Georg Wellendorff strides purposefully from the studio to the showroom. There, display cases show off the company’s literally glittering past and present. Among the pieces to be found here are the renowned Rings of the Year, new editions of which have been presented regularly since 1997. Then there is the Wellendorff Rope, made from 160 metres of the finest 18-karat gold thread, which will grace its owner’s neck with velvety elegance. Wellendorff’s father designed the original necklace for his wife in the 1970s. Georg and his brother Christoph have taken the jewellery maker into a fourth generation of ownership. Just now, though, his attention has been drawn to a different kind of delicacy: the buttered pretzels laid out on the conference table for his guests. You can be pretty sure they’re the best around.
How do you go about running a company successfully over several generations?
There’s a principle that has survived over all these decades, one that my great-grandfather lived by: “If you work with the best materials, such as gold and diamonds, and you hire the best goldsmiths and experts in the field and then give them the best tools to work with, it is inevitable that you will produce the best and most exquisite jewellery there is. Then, invariably, you’ll be able to captivate the world’s foremost jewellery lovers.”
Take the best of everything. Work with the best materials, such as gold and diamonds. And hire the best goldsmiths.”
When did you first hear this maxim?
My grandmother told it to me when I was about 10 years old. This company motto is the bridge that links together the generations – the past, the present and the future.
Your company is still based in the same place it’s always been – Pforzheim. Why is that?
Pforzheim remains Germany’s jewellery capital. Seventy percent of the jewellery in Germany comes from this town. This is where you’ll find one of the world’s best goldsmith academies, and we take on new graduates from the academy every year. Historically, Pforzheim’s geographical location has been nothing but beneficial for our business.
In what way?
Pforzheim lies just 40 kilometres from Baden-Baden. Back in 1893, when my great-grandfather founded the company, this was where the Russian high aristocracy vacationed in the summer. He was quick to realize this and started presenting his collections there. The ladies were so delighted with our jewellery that they invited him to join them in St. Petersburg. And that was how Wellendorff jewellery also found its way into the Czar’s court.
What are your key markets nowadays?
Besides Germany, Austria and Switzerland, we focus on three markets: the rest of Europe, North America and Asia. We’re not involved in countries such as Brazil, India or Saudi Arabia, which are also large jewellery markets.
Why is that?
We can’t make much more than we are doing at present, and we don’t want to increase our workforce. We currently have 120 employees, 80 of whom are in the factory. I have contact with every employee once or twice a day. Talking to them is something I enjoy. I know them all by name and where they live. In some cases, I’ve even gotten to know their partners as well. If the company were to grow beyond 120 employees, it would be difficult to keep such a family atmosphere going.
You run the company jointly with Christoph, your brother. He looks after the customers and you oversee production. Have you never wanted to do something totally different?
Never. My brother and I were both introduced to the jewellery world at an early stage. Our parents took us with them to trade fairs and into the studio. And when customers came to our house, we served them at the table. But we also saw how much our parents enjoyed the business. So why would we want to do anything different?
Do you and your brother have disagreements?
We’re not superhuman, but each of us has the final word in his respective area. We both want the same thing, though: to take the company forward.
How do you propose to do that if you don’t want to add to your workforce or accept any outside capital?
The type of growth we’re looking for is achieved by internationalizing the company’s true values. To give you an example: For our Rings of the Year, there are collectors who will preorder each edition so far in advance that we haven’t even finalized the design yet. We’re keen to have more products like these in the future and market them internationally.
Preorders for special pieces of jewellery are something you normally only see with haute joaillerie. Why don’t you create a high-class collection of this kind?
We’ve already done so, but we don’t make them public. My father is the guardian of our precious stones. Whenever we can coax a valuable stone out of him, we work with our experts to make it into a particularly beautiful piece of jewellery.
Who buys these one-off pieces?
Wellendorff enthusiasts and collectors who take huge pleasure in this kind of jewellery.
The roots of the jewellery business can be traced back to ancient times. Is it still possible to try out something totally new?
Of course it is. Many of our staff are real tinkerers and inventors. We were once sent a rope piece that had been trapped in the door of a safe. While we were examining it, the clouds suddenly parted and a ray of sunlight caught the damaged area and made it twinkle like a diamond. This reflection stuck in the mind of one of our employees. Two years later he came to me and showed me what he had come up with. By turning the rope in a certain way, he had managed to replicate the twinkling caused by the sunlight. This innovation was only possible thanks to his craftsmanship and experience with the material – you could never have simulated this development on a computer. We’ve called the new rope, which glistens like thousands of diamonds, “Sun.” And it’s our bestseller.
You’ve also just unveiled a new amulet.
Yes, the Golden Treasure amulet. The diamond looks as if it’s floating – you can’t see a setting. It’s set within a precious topaz, and the stone gives the impression of having fallen into water, which is now sending out waves around it. Making diamonds float like this represents a dream that goldsmiths have had since time immemorial. We’ve been working on a setting like this for many years.
Have you patented this new technique?
No, we haven’t. We believe the technique is so complicated that nobody else could make it work to this level of perfection.
What does this amulet pendant cost?
In yellow gold, it’s €19,700 [about $30,000].
That’s a tidy sum.
There will always be customers who appreciate such excellence – all of us in the Wellendorff family are sure of that.
Do you ever think about bringing out a more reasonably priced line under your brand name?
No, that’s not for us. When you start going down that route, you quickly have to think about outsourcing. That’s something many of our competitors do. But we want to make our pieces in Germany and keep the company here.
We want to ensure that our jewellery provides a lifetime of happiness for our customers.”
It doesn’t always have to be gold that you work with. You could also create a silver collection.
With silver you always have the problem of tarnishing. So for that reason, we can’t reconcile silver with our company maxim of always working with the best. We want to ensure that our jewellery provides a lifetime of happiness for our customers. And not only them, but also the generations that follow, wherever possible.
What about bags and perfume? A lot of jewellery makers also invest in accessories and are doing well in that area.
Yes, that’s right. We’re one of the very few companies in the industry that only focus 100 percent on jewellery. We concentrate on what we do best: making exclusive jewellery. We prefer to invest in the details and will keep improving a piece until it’s perfect. We’re interested in how deep we can go with our pieces, not how widely we can spread ourselves.