Georg Jensen silversmith Tina Bentzen demonstrates the unique skills that have seen the Danish design house earn a reputation for artistic boldness, superior craftsmanship and creative collaborations, with over a century of knowledge to draw upon…
As part of London Craft Week 2017, Tina Bentzen offered the rare chance to see a Georg Jensen silversmith work, both at the Georg Jensen store in Mount Street, London and then at the V&A at the invitation of Contemporary British Silversmiths as part of their Silver Speaks event. We took the opportunity to talk to her as she worked on the Bernadotte Collection, recreating a classic design for a cocktail shaker dating from 1938. She estimates that the making of this single piece takes up to 110 hours – but of course that’s not taking into account the initial research time that she has put into it. Bentzen refers to an original maker’s plan, complete with step-by-step notes, in order to replicate the design as accurately as possible. But the work often involves a high degree of problem solving as she is forced to reverse engineer a piece, deciphering clues along the way.
Does it often feel like you’re cracking a puzzle when you’re working on an archive piece?
Exactly! We’re working with very old designs. Sometimes there will be no pictures and very few drawings, so I make my own notes too – first of all I have to figure out how it was done. For a terrine I’ve worked on, there were no existing notes, so I had to make all the leaves and flowers in the design from the very beginning, figuring out not just how to do it but how to do it in the right order.
Do you find the process more satisfying than the end result?
Yes, absolutely, because that’s my passion – and my job! I enjoy doing the hammering, which of course creates a very nice effect afterwards, but it’s not very often that I get to see the end result because once my job is done I send it off. I work with spinners and chasers for shaping and decorative work, so my job is part of the whole process.
Is it right that you make your own tools yourself?
We have between 100-150 different hammers that belong to the workshop and that we share, but we also make our own personal hammers, so it fits into your hand and makes the right shape. I think I have about 20 personal hammers. We use the time when we’re training to make these hammers, finding the shape you use the most. Sometimes you make one that just feels perfect in your hand and you find you use it for everything.
How long is the training process? Did you have to study a specialist course first?
We have an apprenticeship for four years in the workshop, sitting next to the silversmith. But you don’t have go to high school beforehand, we have a few months of teaching each year, but the rest of the time we’re at the workshop, learning form the old boys. I’ve been at Georg Jensen now for 11 years – and that’s including the four years as a silversmith apprentice, which I started in 2006 and finished in 2009.
Isn’t there a slight paradox in making something that is so perfect to the eye, when often the beauty of something that is handmade is seeing those little marks and imperfections that show it hasn’t been made by machine?
Of course as it’s handmade it will never be 100% perfect – so I might know where there is a slight imperfection but the customer will never know!
What do you find most frustrating?
If something I have to do very often keeps troubling me, then that can be frustrating. There’s a very simple, small pillbox that I make, and I find the opening mechanism for that really tricky. So a small, simple thing can be the most troubling to do, whereas a big job that looks very difficult might not be.
What do you do with all the off-cuts from your work? Can it be reused?
Any clean silver is kept to be melted and used again, and the ‘unclean’ silver is kept aside for soldering and similar work.
Are there a lot of female silversmiths at Georg Jensen?
Yes, we are almost 50-50. In the old days it was only men – including Georg himself of course! When I started there was one more female silversmith and a few more of us in the workshop, but it has changed a lot in the last ten years. I think it changes the environment for the better. I hear this from my male colleagues too. We’re very good at working together, we all have something we can bring to the team. Of course some pieces are very heavy and involve a lot of physical work, but every female at the workshop will try it out – and we are also allowed to choose the jobs we do, so some people will enjoy the more physical hammering than others and we will share the jobs out amongst us.
A ‘hole-and-corner’ is an old English term meaning a secret place: somewhere you go to escape the world, to be inspired and to contemplate and create. Where is your ‘hole-and-corner’?
I love nature. So although I work in the big city, I chose to live outside Copenhagen so I can go into the forest. So for me it’s the forest by my house. I’m lucky that you can live so near to Copenhagen and still be in the countryside.
Interview Mark Hooper
Photographs James Davey