Monday, 11 February 2013

Introduction to Alexander Tillander Jewelers

The interior of the A. Tillander shop in Helsinki in the late 1920s. The group of three men in the back are Oskar Woldemar Pihl (son Of Faberge's Moscow manager Knut Oskar Pihl and grandson of August Holmstrom), Herbert T Wander, and Alexander Tillander Jr.
The Soviet Union in the age of glasnost is so full 'of surprises that a Faberge exhibition in the Leningrad Elagin Palace is no longer a shocking event. But for the Helsinki company of A. Tillander Jewelers the exhibition of 1989 brought back memories of times past though never forgotten. 

It recalled the triumphs and setbacks of a four-generation-old company of goldsmiths and jewelers, of the joys and misfortunes of a family saga, of tenacity in the face of adversity.

The story begins in 1837 with the birth of Alexander Tillander into a family of poor tenant farmers near Helsinki. As the farm was too small to support another mouth, at the age of 11 Alexander was put on a cart carrying produce to St Petersburg, told to contact his brother there and to get himself apprenticed to a barber. There was nothing unusual in this; hundreds of 10- to 13-year-old boys and girls left Finland every year to seek their fortunes in St Petersburg, the rapidly expanding capital of Russia, a Mecca for aspiring craftsmen from all over Europe.

A Tillander family portrait (1911), Left to right: Leo, Mathilda (Alexander Sir’s wife), Herbert, Alexander Sr, Viktor, Alexander Jr and his wife.The young Alexander took an immediate dislike to barbering and managed to get himself apprenticed to Fredrik Adolf Holstenius, a Finnish master goldsmith at Tsarskoe Selo. After the compulsory seven years, he qualified as a journeyman and returned to St Petersburg as journeyman to the German master Carl Becks, maker of Imperial orders and decorations. Capable, industrious and thrifty, he decided by 1860, with savings of 200 roubles (about £1200 in today's money), to start out on his own. 

Renting a modest room with workbench and tools, his capital invested in gold, Alexander began producing simple gold bangles, at that time in vogue and easy to sell. These he worked on eighteen hours a day, spending what free time he had teaching himself to read and write.

Gold tube replica style jewelry (c. 1870). Top, two bangles, one with coiled serpents, the other with freshwater pearls. Below them, two bar brooches, one set with an almandine garnet, the other a simple overhand knot with lapis-lazuli bead terminals.
In the 1860s St Petersburg had well over three hundred goldsmiths' workshops employing some 3,000 people, a good quarter of them Finns. Alexander's business slowly increased, apprentices were taken on even a journeyman and a private clientele was acquired in addition to the great stores on the Nevski Prospekt. The way ahead was to concentrate on fashionable yet simple articles, well designed, carefully made, modestly priced, above all appealing to Russian taste. 

Russian jewelry possessed a certain naivety and nostalgia, a deep and patriotic humanity; it was characterized by vivid colour and naturalism, and an almost excessive decorativeness. Alexander made bangles from gold tube set with pearls or Russian gems, rings, brooches with matching earrings, cufflinks and studs. His bar-shaped brooches set with pearl-studded anchors symbolized Peter the Great's naval city. He also made lily-of-the-valley sprays and even a fleur-de-lis set with diamonds. Without departing from this basic style, Alexander's jewelry gradually acquired a reputation for quality workmanship.

A bar brooch made of gold and set with an anchor of gold and pearls, on the right a gold bangle in the replica style with decorative finials, entwined with pearls set in gold.
As the business grew and more workers were taken on, Alexander found time to explore new ideas, to master the Russian, French and German languages and even to get married. (Here, however, he dispensed with courtship by marrying his Finnish housekeeper Mathilda Ingman.) More important private customers were acquired, among them the nobleman Tulinoff who was to rescue the company from impending bankruptcy that resulted from Alexander's disastrous venture into the diamond business.

With both business and family expanding Alexander Theodor was born in 1870 new premises were found on the corner of Bolshaya Morskaya Street and Gorohovaya. These included the work-shop, living quarters for the family, and a granite columned showroom that pro= vided a suitable background for the company's illustrious customers.

A lily-of-the-valley spray in gold set with half pearls (c. 1880).
By 1874 Alexander Tillander made his first trip abroad, to the Exposition Universelle in Paris, the most important venue for new ideas from European jewelers. At home, Faberge's copies of the sensational Scythian finds at Kerch received widespread publicity, and before long replica jewelry also became a best-selling item at Tillander's. These included tubular gold bangles and bar brooches set with snake heads and bead terminals, and with filigree or granulation finish. Alexander Tillander's workmanship was recognized with the award of silver medals at the St Petersburg and Ekaterinburg arts and crafts shows in the mid-1880s.

New articles gradually came into production. Commemorative badges in gold and silver, decorated with enamel, were made in their hundreds for associations and societies. So important were these, and so limited the capacity of the workshop, that subcontractors were resorted to, small workshops working exclusively for Tillander.

A gold jeweled and enameled charka or cup, with bombe sides, the handle in the form of a curling snake, the upper rim set with emeralds, enameled in the vivid translucent red typical of Tillander (c. 1890).
Then came the "egg business", as it was called in the ledgers. In the Orthodox tradition, it was obligatory to give an egg to each female member of the family on Easter morning. Faberge's famous and imaginative eggs were eagerly emulated by other jewelers in St Petersburg.

The production of gold, silver and hardstone objects of a practical or decorative nature acquired an increasing importance. Photograph frames sold well, and many fine examples in gold and silver have survived privately or in museums. An enameled silver frame in the Louis XV style is on display at the State Historical Museum in Moscow, another is in the collection of the Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza in Lugano. 

What these have in common is wavy-patterned guilloche enamel in the vivid scarlet so characteristic of Alexander Tillander's palette. Siberian nephrite was much favoured by Tillander and a number of objects de vitrine were made from it, often gold-mounted and set with gems.

A silver-gilt and enamel miniature frame in the Louis XV style, with scarlet waved guilloche enamel (c. 1890).
Around 1887, the younger Alexander left the German School he had been attending in order to spend a short apprenticeship with his father's company before being sent abroad. His three-year sojourn was spent in Paris with Smets & Fournier, in London with Gugenheim and White, and finally in Dresden with Kampffs. He returned home in 1891 as representative of L. Coulard, the Paris manufacturer of diamond jewelry, and achieved a success in Moscow with the display of their jewelry. Burning with an enthusiasm fed by new ideas, he viewed the family business as basically sound, but too modest and limited.

Back in St Petersburg, Alexander Junior assumed partial responsibility for the running of the company and introduced two new profitable lines of business: the sole agency for the export of demantoid garnets from the Urals that became so popular in Russia and late Victorian England, and commission trading in privately owned second-hand pieces of jewelry and objects d'art. 

Fin-dc-siècle jewelry in the Russian style. On the left a pearl and diamond ring, on the right a diamond brooch with suspended pink and bluish beryls.
By the turn of the century he had assumed full control of the company. From 1901 to 1917 he chronicled its fortunes in a series of highly personal reports detailing output, sales, customers’ even employees' lives. These reports provide a unique in-sight into the goldsmiths' trade in pre-revolutionary St Petersburg.

By 1902 the company had 17 journey-men, 2 apprentices, a salesman, dvornik or houseboy, and a designer Luedke "with whom we are well pleased". "We have made 724 custom-made pieces and 752 other pieces for stock. . . [and] 971 badges for various associations and organizations." 

A diamond-set platinum pendant in the Louis XV I style (c. 1900).Among the illustrious customers listed were the Grand Dukes Vladimir and Alexis, the Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna, and the Grand Dukes Andrew and Boris. There was reference to a number of pieces being made in the "new style": this was the Edwardian style inspired by the future Queen Alexandra of England, who was a sister of the Tsarina Marie Feodorovna.

In 1899 the younger Alexander married a Finnish girl, Edith Gallen. He had avowed his love for her when she was only a baby and he ten years old. At the age of thirteen she declared her desire to learn foreign languages, and thus came to lodge with the Tillanders. 

Like his father before him, Alexander saw the good sense of marrying a girl with whom he was already familiar. Leo, their first born, arrived in 1899 and Herbert and, Viktor in the first decade of the new century.

A circular gold presentation brooch set with diamonds and sapphires; commissioned by the Imperial Cabinet in 1913 in honour of the Romanoff Tercentenary and presented to Marie, wife of King Ferdinand I of Roumania.
Family life was concentrated around the business. One or two annual business trips were made, and there was time now for extended summer holidays. All the Tillanders became converts to Dr Sebastian Kneipp's health cures and the older generation in particular spent long periods at Kneipp's spa in Worishofen (Germany). The younger generation preferred sailing in the Gulf of Finland.

The first blow to this otherwise typical bourgeois success story came in 1905 with the outbreak of the first Russian revolution. Yet even then, bad times had their bright side, as Alexander Junior happily remarked in his annual report: "Although costs have risen by 10 per cent, at least hardly anyone left this year." Tillander's workers had to join in the general strike, which won them a nine-hour day. 

Sales of demantoid garnets to Boucheron in Paris and London doubled, more than a hundred miniature eggs were made, and the firm even indulged in a primitive form of industrial espionage in Paris to obtain new designs.

A rose and green gold locket on a long gold chain in the Art Nouveau style, the trefoil-shaped flower set with cabochon emeralds and a half pearl.
The Tillanders, especially Alexander Junior, were active in the Finnish community in St Petersburg. Most of their employees were Finns and an increasing number of pieces were being sent to Helsinki jewelers for sale on commission. Apart from holidaying in Finland, Alexander Junior also became an ardent nationalist and a member of one of the independence par-ties. He taught his three sons Swedish and Finnish, and also supervised Leo's apprenticeship in goldsmithing and jewelry. Even the family servants were Finns.

During the years of peace and prosperity that followed the aborted revolution, in addition to making large quantities of gold jewelry (brooches, rings, chains, miniature eggs, and other pieces for stock), Tillander fulfilled a number of special commissions. Among 'these were a silver writing set for the Ministry of Roads and Waterways, a silver garland for the Glinka monument, and two magnificent diamond colliers de chien.

The company also produced cigarette cases, bowls, kovshes or scoops, cups, dinner bells, and photograph frames.

Commemorative badges in gold and silver decorated with enamel.
From 1907 onwards A. Tillander had the patronage of Marie Feodorovna and from 1909 of the Tsar and Tsarina, as well as the Tsar's sister, the Grand Duchess Olga. This illustrious clientele was in due course swelled by members of the cabinet, bankers and other wealthy patrons. Unfortunately, there are few records of what was actually made for the Imperial family, but the pieces varied in value from £100 to E7800.

There exists a fine cigarette case in gold, enameled in a brilliant translucent rust, made for Tsar Alexander III and given to his son, the Tsarevich (later Tsar Nicholas II), at Gatchina Palace on Christmas Day 1893. The engraved Imperial Romanoff double-headed eagles on both sides of the case appear through the enamel. The case also has a match compartment and tinder cord attachment. The message inside, en-graved over the Tsar's handwriting, reads: "From Papa, 25th Dec. 1893, Gatchina."

Commemorative badges in gold and silver decorated with enamel.
In 1910 the 50th anniversary of the company was celebrated with great pomp and expense (6,000 roubles or E30, 000, including generous gratuities to the staff) at the Hotel l'Europe on the Nevski Prospekt. The staff presented Alexander Senior with a miniature silver statue of himself at the anvil. The following year they took over the premises of the jewelers Hahn at 26 Nevski Prospekt.

In 1905 Boucheron's representative and his son were murdered while returning to Moscow by train from Baku. The company closed their Moscow shop and Tillander took over the sole agency for Russia. Though business continuously improved, these new moves incurred colossal debts. Moreover, bribery and corruption in government circles led to the loss of a foothold in the Dowager Empress's cabinet.

The celebration in 1913 of the tercentenary of the Romanoff dynasty was a major event for the luxury trade of St Petersburg, especially jewelers. The House of Tillander received a number of substantial commissions from members of the Imperial family and cabinet. These were mainly for small but nevertheless luxurious pieces in gold, presentation brooches, pendants, brace-lets, cufflinks and tie-pins. 

A rectangular silver cigarette case in the Art Nouveau style set with a sapphire push button. The Imperial crown provided one important decorative element; others were the initials of the donator or recipient. They were all delivered in the special red leather cases, in-tended for Imperial presentation pieces, that were manufactured by the Finnish case-maker Ampuja.

Although the outbreak of the First World War reduced sales substantially, inflation had the effect of increasing in-come if not volume. Alexander Junior's reports for the war years reflect the general tragedy experienced throughout Europe, but also the increasing prosperity of the company. 

The year 1916 was so good financially that he did not dare to reveal the true situation in his report. Prices, how-ever, continued to rise, shortages grew worse, and workers were mobilized or imprisoned (there were many German craftsmen in the city). 

A yellow and white gold necklace with an octagonal pendant, pave set with diamonds, designed and made by Raimo Nieminen at A. Tillander in 19g4.Indeed, most of the major jewelers along the Nevski Prospekt were forced to close down, some to be replaced in time by commission stores selling antiques and jewelry. Finally, there was the fear of the enemy's reaching Petrograd (St Petersburg renamed and de-Germanized) or of another revolution. Though Tillander kept going, the future looked very bleak indeed. In October 1917 the Bolshevik Revolution provided the final blow.

The family was by no means taken by surprise when the Bolshevik Revolution took place; early in 1917 plans had been laid to avert total disaster. Choice pieces of jewelry had been sent to Finland and buried in the family's summerhouse garden. Considerable funds were transferred to banks abroad, but Tillander's other assets were frozen. In Petrograd, robberies became a daily event, inflation was out of hand, food, fuel, and everything was in short 'supply. 

By September, with only one apprentice remaining, the business closed down. In November six bandits, led by a former journeyman, attacked and shot Alexander Senior outside his home. Although the wound was not fatal and the valuable pearls he was carrying not stolen, he never fully recovered from the shock. In December 1918, at the age of 81, he died in the city where he had spent 55 years of his life.

A platinum diamond-set necklace and earrings designed by P1111 and made at A. Tillander around 1950
In the autumn of 1917 Alexander Junior and his family did not return from their holiday in Luumaki. Finland had declared itself an independent state and civil war had broken out to decide who would rule the new Russia. Because of their White sympathies, the family decided it was more prudent to hide out in Luumaki. A party of foraging Reds threatened to shoot Alexander, but before this could be carried out he managed to escape and met up with a band of White troops, among them his son Leo.

By spring 1918 the Whites had won and a new life could begin. The first years were extremely difficult and, to start with, Alexander went into partnership with the jeweler Viktor Lindman. In 1921 the company of A. Tillander Jewelers was re-established in Helsinki and initially survived by placing jewelry bought from émigrés on the international market.

A gold cigarette case and lighter set with a freshwater pearl and enameled in opaque matt black enamel; designed and enameled by Oskar Pihl in 1934.
Alexander set about rekindling the company workshop in order to continue the tradition of craft production. His workers, though Finns, were themselves émigrés craftsmen from St Petersburg. All had been trained in Russia, in Russian techniques and in Russian taste; even their common language was Russian. Through them, the company managed to maintain the continuity of the St Petersburg image. It was not until 1979 that the last of the original Russian-trained craftsmen retired.

Until the Revolution, Finnish goldsmith and enamellist Oskar Pihl (son of Faberge's Moscow master) had looked forward to a promising career as a Faberge designer in his uncle's workshop. But he too had to leave Russia, and from 1923 to his death in 1957 he was Tillander's chief designer. He was the essential link with the St Petersburg style of design and technique. A child of the Edwardian period, his designs blend the lightness and elegance of that style with the naturalistic decorativeness of Russian jewelry.

It, another Orkomies design of the 1960s, a cast gold brooch set with coral beads and diamonds.
Oskar Pihl favoured the simple and beautiful gems of his two native lands, Russia and Finland. His sketches blaze and glow with Russian gemstones and decorative Finnish quartzes. If his designs possess nostalgia for a past era, there is no indication of stagnating into a St Petersburg mould, for they led effortlessly into some-thing quite new.

When Finland emerged bruised but not defeated from the Second World War, it faced the twin problems of reconstruction and geopolitical reorientation. As prosperity returned, the leading industrialist families began to commission and buy fine jewelry. 

Here the House of Tillander and its workers played an important role, helping to create Finland's new image. The sketchbooks of Oskar Pihl and the ledgers of the company give evidence of the fine hand-made platinum and palladium jewelry produced in those post-war years.

A large gold circular brooch inspired by Viking jewelry, designed by Lotta Orkomies and cast in the cireperdue method in the late 1960s.
The approach of the Helsinki Olympics urged Tillander to hold a Souvenir Competition in 1948 to seek out new and original designs. Among the discoveries were Tapio Wirkkala, Birgit Rydman and Kirsti Ilvessalo, all of whom went on to conquer the world. In all respects, except for the weather, the 1952 Helsinki Olympics were a success. It rained throughout the Games and A. Tillander's best-selling item was a silver box with an enameled umbrella on top.

Within the company, a new generation of designers was being prepared under the tutelage of Oskar Pihl. One of those whose talents he nurtured was Lotta Orkomies. Her cast-gold jewelry using the cire Perdue method was inspired by nature, something of great importance to all Finns. She has also found inspiration in Viking archaeological finds. Her creations were among those that took the world by storm in the 1960s with the phenomenal success of Finnish design.
A gold pendant on a blue silk ribbon, set with gold nuggets from Lemmenjoki in Lapland and with caboclum cut iolites; by Jaana Lehtinen at A. Tillander. Matching gold bracelet with iolites designed by Jaana Lehtinen and made by Raimo Nieminen at A. Tillander. The set was commissioned by Wartsila Helsinki Shipyard in 1984 and presented to HRH the Princess of Wales at the launching of the luxury cruiser Princess Royal.

This tradition of the older master training and guiding the next generation has created what they themselves call the Tillander style. In the 1980s the com-any still has its own workshop and shop in central Helsinki, and still makes everything by hand.

In this spirit Lotta Orkomies herself has trained, guided and inspired A. Tillander's younger generation of designers, including the talented Raimo Nieminen and Jaana Lehtinen. It was Jaana Lehtinen who in 1984 designed a delightful necklace and bracelet set with blue iolites cut in cabochon for the Princess of Wales. The works of these young designers possess originality in materials, simplicity of style, quality craftsmanship, and an overall charm just those elements that Alexander Tillander had in mind when he set up his own company in the St Petersburg of 1860.

Writer –Thames & Hudson
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