From the late 19th Century through to World War 1, the German factory, Wurttembergische Mettalwaren Fabrik (more commonly known as WMF) was one of the most prolific in producing stylish, evocative and elegant designs in commercial continental pewter and silver plate metal ware.
Pictured right: Wurttembergische Metallwarenfabrik, A green glass Art Nouveau claret jug and stopper, circa 1910, The silver plated metal mounts featuring foliate forms and to the base female heads emerging from water, impressed WMF; EP; 1/0 38cm high. Sold at Bonhams, Edinburgh April 2009 for £648. Image Copyright: Bonhams
The inception of this metalware manufacturer began with Daniel Straub, a miller from Geislingen in southern Germany. Having been brought up during the dawn of industrialisation, Straub had proved himself quite the entrepreneur and in 1850 had established a small metal repair workshop called ‘Maschinenfabrik Geislingen’ which predominately manufactured mill turbines as well as being involved with the construction of the Geislingen’s railway. However in 1853 Straub decided to join forces with the Schweizer Brothers and together they set up the company ‘Metallwarenfabrik Straub & Schweizer’ where they experimented with producing a variety of silver plated products.
In 1862 the company exhibited at the Great London Exposition which was sponsored by the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Trade. They were awarded the prestigious gold medal for their silver plated serving trays, wine coolers and candle holders. However, despite their success, in 1866 the two brothers, Frederick and Louis Schweizer decided to leave the business and so Straub bought them out. Undeterred he carried on and was soon able to open his first showroom in Berlin under the new company name ‘Straub and Son.’
Pictured left: Wurttembergische Metallwarenfabrik, A WMF figural centrepiece, circa 1900, cast as the winged figure of Mercury standing on a tortoise, holding aloft a nautilus shell embossed with foliate scrolls and a female mask motif, mounted with a putti riding a dolphin, the whole raised on a white marble base of oval form, height 51.5cm. Sold at Bonhams, London July 2009 for £5,040. Image Copyright: Bonhams
Co-owner and Straub’s son, Heinrich helped his father oversee the silver-plating business which had grown to employ 200 people and was producing 960 different products. Sadly, in 1876 Heinrich died after contracting a cold which turned into tuberculosis. This tragic event devastated Straub resulting in him losing his business drive, added with losing a lot of money which had been wrongly invested into a local ore mine it soon became evident that Straub had found himself in a position where he had to merge his company with another silver plate organisation A. Ritter & Co.
Originally founded by Alfred Ritter and a chemist, Carl Haegele, Ritter & Co were the main competitors to Straub & Son, in fact in the past they had even managed to poach some of Straub’s skilled employees. Ritter produced high end luxury items and were slightly ahead of their time in technique. Instead of using the method of heat and mechanical pressure like Straub & Sons to plate their wares, Ritter dipped the item into a bath of silver which together with an electric current produced pieces that were finely and evenly covered in a lovely layer of silver. This method of plating was entitled ‘Galvanisation’ and was not just extremely economical but also allowed more intricate and complex vessels to be plated.
Straub & Son had remained more of a workshop employing craftsman whilst Ritter & Co had embraced modern industrial production however some years later both companies were still facing financial difficulties. In 1880 the two manufacturers were offered yet another merger opportunity with the Wurttemberg Union Bank. Straub was not happy with this new merger and so decided to take a step back, founded another holding company and concentrated on the other side of his business with machine works. WMF was now basically run by former employees of Ritter & Co which all held managerial positions.
Pictured left: Wurttembergische Metallwarenfabrik, A Silvered Metal And Glass Decanter, WMF with six metal cups, stamped factory marks, decanter 14 1/3in. (36.5cm.) high, cups each 4 7/8in. (12.5cm.) high (7). Sold at Christies, London April 2004 for £6,573. Image Copyright: Christies
From the inception of WMF as one company the growth was tremendous, producing everything from vases to claret jugs, card trays to candlesticks and cutlery to kitchen utensils ensuring that they very quickly became leaders in producing domestic metalware. Another smart move was acquiring a glass works and then employing skilled glass makers from Bohemia. These glass makers moved to Geislingen in Germany so that they could work at the factory creating the liners for items such as salt and pepper shakers and butter dishes.
WMF continued to grow acquiring even more factories along the way. In 1886 they took over the Polish metalware company Plewkiewicz, which in 1900 became a subsidiary of WMF. They also acquired the Austrian company AK & CIE who then produced and distributed WMF pieces to the Austrian and Hungarian market until around 1914. However it was the taking over of Orivit AG who were renowned for producing pewter ware in 1905 and the purchase of Orion Kunstgewerbliche Metallwarenfabrik that really pushed the company forward.
Orivit was well known for producing pewter in the Jugendstil style (German for Art Nouveau) and this was to become the most distinctive period for the WMF factory as they began to produce much of their wares in this artistry. Albert Mayer, a skilled sculptor and designer was also employed at this time to head up the art studio and together with many skilled designers produced some of the most stunning sculptural works in pewter metal with silver plating and on occasions combining these designs by the use of glass to enhance a piece. Many designs featured the sinuous fluid forms of nature such as flowers and foliage, some of which were combined with figural maidens very much in the style of the famous Czech artist Alphonse Mucha who strongly influenced this period with his poster art. Other pieces displ ayed strong geometric and abstract forms which were inspired by Austrian secessionists such as Gustav Klimt. Many items such as claret jugs and vases also possess curvaceous whip lash handles which have also become synonymous with the Jugendstil style.
Pictured left: Wurttembergische Metallwarenfabrik, A Silvered Metal Table Lamp WMF, possibly designed by Franz von Stuck, stamped factory marks, height excluding light fitting 14½in. (36.5cm.) high . Sold at Christies, London April 2004 for £1,793. Image Copyright: Christies.
Although many other styles had been adopted by the WMF factory over the years such as Rococo, neo-classical, gothic and the geometric designs from the Art Deco period it is still the Jugendstil peices that most interest collectors. Pieces found with this influence can demand a premium although prices vary depending on design and shape. If a piece is evocative of the period and is lavishly decorated with flowing haired maidens, sinuous stems and flowers then these can make into the thousands of pounds whilst more simplistically decorated items can be obtained for a few hundred pounds.
Today the WMF factory is still going strong, producing thousands of different designs in domestic metal ware which is distributed right around the globe. A house hold name there is no disputing that this German metalware manufacturer has made its mark when it comes to artistry, craftsmanship and quality especially when considering those evocative designs from the Jugendstil period which can only be described as exquisite works of art in metal.
• The outbreak of World War 1 in 1914 saw a halt to WMF export market.
• Pieces dating from the 1800s through to 1907 carry the WMF ostrich mark, created by Daniel Straub early pieces also feature the letter ‘G’ which stood for Geislingen when the metalwork was founded. After this a stamp with the initials WMF was introduced and was to become the official mark.
• In 1887 WMF set up their own welfare organisation which provided social benefits for their employees.
• By the 1960s WMF’s Geislingen factory emoployed well over 5,000 people, due to space shortage more sites were set up in Hayingen and Riedlingen.
• In 2003 WMF celebrated its 150th anniversary.