Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Early indigenous South African jewellery design

(SA Jewellery News, August 2012, pp.33-34) 

Some jewellery manufacturers from the mid twentieth century became early explorers of African inspired work in the world of precious metal artistry. Thematically, their naturalist expressions of African animal, plant, cultural and mineral bounty have laid the foundation for the development of a South African design style that continues to be built upon and reformulated up to the present. Also, progressing from the singular use of precious metals and semi-precious stones in the early days, the use of mediums have diversified to any combination of varied indigenous materials such as ivory (not yet banned during these early  years), wood, bone and even animal hair paired with semi/precious stones and often a mix of metals.

Perhaps it is fitting that the first full time female goldsmith in South Africa was also responsible for initiating a South African jewellery design aesthetic that grew organically from her perceptive engagement with her adopted fatherland. Like Walter Batiss a few years before her, Else Wongtschowski also celebrated in her work the art making of our African cultures. What’s more, she was one of the first of her generation who appreciated the wealth of design possibilities locked up in the use of the abundance of Southern African semi-precious stones. These two actions lay the groundwork or fundamental matrix from which a South African styled jewellery aesthetic would slowly emerge.  At around the same time during the mid twentieth century, the workshops of Haglund in Johannesburg and Joe Calafato in Pretoria also took up the challenge to produce African inspired jewellery ranges and flatware that contributed greatly to the development of an indigenous artistic appreciation of the African world in which they were operating.

Figure 1: The first female South African manufacturing goldsmith, Else Wongtschowski in the early 1970’s.

Else Wongtschowski (née Reinheimer) was born in 1914 in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany. In 1933 she relinquished a career in medicine in favour of a goldsmith apprenticeship in Frankfurt. At the onset of the Second World War, she immigrated to South Africa. She worked for Kurt Jobst for a year after which she opened her own studio.

Ms Wongtschowski and her husband Hans were ardent mountaineers and have mapped a number of hiking routes in the Drakensberg as recorded by the Mountain Club of South Africa. In the mountains they came across bushman rock paintings. In 1949 this served as the inspiration behind the creation of a bracelet containing representations of bushman rock art. She was the first local jewellery manufacturer to set the tone for the development of a South African jewellery design theme that was later to become known as safari jewellery. She was known as an innovator and was also the first to introduce multi-coloured bracelets (often with stones she collected herself) to the South African market.

Her design inspiration was instinctual rather than analytical, guided by the particular combination of semi-precious stones at hand. She was of the opinion that it is …Far better to have a well fashioned semi-precious ring or brooch than an ill designed diamond ornament.

From the mid 1950’s, like Else Wongtschowsky a few years before them, Haglund Jewellers in Johannesburg began to create jewellery designs with themes depicting traditional African cultural life and wildlife images. The nephew goldsmiths Hans Blum and Rolf Waizenegger were the owners and they also gained inspiration from Bushmen rock art for some of their souvenir jewellery designs. But they went further and extended their collection by adding cultural images, such as head dresses, village life and animal studies to their design portfolio. The anthropological tones inherent in their work have contributed to its collector’s value.

                                                Figure 2: Early Haglund expressions.

Figure 3: Gold, beads and diamonds: Geoph Foden, taking the early Haglund work to a new level.
Given his extensive training in Germany, Hans Blum became one of the foremost practitioners of precious metal piercing in the country. This consisted of using a hacksaw to cut fine silhouette outlines from oxidised silver plate. Waizenegger contributed to their design base through stylised wiring expressions of animals, in addition to the modelling of relief designs of wild fauna in plasticine and pewter for silver casting. Working primarily in silver, their jewellery consisted of a combination of hand made and casting techniques.

Geophrey Foden joined the business in the 1970’s and contributed to a refinement of the early Haglund work to reflect the tastes of the time. They continued to incorporate bushman art in their jewellery designs, along with the setting of locally available semi-precious stones. Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century the workshop created reinterpretations of African wildlife expressions, culminating in combining hues of gold, black and silver (incorporating pearls, diamonds or ivory) with mixtures of matt and gloss finishes, and at times imbued with ceramic beads. It gave expression to an emerging South African styled precious metal artistry, known as safari and wildlife jewellery.

A third manufacturing workshop that helped pioneer the indigenisation of jewellery design, was owned and managed by Joe Calafato. In 1947 he resigned from his job as designer jeweller at the South African Mint and opened a jewellery workshop in the Pretoria city centre. From that time onwards until the end of his career in 1984, a time line can be captured in his design development. It is expressed in terms of a fading European influence mingling with a strengthening African influence both in terms of inspiration and form. A clear migration took place from his original retro moderne scroll abstractions to ‘organic realism’ in expressing plant, animal and human form, culminating in an almost exclusive emphasis on African landscape, animal and village life. At the end of his career, his work matured into extensively embracing images of the African continent, making him an African manufacturing jeweller in the full sense of the word.

Figure 4: African female studies designed by Joe Calafato in the 1950’s.

Calafato’s early African images dealt almost exclusively with stylish African female figures clad with cultural accessories that include headdresses, large rounded earrings and beaded necklaces.  It expressed a fascination with culturally traditional female African beauty.  A few images of children were also included, one of which became noted in its own right. It was pressed in the form of a brooch and consists of a young boy eating from a three legged pot with a wooden spoon. Perhaps because of its endearing quality, it became one of very few compositions that was additionally stamped with a descriptive title, namely ‘lo umfaan’.

 Figure 5: ‘Lo umfaan’ brooch in sterling silver designed by Joe Calafato during the early 1950’s.

From 1972 onwards his depictions became more complex by adding rural background arrangements consisting of trees, rocks, tufts of grass, mountains, rondavels and aloes in bloom. Especially in this later work he incorporated traditional icons of African culture such the drum, the milling block with pounder, spear and shield, clay bowl, knobkerrie, amulets, ankle rings, reed mat, loin cloth and musical instruments. With these elements scenes such as hunting, drumming, dancing, maize pounding, socializing, music making and eating were composed. The designs pay lyrical homage to African expressions of nurturance, protection and beauty.

Calafato’s wildlife studies developed parallel with and in the same way as his African imagery. It started off as individual animal figures that over time expanded to more complex compositions placed within rural landscapes (almost like small three dimensional paintings in metal). These include studies of the larger mammals such as elephant, giraffe, lion, leopard, various antelopes and zebra. Sometimes indigenous wildlife and African cultural elements were combined in the layout of the piece.

                          Figure 6: Examples of Haglund and Calafato’s early African inspired work


  1. Some jewelery manufacturers from the mid twentieth century became early explorers of African inspired work in the world of precious metal artistry.-
    designer african jewelr-

  2. It is really appreciable to have such a beautiful and informative write up. I got a huge chance to go through this wonderful topic. I would like congratulate you for your effort to bring out so much time from your busy daily schedule and spent on researching this topic to bring this in front of all of us. Thanks a lot.

    1. Thank you Rachel, It gives me great pleasure to record the lives of people whose work it was to delight the senses, to create objects of beauty and wonder. And sharing it with others is part of the enjoyment.

  3. I have a small collection of pieces by Elsa Wongchongtky: rings and 2 neck pieces. If you are interested I can send you some photos. I also have some unusual pieces made for me on commision by Guy Traest.

    1. Sari, Please send them on to me: I keep files on the works of the artists for recording purposes. And contributions like yours add much value to the quality of information I'm putting together.

  4. Thank you for the great photos and background information. I have the bracelet pictured at the very bottom of fig. 6. Can you give me any idea of the value of this piece? Any help would be greatly appreciated! Thank you.


  5. Hi Dave, The piece was made by the Haglund workshop during the mid 1950's. Note the thickness of the clasp and the weight of the piece - silver was used with abandon. Also the links were expertly attached for the time. Matching earrings (consisting of animals mounted in hollow disks) were also made. Possible initial clientele could have been immigrants and tourists? Selling price: Around R 1000. Buying price: R2000 upwards. I would really like to know the provenance of the piece.Is it a family heirloom?
    Best, Fred

    1. Thank you so much for the quick reply. I actually came across the piece at a small garage sale in Kansas. I am didn't see any other pieces that resembled the piece. I paid $2.50 for it. It caught my eye first thing and have had no luck until now on the history of the piece. I just got back into coin collecting and buying old designer costume jewelry where I can find it. I am also thinking of teaching myself how to cut stones and make jewelry. This piece was truly a one of a kind find and the craftsmanship is amazing. Thank you again for the information. I have no plans on selling the piece just trying to get as much history and information for my own curiosity. It's truly one of my favorite pieces! Thanks and keep up the outstanding work!


    2. Fred I forgot to mention the women who owned this traveled extensively in her younger years and it is assumed she bought this piece on one of her trips. This is according to the granddaughter at the garage sale. This is one of the few pieces of her grandmother's collection she sold. The rest stayed with the family. I had no idea at the time it was so valuable but I could tell it was something special.

    3. Dave, More thoughts on your Haglund piece: Since there is no indication that the Haglund workshop exported their work in the 1950's, it seems likely that it was originally sold in South Africa.

      I also have an (undeveloped) interest in African themed costume jewellery - I do think it is a much neglected field of collection, and the pieces I have seen have much charm. Am glad that you're gathering them. Best, Fred