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The late Rudolf Heltzel

Born in 1940, the world-class jewellery designer and humanitarian made Kilkenny his home for more than 50 years

Brian Keyes

Reporter:

Brian Keyes

The late Rudolf Heltzel

Master craftsman, Rudolf Heltzel in his studio on Patrick Street, Kilkenny PICTURE: Roland Paschhoff

Rudolf Heltzel, who has died at the age of 79 after a long illness, was a kingpin in Kilkenny’s claim to be a world-class centre for arts and crafts, both during and after the rise and fall of Kilkenny Design Workshops, which had brought him to Ireland in the mid 1960s.
In fact, for over half a century he sustained, almost alone, the international reputation of the city for the pursuit of excellence in his chosen crafts of silver and gold smithing.
His modesty and generosity as artist and businessman were demonstrated by the fact that his main competitors in that area were those he had himself trained or mentored. They had been his apprentices - first at KDW and then at workshop/studios in his home, in rented accommodation on The Parade, and finally at 10 Patrick Street - and had later gone into business on their own account.
As a human being, his achievement is equally notable: he honoured Kilkenny, and Ireland, with his modest presence for over 50 years, wearing his knowledge lightly, making enduring friendships without regard to class or creed, and above all passing on his skill and motivation to the next generation - not only his son, who will carry on the Heltzel tradition, but the dozens of fellow artisans and indeed the hundreds of loyal clients - whose lives he has embellished in his inspiring and unassuming way.
Rudolf Heltzel was born into an artistic family in Berlin on 20 August 1940, when the city was riven by the early fallout from World War II.
His father, Rudolf snr, had come to the city from Bohemia in 1911 at the age of four and was raised by his mother in a small apartment, from where he immediately began to show aptitude for art, sketching scenes in streets and parks.
He was apprenticed to tailoring as a youth and combined this trade with his interest in art. In the mid-1930s he married Charlotte Wermter and, as the nation moved towards war, they began the task of rearing a young family that would eventually include two sons and a daughter.
A Catholic by background and a socialist by instinct and conviction, Rudolf snr was a conscientious objector to war service, but was drafted as an auxiliary in the Russian campaign, when he worked as a tailor in uniform depots and also painted landscapes and buildings that he encountered during the march on Moscow. After the war he maintained his interest in painting but also applied himself to sculpture, mainly in wood and oriented towards the sacred. His long career (he died aged 98 in 2005) would be marked by significant recognition, including the award of the Federal Cross of Merit as well as major exhibitions and publications relating to his work. (Rudolf jnr’s mother, with whom he had re-established contact after his parents separated while he was still a young man, died in the late 1990s at the age of 86).
Rudolf jnr would later note that the only subject he showed any real interest or achievement in at high school was art. But he also knew at an early age that to have a successful career as an artist in Berlin, he would have to operate on a different stage - and not just because he would be competing with his father of the same name, but also because the city was still in ruins.
He enrolled in the Berlin Meisterschule für Kunsthandwerk where, after an early brush with sculpture, he found his true metier: working in precious metals. Exceptionally, he was allowed to study both silversmithing (for hollowware and art pieces) and goldsmithing (for jewellery creation), attaining a unique ‘combination’ qualification in both subjects in half the time it would normally take.
The course placed equal emphasis on design and fabrication, a combination that would also stand to him in later life: there was a huge need for design in the conventional jewellery industry as it existed then, and his understanding of fabrication made him independent of the manufacturing sector and able to operate in both areas.
His father’s influence was reflected in his next step: he went to Munich as an apprentice to the master-artisan Max Olofs, who specialised in church plate.
From there he went to Sweden to join the Stockholm studio of the jewellery designer Sigurd Persson, who had spend his formative years in Munich in the late 1930s. Now well-established and recognised internationally, Persson was glad to welcome the young German designer recommended to him by his former Munich colleagues.
During his two years in the Persson studio, Rudolf worked on the personal pieces that were its staple products; the use of geometric shapes, quirky choices of stones in glass or acrylic, and a touch of pure imagination that reflected the master’s modest humorous essence, would set the tone for the apprentice’s artistic formation.
By the time that Rudolf left Sweden to return to Berlin in 1965, two other developments had occurred which would change the entire direction of his life. Firstly, he had met Eva Olson, a young Fröbel kindergarten teacher who was in Stockholm from her native Karlskrona in the south of the country, on a visit to an aunt.
Secondly, the Kilkenny Design Workshops initiative established in 1963 had begun to be known in European craft circles and the Scandinavian inputs to the Irish government policy which started it were widely admired as an example to other countries.
This proved helpful to Rudolf when he was invited to Dublin to consider joining the staff of the workshops and to expand its production of precious metalwork. He was given accommodation before the interview at the Shelbourne Hotel, his first experience of anything above hostel standard.
“Rudolf was nominated by a number of distinguished European crafts critics at the time,” Jim King, the administrator of the project in its first years, observed. “He had impeccable credentials.”
Within weeks he was packing up his small workshop in Berlin to move to Ireland - and Kilkenny. The precious metals workshop there had been the first to be set up under the KDW initiative, headed by a young designer/artisan from Northern Ireland named Michael Hillier.
The Kilkenny to which Rudolf Heltzel came in 1966 was changing ever so slowly from being a quiet provincial town, though with historic city status, to becoming a centre of heritage tourism and enterprise - that year would see the donation of Kilkenny Castle to the state by the Marquess of Ormonde, the purchase of Rothe House by Kilkenny Archaeological Society, the restoration of Kyteler’s Inn as a hospitality venue by a group of local businessmen and the formation of a dairy production co-operative that would become Avonmore.
By the following year, Eva and Rudolf had married and she had joined him in what was to be their home for the rest of their lives.
The early days of KDW created a whole new universe in Kilkenny, with an influx of designers and craftspersons from many European countries, although the majority were British. Though some were on short-term contracts, many remained on in the city, operating on their own account during and after the original Kilkenny Design Workshops’ 25-year lifespan.
Rudolf Heltzel was a little impatient of the systems and procedures in effect at the workshop dedicated to precious metalworking, and was also very determined to make his future as an independent practitioner. In 2005, on the occasion of a retrospective exhibition on KDW mounted by the Crafts Council, he told Ruth Thorpe, a contributor to the exhibition catalogue, about his initial reaction:
“I was shocked at the quality. (The industry was) protected by high duties on imported jewellery (and so) there were a number of companies producing abysmal stuff in low grade metals for the home market.”
Rudolf’s solution was to make the KDW precious metals workshop a production centre, turning out quality items that had a secure outlet in the ‘Kilkenny Shop’ that fronted the stable complex.
Rudolf also introduced a scheme whereby the KDW team of two silversmiths and four apprentices were joined by four others from the Rionore jewellery manufacturing company established by Sir William Blunden and Sir Basil Goulding in conjunction with the Rio Tinto Mining Group.
The apprentices spent four days at KDW and one at Kilkenny Vocational School, learning freehand and technical drawing as well as various aspects of ancillary skills such as mathematical computation of alloys and the basic geology and properties of precious and semi-precious stones.
The result of this activity was an incredible outreach to the ordinary people of Kilkenny and beyond: young people with no background in arts or crafts came from urban and rural backgrounds to learn the basics of an inspired vocation at the hands of a young master, and in so doing, embraced a career that would change forever the complexion of Kilkenny as a centre of excellence and enterprise.
After KDW collapsed in 1988, Rudolf argued for a continuation of the apprenticeship system by the Crafts Council of Ireland, resulting in the establishment of the Jewellery Skills Course in 1993 under Jane Hutson in the Castle Yard.
In 1968 Rudolf ‘went out on his own’, in the local phrase, setting up a small workshop alongside his waterside cottage and beginning to test the market for the unique pieces that he wanted to create.
It took a little time to establish an approach to the market; he made sure to keep his designs just within reach of the public, both creatively and economically, while at the same time challenging and educating them to appreciate his art.
In 1970 the Heltzels set up (literally - they decorated and fitted it out themselves) a shop in Rothe House, with Eva taking charge of the small retail space to the left of the main entrance (it had formerly been used as a tourist office). This also allowed her to display her own designs for bowls in Irish elm, hand-turned by local craftsmen.
Despite his modest demeanour, from the beginning Rudolf realised the value of publicity and an early interview with a journalist from the Sunday Independent shows the technique he used: an invitation to dinner at his home with guests from Germany, France, Sweden and England, and some complimentary remarks about their host country:
“He and Eva want to stay in Ireland,” Mary McCutchan reported, “there is a certain romanticism and simplicity here which pleases them both and they have made many friends.”
That magic was to endure for the next 50 years.
In 1975 Rudolf purchased the Rionore company, the unlikely consortium of interests who had seen a decade previously the potential of jewellery as a craft that might benefit from a Kilkenny connection. Now a member of the Fitzwilton Group, it capitalised on the discovery by Rio Tinto of emeralds in Zambia. The stones were imported and cut in Kilkenny and the jewellery range was sold in two outlets in Dublin, one within the Brown Thomas department store and the other in Molesworth Street. After a ‘David and Goliath’ court battle, Rudolf took control of the company as an adjunct to the marketing of his more individual offerings.
Meanwhile at his studio/workshop, Rudolf’s output combined his passion for the creative concept of ‘balance’ with the appeal of a carefully-selected range of precious stones (agates, topaz, moonstones, amethysts among others). To this combination he added the imaginative input from his German background and his Irish experience to focus mainly on rings and pendants.
Maeve Lynch, a young Dublin woman, took charge of sales when Rudolf later opened a workshop and retail unit on The Parade and remains with the firm to the present day.
In 1979 the Heltzels purchased No. 10 Patrick Street, one of the 18th Century houses built by Abraham Colles. It was located beside the site of Statham’s Garage (now the Pembroke Hotel), which had later been replaced by a modern office building used by the then South Eastern Health Board. By coincidence the house was alongside one formerly occupied for almost half a century by the German musician Josef Koss, who had come to Ireland in 1905 and become organist at St Mary’s Cathedral in 1912 (Mr Koss also operated as an agent for German musical instruments and had a piano and harmonium ‘wareroom’ on the ground floor).
At No 10 the Heltzels began the task of turning what had most recently been used as a storage area into a world-class workshop studio and showroom venue for their craft lines.
Patrick Street had not then the collection of smaller specialist outlets that would eventually spring up there, although Christopher Wray’s Lighting Emporium, established three years earlier in the old Kilkenny Theatre, was beginning to draw footfall up from the centre. The Heltzel shop would confirm that trend.
In that year too Rudolf became a founding member of a new branch of Rotary International, the international service organisation founded in the US in 1905 and brought to Europe in 1911 with the setting up of a branch in Dublin, the first outside North America.
Rudolf stood out among the founders of the Kilkenny branch, which also included county manager Paddy Donnelly and banker and hurling legend Eddie Keher - he was the only one directly engaged in what might be called a manual occupation. All the rest were in financial services, the law, the medical and dental professions, and the service sector.
Rudolf was involved in, and proud of, the wide variety of projects that Rotary initiated including the installation of new windows in the old Evans Home, helping establish the Aislinn Centre in Ballyragget and building a playground for the Mother of Fair Love School – which fostered a relationship between the school and Rotary Kilkenny that lasts to this day.
The current Rotary president Jason Dempsey paid Rudolf this tribute:
“His fun loving, charming personality with a great sense of humour (and the odd heckle!) often heard from the back of the Club House Hotel meeting room at the Rotary Monday lunch was part of the fabric of our club for the past 41 years.”
In the following year, tragedy struck. Rudolf and Eva’s beautiful daughter Rebecca, aged only eight, died of cancer. But as they continued to bring up their two young boys and develop their business, the future brightened and they resumed their ambitious development as Kilkenny became more popular as a visitor destination.
Unfortunately a lease renewal offer at an exorbitant rent and an economic downturn forced Rudolf to close Rionore’s Dublin operation in 1985, though the company remains in Heltzel ownership.
The financial pressures caused by these developments caused Rudolf to make a tough decision: he would maintain the studio operation in Kilkenny so as not to disturb the lives and incomes of his employees, but he himself would seek employment elsewhere. And so for the next few years he moved to Northern Ireland with his family, first to work on a jewellery range development project known as ‘Tír na nÓg’, and then as an adjunct lecturer in the Fine Arts department at Queen’s University.
But by the late 1980s the Heltzels were back in Kilkenny and over the next quarter of a century they would maintain their progress and position, not only in the city, but also in the international crafts community. They visited Germany regularly, including in their itinerary the Idar Oberstein region near the French border where the precious stones Rudolf favoured in his work were supplied and polished by specialist operators. Rudolf commented:
“I start with an idea, which could be influenced by the beauty of a precious gem, the discovery in a museum of a particular painting which appeals to my sense of aesthetic, or even the abstraction of forms in nature.”
During that period, the Heltzels would both drive and benefit from the emergence of Kilkenny as a prime visitor destination. They were helped by the revolution they had helped to create in craft production and marketing, not only in jewellery but also in pottery, glasswork, textiles, leatherwork, basketry and woodwork, with more than two dozen retail and workshop/studio locations now part of the Kilkenny Crafts Trail.
In the early 2000s, Rudolf was approaching the traditional retirement age, and had begun to wonder about the future of his business. His two sons, Christopher and Julian, were already embarked on careers away from both Kilkenny and the crafts scene, in film production and information technology respectively. In 2004 Christopher made the fateful decision to return to Kilkenny and begin the daunting process of learning the jewellery craft and trade from his father.
Rudolf, of course, remained heavily involved in the business. Although increasingly affected by arthritis, he continued to work on special projects. He also undertook assignments for national and international development agencies, including the EU, involved in the promotion of the craft sector, working in Guyana, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Jordan, Botswana, the West Indies and Pakistan.
In 2009 Limerick’s Hunt Museum, in one of its last initiatives under the direction of Callan-born Virginia Teehan (now Chief Executive of the Heritage Council), mounted an exhibition of Rudolf’s work under the title ‘The Devil is in the Detail: Celebrating the Jewellery of Rudolf Heltzel.’
The noted authority and critic Joseph McBrinn wrote in the Irish Arts Review that ‘challenging the politics of value created by the combination of gem stones and their settings in modern jewellery is the cornerstone of Heltzel’s work ….. stones such as agate, pearl, quartz, carnelian, onyx, topaz and tourmaline, often playing on the unique beauty found in their oxidisation and crystallisation.’
Over the years, Kilkenny made little fuss about its distinguished resident, artist and entrepreneur, and that is the way Rudolf wanted it to be. But he was proud of his own survival in that scene:
“I don’t know anyone else who works like me in any town in Europe,” he told Katharine Blake for a Kilkenny People profile in 2010.
The Heltzels’ original cottage home had been developed into a stunning modern residence, and he and Eva were able to enjoy the company of a wide variety of Irish and international friends, as well as the increased cultural opportunities that urban and rural venues delivered.
Rudolf also met regularly with the friends who accompanied him on hill-walking expeditions and shared the coffee-klatches at various Kilkenny hostelries, most recently at the Hibernian Hotel.
In 2018, when Rudolf was 77, he received his final accolade: an exhibition of his work, under the title ‘In Precious Metal’, at the Craft Council of Ireland Gallery in Kilkenny and the State Apartments in Dublin Castle.
It featured 30 cultural pendants grouped in four collections that reflected themes from his work over 50 years - Rock Crystal, Treasure Cave, Tourmaline Butterflies and a new collection developed in the 21st Century under the title Druze.
When the exhibition opened in Kilkenny in February 2018, it was the occasion for a great outpouring of appreciation and gratitude for what Rudolf had done for his art and the city.
And it attracted attention from the type of media whose coverage is more than worth its weight in gold: The New York Times. They sent the former war zone correspondent and assistant editor of The Observer, Sandra Jordan, to interview Rudolf.
He was sanguine. He had originally exported most of his work but now had an almost entirely Irish clientele, some of whom had more than 50 pieces in their personal collections.
“It’s all by word of mouth,” he said. “We have grandmothers and granddaughters from the same families buying our pieces..… Every piece is thought out and mulled over in an intellectual process. Art is communication with my clients…. It could be 20 or 30 years before I have enough (stones) to make a perfect piece.”
It was fortunate that The New York Times readers could also learn of another Heltzel achievement: at the 2018 Golden Globes Awards and again at the Oscars, the nominated Kilkenny-based animator Nora Twomey, whose engagement and wedding rings had been made by Rudolf, wore his pendants, one of them a vintage 18-carat-gold piece set with stones he had first acquired 50 years previously. Their time had come.
After its Kilkenny debut the ‘In Precious Metal’ exhibition was accompanied by an ambitious tour/outreach program, which began with a launch in Dublin in February 2019 at which the special guest was Mary V Mullin, a seminal figure in the development of Kilkenny Design Workshops who has gone on to become an international expert in arts and crafts administration, promotion and presentation.
It also included a lecture by Rudolf entitled ‘The Arduous Road to the Creation of a Jewel’ as well as school tours and events for children presented by Christopher Heltzel and Maeve Lynch.
Rudolf Heltzel died at St Luke’s Hospital, Kilkenny on April 18, 2020 following an illness that had finally defeated him in a brave battle fought over almost four years. His funeral took place through the streets of Kilkenny, the pavement lined in social distancing by his fellow-members of Rotary, to Cork Crematorium.
In addition to his immediate family, his wife Eva and sons Christopher and Julian, he is survived by his sister Maria, who lives in Berlin, and the family (including Rudolf’s five nieces and nephews) of his brother Christoph, a woodworker who died in January 2020.
Sadly he did not live to celebrate the arrival of his first grandchild, a daughter due shortly to expectant parents Christopher and Cruzcelis.
Some years ago, a young German moved to settle in rural County Leitrim, working energetically to establish a forestry plantation and gaining the admiration of the local smallholders for his energy and ingenuity.
Soon they began to consult him about technical matters, and eventually when any difficulty presented itself the first step would be to ‘ask our German.’
For Kilkenny, Rudolf Heltzel was ‘our German,’ an example not only of the skill and determination of that wonderful race, but of its willingness to embrace without formality, and sometimes with delight, the precarious nature of artistic integrity and survival in modern Ireland. He might even understand it when we say of him ‘Ni bheidh a leithéid ann arís.’
Denis Bergin