Few, if any, other companies can pride themselves on being owned by the same family for 217 years and having been Court Jeweller to five Russian Tsars and three Swedish Kings. W.A. Bolin is the world’s oldest jeweller family still in business today. Join us as we journey through W.A. Bolin’s unique history.
One April night in 1831 a terrible storm blew up over the English Channel. The merchant vessel owned by Swedish captain, ship owner and merchant Jonas Wilhelm Bolin sank in the mighty waves. Captain Bolin perished in the shipwreck together with the entire crew and his son Ludvig Ferdinand.
Jonas Wilhelm Bolin was outlived by his wife and eleven children whose home was the Bolin estate on Wollmar Yxkullsgatan in the Stockholm neighborhood of Södermalm. The shipwreck took the family’s fortune down with it. One of the sons, Carl Edvard was a trained bookkeeper and had assisted his father in his business. But now Carl Edvard had neither work nor the funds to open his own firm. So he set off for St. Petersburg, then the capital of Russia, in search of a living. This dynamic, rapidly growing city was an international metropolis at the time. In the early 19th century, the far-reaching expanse of Russia was the land of opportunity that attracted immigrants from all over Europe, much as the vast country of North America in the west would come to do a generation later.
Carl Edvard met the lovely Ernestina Catherine Roempler in St. Petersburg. She was the daughter of a famous immigrant German jeweller who had set up his firm in St. Petersburg in 1791 and been appointed Court Jeweller to the Russian Tsar.
1834 Bolin & Jahn
Court Jeweller Andreas Roempler died a few years before his daughter married Carl Edvard Bolin in 1834. The company was however still owned by the family and Carl Edvard was immediately made partner and assumed control. Although he lacked experience in the jewellery trade, he was a hard-working and ingenious entrepreneur blessed with both vision and charisma. Carl Edvard summoned his younger brother Henrik Conrad to St. Petersburg and gave him a job in the company. Carl Edvard Bolin was soon declared Court Jeweller to the Tsar in his own right and the company changed its name to Bolin & Jahn (Jahn after partner and brother-in-law Gottlieb Ernst Jahn who died in 1836). By the mid-19th century the company was already relatively large, employing about fifty workshop workers.
1850 CE Bolin
Bolin & Jahn soon became the most prominent, exclusive jeweller in St. Petersburg, specialising in large, magnificent jewellery for the Russian Court and wealthy Russian noble families. Gems of the finest quality and the most exquisite craftsmanship became Bolin’s signature. Bolin & Jahn, renamed C.E. Bolin around 1850, soon became renowned far beyond Russia’s borders and held its own even against the most prominent jewellers in Paris. At the London Exhibition in 1851, the first of the great world industry and arts exhibitions, Bolin’s jewellery created quite a commotion. As Christopher Hobhouse says in his book “1851 and the Crystal Palace “…the Russian jewels by Bolin were the finest at the exhibition, both in design and quality”. The Russian jewellery houses were young and new in comparison with the Paris houses. Consequently, the level of Bolin’s work came as a surprise and caused a sensation, as illustrated by the following comment: “Mr. Bolin’s work with its perfect settings most emphatically surpassed all else at the exhibition, including the Spanish queen’s tiara by the famous Parisian jeweller Mr. Lemonier.”
Carl Edvard’s younger brother Henrik Conrad was also settling into the jewellery trade and began to earn a name for himself. The brothers decided that it was time to expand the business. After the success at the 1851 World Exhibition, Henrik Conrad moved to Moscow, the Russian empire’s old capital and coronation city where he opened an independent branch together with James Stuart Shanks, an Englishman. Named Shanks & Bolin Magasin Anglais, the firm and shop were near the location where Peter Carl Fabergé later opened his Moscow branch.
Shanks & Bolin
In contrast to St. Petersburg, then still the capital and Russia’s window to the west, Moscow was more traditionally Russian with tastes and aesthetics shaped by very old Russian designs and forms. The city had a long-standing silversmith tradition and Henrik Conrad Bolin decided to focus on silver, complemented with exquisite, elegant accessories for women – handbags, purses, fans, gloves, plumes, hair decorations, laces and fur details. The spacious, lavish shop also offered a range of exclusive jewellery and gemstones from Bolin in St. Petersburg. The business was an immediate success and quickly expanded. Unlike the parent company in St. Petersburg whose clientele consisted solely of royalty and aristocrats, Shanks & Bolin had a broader target group. Exquisitely crafted crystal with silver inlays was a specialty, objects which today fetch exorbitant prices on the Russian antique market. Around the turn of the century, silver vases and bowls in robust Art Nouveau style with beautiful sweeping lines were typical of the Moscow shop.
The entire second half of the 19th century was an immensely prosperous time for Bolin in St. Petersburg. The shop at Bolshaya Morskaya 10 adjacent to the Tsar’s winter residence, the Winter Palace, had several storeys with beautiful salons furnished like an elegant, aristocratic home. Princesses and distinguished noblewomen were invited to have tea on the first floor and given private jewellery viewings. Over-the-counter sales were rare since most jewellery was made on commission, often reusing exquisite gems from existing pieces in new creations. When Carl Edvard Bolin died in 1864, his sons Edvard and Gustaf took over the business which retained the Tsars’ full confidence and remained Court Jeweller. This branch of the family was raised to nobility and given the name von Bolin.
The name Fabergé is on a par with Bolin both in Russian and international jewellery history. Both houses were in a class of their own in Russia. Both were Court Jewellers to the tsars – as a goldsmith, Fabergé primarily made exquisite pieces while Bolin specialised in jewellery. Even the families share certain similarities. The Fabergé family originated from the north-eastern part of France but had emigrated to Germany in the 17th century. Peter Fabergé moved to the Baltic province of Livonia and became a Russian citizen at the beginning of the 1800s. His son Gustav Fabergé moved to St. Petersburg as a young man where he learned to be a goldsmith and in 1842 he opened his own jewellery shop on Bolshaya Morskaya, the same exclusive commercial street where Bolin also had its shop. 1846 marked the birth of Peter Carl Fabergé, the world’s most famous goldsmith whose works of art nowadays command exorbitant sums at auctions all over the world. Carl Fabergé, or Carl Gustavovich as he was known in Russia, was both an astute businessman and a particularly gifted artist. He found his niche in superb and distinguished designed articles for everyday use such as paperweights, tiny boxes, clocks, frames, cigar boxes, and evening bags, as well as artistic miniatures of everything from trains and coronation carriages to flowers, plants and animals made of rock crystal, agate and malachite decorated with gold and precious stones. In French, the language of the Russian court and nobility, these items were called bibelots, or objets d’art. Today, the most famous of these items are the magnificent gold, often gem-adorned Easter eggs that Fabergé crafted for the Tsar family. While Fabergé did make jewellery, Peter Carl Fabergé was not actually a prominent jeweller. The stones used in much of the Fabergé jewellery that still exists today are of rather low quality, albeit exquisite in shape and colour. Costly precious stones were obviously of little interest to Carl Fabergé. The firm soon became internationally famous, won several awards and was named purveyor to several royal houses, including the Swedish court where Carl Fabergé was declared Court Goldsmith in 1897. Few objects can be traced directly to Peter Carl Fabergé’s own hand, however, since the firm eventually had more than 700 employees. But the Fabergé name is synonymous with excellent quality.
Plans of a merge
Although Bolin and Fabergé were contemporary purveyors to the court, they were not competitors to any greater extent. The market was big enough for both and their specialties differed greatly. Bolin’s strength was the magnificent precious stones set in jewellery with outstandingly crafted settings such as tiaras, bracelets, brooches, necklaces, rings, and earrings. Fabergé became famous for his artistic and charming objects of art and everyday use.
The similarities between Bolin and Fabergé lay in the supreme elegance, taste and craftsmanship. There is no known rivalry between the two Court Jewellers but instead, well-advanced plans for a merger between Bolin and Fabergé after the turn of the century, a merger that was however never effected. The Russian Revolution in 1917 meant the end of the Fabergé jewellery house and no genuine Fabergé objects have been created since.
“Fabergé objects are incredibly expensive nowadays. It is interesting to know that in their day, while very popular, they were mostly considered entertaining objects of art and not exclusive jewels,” explains W.A. Bolin’s current Managing Director Christian Bolin, sixth generation Court Jeweller.
The decades around the turn of the century were fabulous glory days for the Bolin jewellery house. It was an era marked in Russia by incomparable splendour and extravagance among royalty, the aristocrats and upper class while Russian peasants suffered poverty and starvation. The consumption of jewellery and precious stones was enormous and the workshops and boutiques in St. Petersburg and Moscow flourished.
“It is actually incomprehensible by our standards – the jewellery alone appears motive enough to instigate a revolution,” says Christian Bolin. “A two-jewel inlay from Bolin was sold for 394,000 roubles according to the invoice found in the tsar cabinet’s archive. If we bear in mind that one rouble was worth 18 dollars at the time, and convert this to today’s current value, the amount is simply astronomical. Someone earning a few hundred roubles was considered to have a good annual income.”
When Henrik Conrad Bolin died, the Moscow branch was taken over by his son Wilhelm who, according to Russian custom, had the byname Andrejevich, which means ”son of Henrik”. This explains the abbreviation W.A. Bolin, which is still the name of the jewellery house today. He was the first member of the Bolin family to have been schooled as a jeweller and goldsmith from the start and he studied in Paris, London and Amsterdam. Wilhelm intensified the collaboration with his cousins Edvard and Gustav in St. Petersburg and opened a new shop on Kuznetsky Most, then and now Moscow’s most exquisite shopping street. Wilhelm was a talented goldsmith and jeweller as well as a driven businessman and entrepreneur. His business expanded quickly and was soon recording sales that almost equalled those of the parent company in St. Petersburg. He brought French artists to work in the Moscow workshop and opened offices in Paris, London and Berlin. Wilhelm Bolin’s name became known all over Europe. His cousins Edvard and Gustav had no heirs, and discussions about allowing Wilhelm to take over the entire business had reached an advanced stage. But the 1914 outbreak of World War I interfered with these plans.
In 1912 Wilhelm Bolin, also appointed Court Jeweller, opened a summer shop in the exclusive spa town of Bad Homburg near Wiesbaden in Germany where the tsar’s family and the entire court spent the summers. World War I broke out in 1914 and citizens of the warring countries were not permitted to travel freely. Wilhelm Andrejevich Bolin had retained his Swedish citizenship alongside his Russian and even learned to speak Swedish as an adult. This enabled him to transfer most of the contents of the shop in Bad Homburg to safety in Sweden after the outbreak of hostilities. He placed the jewels and silver in the vault of Stockholms Enskilda Bank in the Old Town. Here he met bank director and Sweden’s foreign minister K.A. Wallenberg and was offered the opportunity to open a jewel salon in the bank’s stylish new offices at Kungsträdgårdsgatan 10. The two reached agreement after some initial resistance by Wilhelm Bolin who felt that the Russian business which he planned to expand after the War was sufficient.
W.A. Bolin’s shop in Stockholm was not a shop that offered over the counter sales. The salons were officially opened on 15 September 1916 by Sweden’s King Gustav V, an arrangement organised by K.A. Wallenberg. Wilhelm Bolin was also immediately declared Court Jeweller. The opening ceremony was a major event in Stockholm and was covered in full-page articles in all the national daily newspapers, including Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet. Wilhelm Bolin had previously opened a workshop in Stockholm where goldsmiths were trained to work with precious stones set in platinum (Wilhelm felt that the use of yellow gold together with precious stones was vulgar and white gold was not yet used).
1917 Russian Revolution
Thanks to these outstandingly fortuitous circumstances, the W.A. Bolin jewellery house still flourishes today. The 1917 outbreak of the Russian Revolution caused the Bolin family to lose its vast wealth and properties in St. Petersburg and Moscow.
For many years, Wilhelm Bolin hoped to return to his beloved homeland Russia. Few at this time believed the Bolshevik’s revolution would last. Wilhelm was keen to expand, and found the Swedish market too limited and the Swedes’ appetite for luxury and extravagance unable to compare with that of the Russian upper class. Wilhelm made a grand attempt to expand by opening shops in Copenhagen, Oslo and even Paris but all attempts were short-lived. During the 1920s W.A. Bolin suffered severe financial difficulties that culminated with the crash of 1929. Despite great hardship, risks and tribulations, Wilhelm managed to save his company. The shop had by this time relocated to smaller premises at a less attractive address, Drottninggatan 15.
1932 New premises
The catastrophe of losing the Russian business and the difficulties in Sweden during the 1920s took their toll on Wilhelm. With the company rescued, he withdrew to the family’s summer residence outside Båstad which he had acquired back in 1902. Several other Swedish-Russians lived in the area, Ludvig Nobel being most prominent among them. In 1930 Wilhelm’s son Henrik assumed control of the jewellery operations. The business was sound and the shop was able to move again in 1932 to larger, more attractive premises at a better, more prestigious address, Sturegatan 12 near Stureplan, Stockholm’s new commercial and social centre.
Stable situation 1930-1950
Like his father, Henrik Bolin had a dynamic, effusive and somewhat flamboyant personality; tall and handsome, he was passionate about fitness and a well-known figure as he rode his bike down Kommendörsgatan wearing a trench coat and hunting hat, and clutching his map case. Henrik personally designed some of the jewellery and other objects. During this epoch, spanning from the 1930s to the 1950s, W.A. Bolin was famous for its brooches and silver objects –cutlery?), coffee sets, trays and candlesticks. Together with C.F. Carlman, W.A. Bolin was firmly positioned as Sweden’s foremost jeweller and goldsmith. C.F. Carlman, who at the time also held the honorary title of Court Jeweller, was considered more classic. With a touch of extravagance, international sophistication and a splash of eccentricity, W.A. Bolin represented something extra. W.A. Bolin’s chief designer during Henrik Bolin’s time was Barbro Littmarck who designed exquisite silver objects. Her most famous pieces include the bishop’s crosier and procession crucifix for Uppsala Cathedral, the procession crucifix for the Church of Finland and church silver for several churches in Sweden, Finland and the USA. For a time she also designed lovely small brooches in the form of realistic woven flower baskets made of yellow gold, filled with rubies, sapphires and emerald leaves. German designer Juliana Pfeiffer was another famous designer who worked for W.A. Bolin in the 1950s. Juliana specialised in the design of beautiful and original enamel objects which are now appreciating in value.
The new apprentice
Henrik Bolin had no children and therefore took on his nephew Hans Bolin who was born in Austria but who had lived in Sweden since his teenage years. Hans actually wanted to become an actor but instead received a thorough education in the jewellery and goldsmith trade. His schooling began in W.A. Bolin’s own workshop, then located on Malmskillnadsgatan. He later trained in Paris and Switzerland, doing his apprenticeship at Gübelin, one of the biggest names in gemmology, the science of gemstones.
When Hans Bolin returned to Stockholm in 1950, times were once again difficult for W.A. Bolin. The demand for expensive luxury items was particularly weak in the post-war years. Hans Bolin started his career as workshop foreman, in charge of planning and overseeing production and he was very good at his job. Table silver sales climbed and W.A. Bolin had survived yet another crisis. For many years, Henrik and Hans Bolin ran the company together until Hans gradually assumed control in the 1960s.
W.A. Bolin launches jewellery auctions
Hans Bolin ran the jewellery house profitably and steadily for several decades. He had grown up and trained in modest circumstances and was accustomed to handling most aspects of the business personally, including designing and making the jewellery. His jewellery from the 1980s is of particularly superb quality. He was quite taken with coloured gems and often made buying trips to Thailand.
Possibly his single greatest contribution as director was initiating W.A. Bolin’s jewellery auctions, now the leading auction in Northern Europe. Antique jewellery had always been of interest to the company. Customers often brought their older pieces to the firm to be sold or redesigned, a service that required tact, finesse and above all, expertise on the part of the jeweller who needed to know more about the jewellery’s personality than can be learned from books.
Occasion is the word jewellers use to describe a sale for individual antique jewellery pieces. W.A. Bolin had hosted a few successful occasions which inspired Hans Bolin to invest in full-scale jewellery auctions. Until then, these had been the preserve of the world’s foremost auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London, and were never held in Sweden or on smaller markets. Hans Bolin had already been working as an appraiser for antique dealer Gregor Aronowitsch, owner of Bukowski’s auction house in Stockholm, for a number of years. The first jewellery auction was held in 1966 at W.A. Bolin’s premises on Sturegatan 12. Because the buyers lacked experience of this type of auction, the profits were meagre, a situation that improved considerably the following year. Initially, W.A. Bolin’s jewellery auctions were arranged once a year but demand soon required two annual auctions, one in the spring and one in the autumn. The auctions are Northern Europe’s leading auctions for jewellery, silver objects and precious ornaments and each season attract a great deal of interest from collectors and dealers worldwide.
New locations, new management
In 1989 Bolin merged its two shops at Sturegatan 12 and Biblioteksgatan 10 to one shop at Stureplan 6 in the heart of Stockholm. When Sturegallerian was renovated in 2005, W.A. Bolin was forced to take the unusual step of moving a second time within a short period. But the new premises, just fifty metres from the previous shop on Sturegatan 6, proved excellent. One major advantage of the move was that the new location accommodates the workshop, storage and the shop itself. This made W.A. Bolin one of the few major jewellery houses in the world to house its studio and shop in attractive premises under the same roof. The company has been able to take its service to new heights, particularly in terms of special orders (a substantial part of W.A. Bolin’s operations) and repairs.
Hans Bolin gradually ceded management of the jewellery house to his son Christian Bolin in the mid-1990s. His daughter, Anita Bolin Möller, had already worked for the company for some time. Anita has been a driving force in terms of developing the auction side of the business together with her father Hans.
200 Year anniversary
Christian Bolin initiated his control of the firm with two projects which have proven to be extremely important for W.A. Bolin. The company’s 200th anniversary was celebrated firstly with an exhibition at the Royal Armoury in 1996 in Stockholm, which was a huge public success, and then also with the publication of the book Jewellery and Silver for Tsars, Queens and Others: Bolin 200 Years by Magdalena Ribbing. The exhibition involved multiple trips to Russia during the relatively open period of Boris Yeltsin’s era of power, and The travels gave Christian Bolin new opportunities to research his family’s company in the Russian archives and encounter an immense Russian interest in Russia’s history before the revolution.
“It was truly fantastic to experience at first hand how prominent the name W.A. Bolin is in Russia,” explains Christian Bolin. “That’s when I realised that everything I had believed to be tall tales were in actuality understatements.”
Contacts with the Kremlin Museum from the 1996 exhibition and the many new-found relationships in Russia resulted in a Bolin exhibition in the Kremlin in 2001. The exhibition was inaugurated by Sweden’s King Carl Gustaf and Queen Silvia during their State visit in October of 2001.
W.A. Bolin is currently enjoying a period of prosperity and cautious expansion with new recruitments and investments. Both shop sales and the auctions are growing as is international interest in W.A. Bolin, one of the world’s unique jewellery houses.
“What makes our company so special, and is also highly valued abroad, is our family history and tradition,” comments Christian Bolin. “The fact that the company has been run by our family for six generations over a period of 216 years promises our customers expertise, stability and genuine personal dedication.”