Pewter figures – filigree craftsmanship

Oldest German tin dynasty with Swiss roots

by Heini Hofmann

There are not only health resorts and places of power, but also places of art. The Bavarian village Diessen at the Ammersee (lake Ammersee), southwest of Munich, is such a place. The picturesque market town has always been home to painters, musicians, sculptors and writers, but especially to craftsmen who have passed on their skills for generations. The most famous are the pewterers.

Older motifs such as the Swiss Guard and William Tell still remind us of the origins of the Swiss tin foundry dynasty. (Picture small tin foundry Babette Schweizer)

If you walk up from the lakeside road to the baroque cathedral Marienmünster, passing the old town hall one is lead into the Herrenstrasse with its colourful domestic houses. Two pretty buildings with façade paintings, a yellow-white and a blue one, are particularly striking because they both show the same Swiss pewter dynasty name on an artistic figurehead, namely House No. 7 (Pewter Figures Wilhelm Schweizer) and House No. 17 (Small Pewterware Foundry Babette Schweizer).

The Tin Dynasty Schweizer

The family can be traced back to the 15th century. And the family emblem in the façade painting of both houses shows a Papal Swiss Guard on a silver-red shield. The dynasty’s country of origin is said to be Switzerland. The first pewterer in the family’s history was Adam Schweizer, born in 1774. The trained goldsmith founded the Small Pewterware Foundry in 1796.
In contrast to the large pewterware foundry, where cups, mugs and plates are produced, one has specialised in Diessen in the small pewterware, i.e. flat figure casting. Adam Schweizer produced figures of saints and devotional objects for pilgrims, but also ecclesiastical toys for children “playing priest”, crosses, candlesticks and incense boats. Then later profane pewterware was added: Rings and buckles, but also token – motifs such as Bavarian dragoons, Hungarian pandurs or a rococo hunt.
When Adam Schweizer died in 1848, his son Anton continued the flourishing business. He optimised and rationalised the production process. After his death in 1867, his widow Babette took over the responsibility. Their son was again named Adam (1855–1914) and he spent his years of wandering and learning with famous engravers in Munich and Leipzig and used to created filigree pewter Christmas tree decorations for the royal household in Munich. After his death it was his widow Wilhelmine who, together with her children Anny and Wilhelm, managed to preserve the business through two world wars.

Upper and lower place called “Schweizer”

In 1972, as is so often the case in family businesses, there was a split. Daughter Anny continued her business under the name “Babette Schweizer” at Herrenstrasse 17 (called upper Schweizer), while Wilhelm continued his business under his own name at Herrenstrasse 7 (called lower Schweizer). Both companies together represent today the oldest German pewter dynasty, notabene with Swiss roots (see box).
When Wilhelm died in 1976, it was again a woman, his widow Ottilie, who took care of the business until her daughter Annemarie and her husband Jordi Arau took over the company in 1981. Annemarie Schweizer learned engraving, but then passed on her knowledge to her husband, because later she studied medicine and works as a doctor now. Jordi Arau, a mechanical engineer and native Spaniard, was enthusiastic about the small pewter art and continues it with artistic success. The old workshop of the lower Schweizer at Herrenstrasse 7 is now used as a museum, while production takes place in the building behind it - in bright rooms, but still in the traditional manner.
The upper Schweizer at Herrenstrasse 17 is now managed by Adam Schweizer’s grandson, the master pewterer Gunnar Schweizer and his wife Karin. In the Tin-Café, integrated into the exhibition rooms, you can enjoy the diverse fabulous world of pewterware over coffee and cake. It should be noted that the founder of the dynasty had already worked in this house called the upper Schweizer. Today, hardly a visitor leaves Diessen without a souvenir from one of the two Schweizer pewter foundries. And the filigree and precious items are being sent all over the world.

The 400 degree hot tin is filled into the double-sided mould with the casting spoon, while the air escapes through fine channels in the model.
(Picture pewter figures Wilhelm Schweizer)

Engraving and casting

Pewter casting is one of those crafts that are still practiced today as they were over 200 years ago. These days, only the casting furnace operates electrically with temperature control. But everything else is done manually. With a lot of creativity and dexterity, tin bars are turned into small works of art that please the eye and heart. At the beginning of a tin figure there is a pencil sketch. But the there is a long way from the draft sketch to the finished bijou.
First, the sketched motif is worked out by hand from a flat slate slab as a negative mould using a graver and scraper. The front and back of the plate must fit perfectly, which is checked by means of a test casting. The engraving is comparable with the work of the sculptor, but with the difference that the mould is shaped as a negative.
The hot phase in the double sense during the creation process is the casting process. Using a casting spoon, the tin, heated to around 400 degrees, is poured by hand into the double-sided slate mould. The air can escape through engraved fine channels. The heated metal fills all cavities, cools and solidifies. Just seconds after casting, the shiny silver blank can be removed from the mould and freed from the thick sprue pins and thin air trumpets.

Finishing and painting

Each tin figure is then further processed in small batches. Possible misshapen castings, which happen rarely in this precision work, are returned to the crucible. The successful end products are grouped thematically for the finish, i.e. they are deburred and polished. Then another highlight awaits the newborn figurines: Handpainting awakens a soul in them and each individual piece becomes unique.
Painting these jewels requires patient precision work: the tin figures are painted individually with ultra-fine brushes, enamel lacquer or oil and acrylic paints, usually in a homework system. It goes without saying that women’s hands are better suited for such miniature art. These are ladies who have, for example, completed a training as a porcelain painter.
But there are also decorative objects that are not painted, such as door wreaths and window pictures; these are given a patina by blackening and brushing, which gives them a more contrasting and three-dimensional appearance. Other objects require special treatment. For example, with Advent wreaths in miniature form, the flat cast parts have to be soldered together and the whole thing bent using a suitable template. And finally, about one third of all articles are produced as blanks for self-painting and sold together with matching paints and brushes. Because there are art-conscious customers, who still want to set their hand to the parts.
Boom at Easter and Christmas
The palette of pewter figures is immense and varied; it includes ecclesiastical and profane. The former is particularly popular at Christmas and Easter, while the latter is popular all year round. In former times, when many children’s fathers were still soldiers, tin soldiers were very popular; today they have gone out of fashion or have to come along peacefully, in historical uniforms or as Papal Swiss Guard (nomen est omen!).
At Christmas, angels, Santa Clauses, nativity scenes, Christmas trees and Christmas tree decorations are popular. At Easter, rabbits in all variations hobble through the window displays. Other motives are: Customs and family celebrations, fairytale scenes, traditional costumes and May poles, horse and sleigh teams, ships, sailing boats and railways, castles and churches, exotic and farm animals, old and new professions, sports and much more.
And one keeps up with the times: For the World Cup, a wall picture with a goal scene was created in which the players in the penalty area can be painted in the desired national colours. The pewter figures can also be viewed on the Internet (www.schweizerzinn.de = upper Schweizer and www.zinnfiguren.de = lower Schweizer). In short: even if the profession of the pewterer was abolished by amending the list of crafts and it was integrated into the profession of metal designer: It lives on in Diessen at Lake Ammer!    •

“I’m a poor Swiss”

HH. The oldest proof of the name ­Schweizer from the 15th century refers to a Hanns Sweytzer from Unter-Peissenberg, whereby the spelling has changed over time to Schweytzer, Sweitzer, Schweitzer – up to the present Schweizer (Swiss). A family branch has been documented in Diessen since the 17th century. Swiss people also appeared earlier in Schongau, Peiting and Swabia.
“Since 1450”, wrote Dr Bruno Schweizer (the father of Gunnar Schwei­zer, today‘s master of pewterer) in 1930, “a ‘Swiss’ was generally understood to mean a mercenary, a soldier. The old sod of their home floe forced many Swiss people to earn money in faraway countries in this way.“ The same Diessen chronicler also refers to an old carnival verse by Peissenberg: “I bin a armer Schweizer / I bitt en um an Kreuzer.” (I am a poor Swiss / I ask for a kreuzer)
In addition to the Swiss mercenaries in foreign military service - a relic of which is the papal Swiss Guard in Rome - there were also cattle breeders, cheese-makers and confectioners who carried their skills to other countries. For example, the senior melker in the Tsarist Empire was called “Oberschweizer” (senior Swiss). The jungle doctor Albert Schweitzer also has his genealogical roots in Switzerland (the father of the writer researched his origins at his request), except that he kept the old Tz in his name.

Diessen at Lake Ammer

HH. The artists’ village on the western shore of Lake Ammersee, in the district of Landsberg, can be found in the so-called Pfaffenwinkel, where people used to “live under the crosier”, as can be seen from the many baroque churches, chapels and monasteries. Besides the art of tin casting, ceramics and Faience also have a long tradition here. (www.diessener-kunst.de).