T he work of fêted German jeweler Georg Hornemann could be most aptly described as intellectually restless. Nearly 70 years since he was first apprenticed to a goldsmith, he still leads the jewelry house he owns with his son, Alexander, and his vast body of work is of such variety and versatility that it is almost impossible to categorise.
In fact, his first ambition had been to work, like his father, in aeronautical engineering – but his artistic talent was spotted early, and at 15 he began to train with a Dessau goldsmith, Kirsch. He left in 1958 (three years before the Berlin Wall was erected) to stay with relatives in Düsseldorf, continuing his training with the jewelry firm Weyersberg.
“His story is fascinating,” says Philipp Demeter, director of jewelry and watches at Sotheby’s Cologne. “Born in 1940 in East Germany, he wasn’t from one of the big goldsmithing families of Germany, and when he came to the West he didn’t go to the best-known goldsmithing city, Pforzheim. Yet he built his business up from the ground to become one of Germany’s most celebrated jewelers.”
Instead of a single style, what defines Hornemann's work is his ethos – a constant exploration of the tension between his search for the new and his fascination with the eternal themes of Western culture. That can be seen in his award-winning early work – he received the first of many international prizes in 1967; in the refined, graphic shapes influenced by the Bauhaus near whose environs he first trained; in the meticulously carved objets and sculptures of his later years; and in the macabre skulls and bones he has explored more recently, referencing the vanitas tradition of German art.
And for Hornemann, it really is about art. He values the craftsmanship of goldsmithing and the primacy of creativity over the intrinsic value of jewelry. As content to work in non-precious materials, like coral or bronze, as in gold and diamonds, he has incorporated in his pieces everything from ancient iron relics to acrylic and corian. And however contemporary the design, he works slowly, starting the traditional way, with a beautifully drawn design. Sotheby's Cologne sale of Fine Jewels, Watches and Handbags features six exceptional Hornemann pieces from the years after the millennium that encapsulate his appreciation of colour, his workmanship and his love of a graphic line. And though their artistic value is undeniable, they are above all delightful, says Philipp.
“This small collection from Hornemann’s late period shows a really unique sense of design,” he says. “It’s sculptural – some of the pieces look like art – but with the yellow and white gold and the brightly coloured gems, they are also really cool statement pieces – the perfect summer jewelry, in fact.”
Mixing 18ct gold, diamonds and sapphires with the sort of semi-precious stones that are often eschewed by fine jewelers – big, bold topaz, amethyst and peridot – Hornemann’s work is defined by its peerless craftsmanship, says Philipp.
“One of the highlights of the sale is the topaz ring,” he says. “The ring alludes to preciousness, with the gold shaped like a faceted diamond, and there’s a small diamond in the culet of the shape, but the highlight is this big, vibrant blue topaz. It’s not an easy piece to wear – it’s so heavy, and a tiny size – but what a statement for someone.”
Among the other pieces are two rings that play with the striking colourway of peridot green and buttery yellow gold, with the stones set in sphere-based mounts, contrasting the mirror polish of the gold with the sparkle of the faceted gems. Another ring uses strong, squared, white gold claws to hold a huge emerald-cut citrine, each claw set at the tip with a white diamond.
The stones take precedence, too, in a pair of ruby and sapphire flower earrings, with petals designed as a translucent web of bezel-set oval cabochons. And a pink tourmaline, pink sapphire and tsavorite ring features vivid colour combinations and a stylised floral design that is characteristic of his botanical-inspired work of the 1990s and 2000s.
When it feels like a jeweler has been around forever, always at the top of their game, it’s all too easy to take them for granted. But while Hornemann’s objets and sculptures have been the subject of many exhibitions and monographs, it is perhaps time to reassess his life’s work in jewelry-making, too. These small but spectacular pieces seem like a very good place to start.