany, choosing that moment, of all moments, to found a society that aimed to familiarize broader sections of the population with artistic goldsmithery appeared out of touch and inappropriate. The population viewed gold jewelry as a pure luxury commodity, for which, in the face of the prevailing existential problems, no interest or comprehension of any kind could be expected in 1932. At that period, not a few people were being forced to sell their jewelry or valuables out of sheer indigence, or to pawn them in the numerous pawnshops.

Ferdinand R. Wilm was well aware of this circumstance. However, his answer to that was that, precisely in difficult times, the arts and crafts heritage of the German past needed to be preserved and promoted for the future. In a lecture in Rome on May 7, 1933, about the objectives of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Goldschmiedekunst, he explained on that subject: “At first glance, the founding of a German society for artistic goldsmithery may be outlandish in a time of the severest economic depression. However, it is not ignorance of economic matters, unworldliness, and blindness to contemporary events that has guided the society’s founders, but on the contrary, precisely the insight into the economic and intellectual need of our Fatherland has made us resolve to realize old plans at this very moment. A still unexhausted and never to be exhausted national asset is held in German minds and in German hands. But head and hand want to work, they need to create, so that the arts and crafts heritage of the great German past remains preserved and can be handed over to the coming generations undiminished. It is our duty, it is our aim, to collaborate in our modest station on this great task of national rebuilding.”[2]

In a further speech on December 1, 1933, Wilm justified the unequal distribution of wealth and prosperity along with the existence of “luxury” as a necessary precondition for any culture’s development; the “culture rate” of a population was to be judged in historical retrospect, he said, on the basis of the artistic goldsmithery that it produced. The members of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Goldschmiedekunst were characterized as cultural esthetes and art-lovers, who, despite difficult times and everyday worries, contributed to the promotion of culture through their joy in artistic gold and silver smithery.[3] As he spoke, Wilm emphasized that the DGfGK was precisely no professional organization, but served higher, cultural objectives.

However, it was certainly not solely the “insight into the economic and intellectual need of the Fatherland”, or the concern to maintain the cultural assets of the German nation that occasioned Wilm to push for the founding of a society for artistic goldsmithery during a period of economic depression. Beside these ideological motives, economic considerations, in particular—such as concern for the gold and silver smithery trade, currently experiencing a severe crisis, and hence also Wilm’s own business interests as proprietor of a tradition-steeped jewelry company—will also have played a significant role in the society’s founding. Since the activities and arrangements of the DGfGK were considerably influenced by Ferdinand R. Wilm, a look at Wilm’s background and economic interests is indispensable for understanding the association’s objectives and activities.

Ferdinand Richard Wilm was born in Berlin on 11 October 1880. He came from an old Berlin family of goldsmiths, whose members had already been court jewelers to the Prussian kings (Friedrich Wilhelm III and Friedrich Wilhelm IV), or respectively to the German Kaiser (Wilhelm II), as well as to other European aristocrats, for several generations. The goldsmith Gottfried Ludwig Wilm (1743-1829) had produced a rococo service for the Prussian King Frederick the Great, at the workshop he had opened back in 1767 at Jerusalemer Strasse 25 in Berlin.

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The gold and silver smithery trade had veered into a severe crisis from the very outbreak of World War One. On account of the high costs of the war and of the catastrophic supply situation—which had already led to numerous “hunger riots” among the population in 1915—demand for gold and silver jewelry stagnated so significantly that, in the end, the company H.J. Wilm was even forced to temporarily halt its production.[4] Following the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the other German royal houses and dynasties in November 1918, the company H.J. Wilm, as the imperial court supplier, lost its previous clients and was obliged to reorient its traditional sales market on account of this loss.[5] In 1923, large sections of the German population—particularly the prosperous middle classes too—had lost their savings due to hyperinflation, meaning that money for purchasing expensive hand-crafted gold and silver smithery was lacking for the time being. Additionally, due to the increasing industrial manufacturing in jewelry production, artisanal goldsmithery was losing more and more ground, since cheap industrial jewelry was increasingly rivaling expensive gold and silver wrought items.

In order to counter the waning importance of hand-crafted gold and silver smithery and secure the survival of the company H.J. Wilm, in the 1920s Ferdinand R. Wilm developed a marketing strategy that was unusual for that period. By means of promotional campaigns, public relations, and participation in exhibitions, the strategy was now also aimed at bourgeois consumer classes and it contributed to his company’s rise in the second half of the 1920s.[6] For example, he placed numerous advertisements in Berlin fashion and society magazines (including “Die neue Linie” and “Die Deutsche Elite”) and published specialist periodicals for jewelers, goldsmiths, and silversmiths (including “Das Fachblatt”) as well as corporate brochures and annuals, which he used as promotional forums for his ideas and products. From 1930, the company H.J. Wilm had a brand presence in almost all leading German art periodicals.[7]

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Due to Wilm’s successful business strategy and the upswing in the German economy that had begun after the introduction of the new currency from 1924, the company H.J. Wilm evolved into one of the leading German silver workshops of the 1920s and 1930s.

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[1] Celebratory speech marking the 50th anniversary of the DGfGK in 1982, p. 3, in: archive of the Gesellschaft für Goldschmiedekunst, Hanau.

[2] Lecture by Ferdinand R. Wilm in Rome on May 7, 1933 about the objectives of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Goldschmiedekunst, p. 4, in: archive of the Gesellschaft für Goldschmiedekunst, Hanau [translated by Alexandra Cox].

[3] Manuscript of a lecture by Ferdinand R. Wilm, held at the exhibition by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Goldschmiedekunst on December 1, 1933, p. 1, in: archive of the Gesellschaft für Goldschmiedekunst, Hanau.

[4] Demmrich, Stephan: H.J. Wilm, p. 76.

[5] Wilm wrote on this subject: “Due to the loss of the imperial house and of the other royal courts, a major adjustment ensued for me”. Ferdinand R. Wilm, notes, 2-page typescript, p. 1, in: Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg, folder F.R.W. 1880-1945. See also on this subject Demmrich, Stephan: H.J. Wilm, p. 76, note. 323.

[6] Demmrich, Stephan: H.J. Wilm, p. 113.

[7] Demmrich, Stephan: H.J. Wilm, p. 208.

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