A house of heritage looking to the US
The family-owned silversmith Sylvsmidja in Norway is the world’s largest producer of bunad silver. Now they are looking to the United States.
The silver foundry Sylvsmidja in Voss had a dramatic start. In 1940, silversmith Leif Johannessen and his wife, Betzy, moved from Bergen to Voss with their five children. Norway had just been occupied by the German forces, and the family thought Voss would be a much safer place than Bergen. What met them was not a quiet village, but a town destroyed by German bombs.
The house the family was supposed to live in had also been destroyed, so they lived in a one-room apartment and Leif found a place for a shop on the outskirts of town. Sylvsmidja opened on Sept. 15, in the midst of war and food rationing.
But Leif was skilled and pragmatic and could fix everything from horse bridles to sheep’s bells, so he began to make practical objects for people during the war, supporting his family through five years of war. After the war ended, the foundry started expanding. Today, Sylvsmidja has a board, over 60 employees, and is the largest producer of bunad silver in the world.
Looking to America
The granddaughter of Leif and Betzy is now one of the owners. Anne Kari Johannessen Salbu is also heading up a new project at Sylvsmidja: exploring the American market.
“The Norwegian market is limited, and we know that in the United States and Canada, there are many Norwegians who may wish to connect with their roots by wearing Norwegian traditional silver,” she explains. Anne Kari has family in North America. Leif Johannesen’s brother, Christoffer Berg Johannesen, was a sailor and traveled to Providence [R.I.], North Carolina, and New York. On her mother’s side, the Gjøstein family name can be found in Chicago and California.
Wants to visit Høstfest
The American expansion project has put them in touch with Minneapolis-based Norway House and the Business Accelerator Resource Network (BARN), which promotes Norwegian business in the U.S. market. They’ve made a batch of Syttende Mai ribbons for Norway House. They have also connected with the Norwegian American Chamber of Commerce. The idea is to merge the Norwegian tradition with the American organizations and groups. Students at Augsburg University in Minneapolis are even doing a study on how young Norwegian Americans look at traditional jewelry and bunads.
Anne Kari is excited about exploring Norwegian America.
“In the autumn, we hope to travel to the United States to visit Høstfest in Minot [N.D.] as well as Minneapolis and Seattle to make more connections and understand the American market better,” she says. “We need to create products suited to the demand, and to do so we need to meet the potential customers.”
The manager of Sylvsmidja, Trond Syversen, also has many relatives who emigrated from Jevnaker in eastern Norway to Montana at the end of the 1800s. He hopes to visit when they travel to the United States.
Inspired by heritage
Anne Kari says they want to show that you can wear traditional jewelry, even though you don’t have a bunad. She is wearing a lot of sølje-inspired jewelry herself, together with her modern clothing. Their traditional sølje is made based on objects found in museums all over Norway, and Sylvsmidja makes traditional silver for all the different types of bunads. More recently, they have made contemporary styles of jewelry, inspired by Norwegian nature as well as traditional patterns and shapes.
Currently, Sylvsmidja has nearly 70% of the Norwegian market, but very few international customers. “Our webpage and webshop are being translated into English to make it easier for English-speaking Norwegians,” Syversen explains.
Brooch of 554 pieces
A tour of the foundry demonstrates the skilled craftmanship at Sylvsmidja. Goldsmith Iris Nesje has her desk covered with hundreds of tiny objects that will become a large silver sølje. The piece is called a bolesølje and goes with the Telemarksbunad. It consists of no fewer than 554 different pieces of silver.
“I like ‘putlearbeid,’” Iris says, using an expression for handicraft that works with tiny materials. “It will take many days, perhaps weeks, to finish this brooch.”
The brooch is one of the most expensive of all the products Sylvsmidja creates. It costs about NOK 24,000, nearly $3,000. Most of their products, however, are less elaborate and less expensive.
A house of heritage
The large factory building covers all the different stages of the jewelry-making process. A lot of machinery and manual work is involved. And nearly everyone we meet has family in the United States.
“My grandfather’s brother moved to the Greater Seattle area in the ’20s or ’30s. His name was Kristian Berge,” says machine operator Narve Berge. His colleague, Olav Honve, a 50-year employee, has relatives in Massachusetts, but he says he is afraid of flying, so he has not been there to visit.
Reaching young people
Sylvsmidja takes pride in having its entire process in Norway, from design to production. Anne Kari says that they are especially eager to reach young people in America. Therefore, they are curious about to what extent young people value the Norwegian traditions and heritage.
“We are hoping to connect with an influencer or someone along those lines who has Norwegian ancestry, someone who perhaps would like to help us promote the products in the future. For now, we hope that it will be possible to travel this autumn, and we are looking forward to meeting people in Norwegian America,” she says.
Note: If you want to connect, Anne Kari Johannessen Selbu is happy to receive e-mails at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the May 7, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.