Timeless Handwrought Beauty
by Maxine Carter-Lome
Much has been written about Arts & Crafts furniture, architecture, and ceramics, and such icons of the movement as Stickley, Newcomb, Van Briggle, and Frank Lloyd Wright, among others. Less is known and has been written about Arts & Crafts metalwork. Apart from Tiffany, Georg Jensen, and Arthur J. Stone, most metal crafters from this period, despite their artistry and the demand today for their objects, remain relatively unknown outside of Movement enthusiasts.
At the turn of the 20th century to the 1920s, Utopian communities of artisans were forming in big cities and rural towns across America ready to embrace the ideas and methods of the Arts & Crafts Movement as a creative response to the industrialization of craft. When it came to Arts & Crafts silversmiths, Chicago stands alone, producing the widest range of beautiful handwrought metal objects in the Arts & Crafts aesthetic of any community during this period. To many experts, this brief period was the golden age (or maybe the silver age) of metalwork in America.
Inspired by the flat continuous horizontals of the Chicago landscape and its surrounding areas, and Prairie School architectural style, the Chicago Arts & Crafts community flourished and introduced its own particular decorative vernacular into the movement that became a defining feature of Chicago Arts & Crafts, an aesthetic best described as “uniquely Midwestern.”
“Chicago is the only American city I have seen where something absolutely distinctive in aesthetic handling of material has been evolved out of the industrial system” – C. R. Ashbee
“The Kalo Company is the latest group to be formed. It is composed of six young women, Bertha Hall, Rose Dolese, Grace Gerow, Clara P. Barck, Ruth Raymond, and Bessie McNeal, and their company name is taken from a Greek word meaning ‘to make beautiful.’ They are all graduates of the designers’ course at the Art Institute, and besides designing for wall decoration, produce articles in burnt wood and decorated leather. The workshop of the Kalo Company is in the Bank of Commerce Building.” – “Chicago Daily Tribune,” January 1901
Welles hired and trained predominately women at her “school-in-a-workshop” at a time when many businesses did not. In the first decades of the 20th century Chicago was home to one of the nation’s most robust local women’s suffrage movements. In keeping with the social and moral causes of the Arts & Crafts Movement, and in her role as an independent business woman, Welles, a known suffragist, was often asked to speak publicly and hold “tea and conversation” in small groups to help advance women’s rights.
With regard to creating employment opportunities for women, Welles’ model was not unique. Newcomb Pottery was formed in New Orleans in the winter of 1894-95 under the auspices of the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College, an educational institution for women. In Boston, the Saturday Evening Girls Club, established in 1899 as a reading group for immigrant girls, founded the Paul Revere Pottery, which began producing pottery in 1908 and offered the girls the ability to earn good wages within the community.
Welles and her “Kalo Girls” at first specialized in burnt-leather goods, graphic design, and some weaving. It was her husband, George S. Welles, an amateur metalworker whom she married in 1905, who encouraged her interest in jewelry and metalwork and set the Kalo company on the course for which it is best known. When Clara and George divorced in 1914 and the Shop moved to Chicago, it was George who convinced her to focus exclusively on handwrought copper and silver items.
While most silversmiths of the period ran smaller boutique storefronts, and others sold co-branded products through department stores, Welles was quite content for Kalo to be a commercial design studio. Although the company was mostly marketed by word of mouth, Welles did try opening a branch store in New York in 1912 that closed in 1916 because of war constraints, and in the late 1920s tried creating several dozen Danish-influenced items she called the Norse Line to sell through other merchants (Norse Line products – usually marked with an NS in addition to the Kalo stamp – are rare).
Aside from its own product lines and designs, The Kalo Shop was also known for its custom work. Early on it encouraged customers to bring in outdated Victorian pieces and have the stones put into new custom-designed objects. This design flexibility and fine hand-craftsmanship earned Kalo a very loyal clientele, which helped the company survive the Depression when other silver companies did not, or were forced to integrate some labor-saving machining into the crafting of their products.
In an interview in the summer 1992 issue of “American Silversmith,” Bower, who managed the operation for its final 30 years, explained why the Shop shut down. “We ran out of silversmiths. In the last year, we lost our three top silversmiths; men who could not be replaced. It was difficult trying to find men willing to learn silversmithing and it took years to train them.”
Kalo handwrought wares were designed to reflect the firm’s motto: “Beautiful, Useful, and Enduring” – a phrase borrowed from the writings of William Morris, considered Father of the Arts & Crafts Movement. The Kalo design aesthetic gives their objects a timeless, elegant style that seems modern today even though many pieces were made nearly a century ago. It is also what attracts collectors.
Kalo at Auction
The Kalo catalog of work intersects Arts & Crafts style with the Chicago aesthetic, and the movement’s emphasis on hand craftsmanship, which explains the rising value of its brand at auction. This past year alone, Rago Auctions, Skinner, and Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, among other auction houses, sold Kalo objects and jewelry at winning bids that exceeded their pre-auction estimates.
In January 2016, Skinner’s European Furniture & Decorative Arts auction sold an early 20th century Sterling Silver Pitcher, hand-hammered throughout with an applied monogram, estimated at $500-$700, for $2,460. In February, a group of Kalo-marked American Silver Serving Ware sold for $6,875 at Christie’s. In June, Rago Auctions sold a ca. 1910 sterling silver necklace with tassels and abalone blister pearls, estimated at $3,000-$5,000, for $5,938, and closing out the year, Leslie Hindman Auctioneers set the gavel down at $3,750 (including buyer’s premium) on a Kalo Yellow Gold, Lapis Lazuli and Pearl Necklace, estimated at $700-$900.
“This necklace, a rare work in gold rather than the typical silver, showcases the exquisite craftsmanship of Kalo. Its elegantly simple and wearable design is what resonated with bidders for this piece,” says Jamie Henderson, Cataloguer & Jewelry Associate Specialist at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers. “From our research, less than 30 pieces of gold Kalo jewelry have gone up for auction in the past decade and shows a very strong price trend with an eager buying audience.”
“In general Arts & Crafts pieces have always been popular, perhaps more so today because there is a design movement away from decorating with more intricate, heavier pieces from earlier periods,” says Stephanie Opolski, Senior Specialist, European Furniture & Decorative Arts and Fine Silver at Skinner. “People decorating in the [Arts & Crafts] style like the attractive monograms and modern look of Kalo – they’re simple, functional, well-made pieces.” Opolski believes downsizing is driving the market for Arts & Crafts objects and Kalo. “Buyers are tending to be people who are going to use these objects and looking to decorate in that simpler style versus just collecting.”
“The Kalo Shop was special for several reasons,” sums up a source at hicagoSilver.com, a website devoted to “Handwrought Metalwork from the American Arts & Crafts Movement.” “It was started solely by women. Everything it sold was made by hand. While most of its competitors were short-lived, the Kalo Shop remained in operation for 70 years. It was one of the only Arts & Crafts makers to produce a full line of hollowware, flatware, and jewelry. And its designs were timeless and classic; pieces it produced in the early 20th Century could have been made today.”