Joachim Matthias Wendt was Danish, born in Dägeling, Holstein, on 26th June 1830, the son of Joachim Matthias Wendt, a smith, and his wife Christina (née Schlichting). By the time he had completed his apprenticeship as a watchmaker and jeweller, his home had come under Prussian rule. Hating this, and excited by news of the Australian gold rushes, he set out for Adelaide, arriving in 1854.
Wendt was ambitious and skilful, soon moving out of his first shop and into the building at 70 Rundle Street that his firm would occupy for over a century. His work was first shown overseas in 1862 at the London International Exhibition, but by the end of the century it had been exhibited from New Zealand to Paris, Philadelphia to London. There was a growing demand for the trophies and presentation pieces that the Wendt workshop produced in a mixture of English and European styles, increasingly ornamented with Australian motifs and ranging from the useful to the grandly symbolic.
With keen business judgement Wendt joined the organizing committee for the Royal Visit of the Duke of Edinburgh in 1867 and so reaped valuable orders both for and from the Duke’s party. He was subsequently appointed ‘Jeweller to His Royal Highness’ in the colony of South Australia.
By retaining talented workshop staff he could produce stylish jewellery using local gold and precious stones, while at the same time importing a wide range of stock. Wendt’s silverwork included extravagant naturalistic creations, stylish Edwardian domestic designs and pieces that showed restrained Regency taste. At its best, it ranks with the finest produced in Australia in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The year 1869 saw him open his first country branch at Mount Gambier and on Christmas Day he married the widow Johanna Koeppen (née Ohlmeyer). The decade of the 1870s saw booming demand for silverwork, with the Wendt productions being exhibited on three continents and Joachim courting and using publicity at every turn for his business whilst avoiding it for himself. His interests extended into property and he was part of the syndicate which developed the Adelaide Arcade (which he later owned) as well as the Theatre Royal in Hindley Street.
Wendt’s business was, for more than two decades, locked in rivalry with his main competitor, Henry Steiner. Both had wealthy patrons and both courted the vice-regal customer. In Town Life in Australia (London, 1883), Richard Twopeny was to write of these ‘jewellers and silversmiths, the work in which is original and artistic, throwing altogether into the shade similar shops in Melbourne and Sydney’.
At about this time Wendt wanted to retire, to give more time to his other interests, but by the mid-1880s drought and the many failures in farming and banking meant there were no buyers for such a business. This was the decade which saw the rise of the Broken Hill silver fields, where in 1888 Wendt opened a branch in the first stone building there and gathered further orders. His finely wrought model of the Block 10 Mine was executed five years later. He also extended his interests into land development in the south-east and the Triumph Plough Company.
In 1903 his son and stepson joined him as partners in the family firm, taking on much of the work load and consolidating their position as Adelaide’s leading jewellers well into the twentieth century. Joachim Wendt died on 7th September 1917 and was buried at North Road Cemetery. His most visible legacy to the city is the Adelaide Arcade and his contribution to the art of the goldsmith can be seen in the range of masterworks and small domestic wares at the Art Gallery of South Australia and in public and private collections around the country.
Hawkins, J.B., Nineteenth-century Australian silver (Woodbridge, U.K.: Antique Collector’s Club, 1990).
Wendts 100 Years 1854-1954 (Adelaide: Wendts Limited, 1954).