Inside the Wellendorff jewelry plant, modern-day Rumpelstiltskins spin gold into silk
Author Boyd Farrow Illustration Luci Gutiérrez
GERMANY – In the sleepy southwestern German town of Pforzheim, beside a market square heaving with homemade sausages and jam, stands a squat brown structure that, at first glance, could be the local department of motor vehicles. This unprepossessing building, though, houses one of the world’s most exclusive jewelry companies, one that caters to some of the world’s wealthiest people.
The company is Wellendorff, a family-run enterprise that started producing jewelry for European royalty in the 1890s and is now best known for its woven-gold rope. Introduced nearly 40 years ago by family patriarch Hanspeter, the rope is said by its wearers to be as smooth as silk‚ and it’s about to get a serious upgrade. “The new collection is even smoother,” says designer Uli Perathoner, casually bouncing a $50,000 bracelet in his hand.
Perathoner is standing at the center of the plant’s main workshop, which is as clean and bright as a chemistry lab. He’s surrounded by a small army of workers who are either hunched over microscopes, fiddling with teeny tools or operating an array of gleaming machines. Attention to detail, Perathoner says, is absolutely vital. “If you spend this kind of money on some jewelry, and it catches just one of the wearer’s hairs, it is a catastrophe.”
At one workstation sits Sandra, a cheery 25-year veteran of the company, who is meticulously braiding 40 strands of gold into an intricate bracelet. By her side is a supersize version of the same piece. This, it turns out, is a solid gold belt, made to order for an unnamed VIP.
The guy who spins the gold is Stefan, a genial, thick-set man who has worked here for a mere 23 years. The process starts with a 12-inch rod of solid gold, which he fires and stretches until it is so thin that 20 feet of the stuff is required for every necklace.
You need strength as well as delicacy to do Stefan’s job. His big hands are as rough as the rope is smooth, his fingers worn from years of gripping tubes of hot metal. “That is a good thing,” he says with a broad smile. “It is helpful for when I play foosball with my colleagues at the end of my shift.”