These bears always intrigued me.
I thought some Great Grandwhatever had carved them. But it turns out they were brought back from Germany just before World War II.
Their proper name is Brienzerware.
People use the term “Black Forest” carvings because everyone thought they were made in the Bavarian Black Forest during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But experts recently discovered that they were produced in Brienz, Switzerland. Thus Brienzerware. But nobody uses that term except the most serious collectors.
The bears began life as souvenirs.
According to Brienzerware expert Peter M. Blackman, a local man named Christian Fischer sold the first bears in 1816 near the Giessbach Falls, a 19th Century tourist trap close to Brienz.
Before long, entire families got into the act.
Some of the better-known names are the Trauffers, Hugglers, and the Wirths — who actually opened a firm dedicated to carvings. The successor to the Wirths still operates today as Ed. Jobin & Cie.
Many of the carvings were featured at the London Great Exhibition of 1851 as well as at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and the 1900 Paris Exhibition.
Don’t bother looking for a mark.
The typical bear, carved from linden wood or walnut, is not signed by the artisan (although some do have marks or labels). Some bears play instruments; others climb trees. Some have carved eyes while others have eyes of glass. And others hold up the arms of chairs, tables and other furnishings.
Some “bears” aren’t bears at all.
This dachshund watches over an ashtray. And Swiss artists also carved birds, branches and plants. Some of the pieces command prices in the tens of thousands. But most of the better carvings, while pricey, aren’t out of the range of the average collector.
With reproductions out there, provenance is everything.
Because most antique and vintage carvings aren’t signed, and because bears are still being made, you should be assured – in writing — that the carvings you purchase are truly vintage. This is especially true if you’re looking at a one-of-a-kind antique costing thousands of dollars. Reputable dealers will let you know upfront if an item is a reproduction or modern carving.
These books will tell you more about Black Forest Bears.