article # 58



by Willand Ringborg ©
(click on photos to enlarge image)


The extraordinary silver and jewellery craftsmanship in Russia during the 19th and the early 20th centuries was dashed to the ground by the revolution and World War I. The following decades were rather a Russian fight against poverty. The slow industrialization did not concern consumer goods, particularly those things that were not a necessity. The official version is that skilled craftsmanship and cultural heritage was preserved and maintained – which was not true. In art, a short period of freedom to express and an avant-garde appeared, but was followed by Lenin’s New Economic Policy of 1924 that closed down any 'unnecessary' activity. And the proclaimed style of art, 'Social-Realism' did not go together with silver and gold.

However, after World War II, a minor reappearance of silver pieces for general sale became visible, but organized the soviet way – industrialized production by all-union plants delivering to the entire Soviet. And specialization, one plant made some few varieties and still another was mass-producing another design. All manufacturing was centrally controlled by 5-years production plans.

Let us look into some examples from those smallest things that were affordable even by the masses. The bread and salt tradition of welcoming guests - a small piece of bread dipped into a salt cellar - had a long ceremonial history in Russia, and there was a latent, if not manifest, demand for salt cellars in silver. And salt cellars are small and affordable. In the 1950-s an industrial production in several plants started in different republics of the Soviet Union.

One example, made in a Moscow plant, is a small round bowl and another in flat design, both with manual engraving, motives similar to that from the late tsarist period; - leaves, flowers, fruits and nuts. The producer was Moscow Jewellery and Watch Factory starting in 1952 (after 1956 only Jewellery) and producing up to 1962.

Moscow salt cellars, engraved with various ornaments, 1950-s, gold plated inside
In Riga (Latvia was incorporated by Soviet from 1940) the production was even more industrialized, no manual engraving, cast silver. The patterns were neo-classical, meander, laurel and vault band on the same basic design shape. The rich silver smith’s tradition in the Baltic States was not given any respect, rather the opposite. The producer was Riga Jewellery and Watch Factory also starting in 1953, and just as in the Moscow plant, from 1956 only Jewellery (maybe in the shift of 5-year plans the watch production was moved to another plant, or, more probable, it never started).

Riga salt cellars, ornamental varieties, 1950-s
From Tallinn (Estonia, as Latvia and Lithuania, was incorporated by the Soviets in 1940) small cheap silver salt cellars on three legs in pressed silver tin were distributed over the continent, produced by the Tallinn Jewellery Plant from 1953. Later, another Tallinn plant (Combinate of Household-Services 'The Spark') produced heavier cast salt cellars with neo-classic ornament, a meander band. The silver content is generally 875 corresponding to the tsarist period, 84 zolotnik.

Tallinn varieties from two different plants, 1950-s. The bigger one was also produced in a deluxe version in 916 silver content, corresponding to 88 zolotnik

In the genuine salt ceremony in ancient times the salt should be served from a salt cellar shaped as a chair where you opened a lid under which the salt was kept. This was also a traditional gift wishing luck. These salt cellars were crafted by the most skilled silver smiths as one-of-a-kind pieces with traditional rich old Russian ornament and engravings.

In the Soviet 50-s a variety of this model came up as a mass production subject in filigree thread and pressed glass bowl.
The Soviet one-of-a-kind salt chair response to an old Russian tradition, silver plated filigree chair with glass bowl
The Soviet salt chair response, mass produced silver plated filigree chair with glass bowl, to an old one-of-a-kind Russian tradition
But the salt spoons? They were not present in the salt and bread ceremony and thus not as necessary, but there were simple ones appearing from the above plants, a pressed circular tin sheet with a soldered silver thread.

One kind appears in the permanent exhibition held in all major cities, showing industrial progress. A salt spoon, almost ironically, was also shown.

Salt spoon from Moscow Jewellery and Watch Factory, 1950-s with the letters (in Latin spelling) V D N CH, an abbreviation for 'Exhibition of Accomplishments of the Peoples Economy'
The advanced design and mass production was, according to Soviet planning wisdom, addressed to one plant, Leningrad's Jewellery Plant. It started also in 1953 and Leningrad (nowadays St Petersburg) has been a sustainable supplier till late 70-s (although transferred to Jewellery and Watch Factory 1962-68 and in the 70-s to Production-Technical Association 'Russkie Samotsvetye' - Russian Treasures). The design was picking up the traditions of enamelling from tsarist times and the handles were partly decorated with cloisonné enamel on silver spoons covered with gold plating. In the 50-s and 60-s the enamel was limited to some few colours, turquoise and dark blue, in the 70-s red and green reappeared.

Two salt spoons from the 50-s, two from 60-s with slightly modified pattern and two from the 70-s with richer enamel colours
Silver salt serving, gold-plated bowl and spoon, 1965, not in original case
But weren't there any pieces of unique design with a stylish attempt not to copy the widely accepted neo-classic patterns? For sure it was, probably limited series of more exclusive products were manufactured for the elite. One example is an extraordinary solid and heavy (46 grams) salt cellar from Riga Jewellery Plant 1965, with a design which might be expressed as brutal-functionalism
Silver salt serving, gold-plated bowl and spoon, 1965, not in original case
Are these Soviet pieces, of doubtful taste and mass produced, of any artistic or collector value, or just historical artefacts of a command economy trying to respond to its citizens' demand for small valuables in a poor living?

Yes and no. Small collectors collect small things and for sure these pieces - not any longer manufactured - will receive greater interest. The silver content is 875/1000, some varieties have a substantial silver weight and the stamps are there to prove authenticity. They are meant for use and thus gold-plated (salt mis-colours pure silver). They have an appealing charm in their simplicity and will be more observed as things to collect, for use or just for pleasure.

Willand Ringborg © - 2006 -