Tor- my mentor

 

Tor Schwanck, – gold and silversmith

(1935-2005)   

The address was a white painted glass shop front at the old St Kilda junction, in Melbourne….. with no visible name.  I opened the door and walked in to the workshop of “Tor Design”.   It was 1971 and I was asking Tor Schwanck for a job.

Tor was born in 1935 in Helsinki. In 1939, the Soviets declared war on Finland and the bombed Helsinki…Tor was four.    Nick, his son told me “He never talked about it much but I know he witnessed things no kid should see. My belief is that he lived his whole life suffering post traumatic stress disorder”.   Tor was one of the thousands of Finnish children who were evacuated to foster families in Sweden.   He studied gold and silversmithing in Malmo Sweden before coming to Melbourne, Australia in 1961 at the age of 22. He married Kate in 1965.  They set up the workshop in St Kilda, just near the junction.

There were already six other young jewellers working at Tor Design.   I showed him the silver jewellery I had made (in my workshop at home on my parents property near Deniliquin, since leaving RMIT two years prior) and he agreed to “give me a try”.

Work was fun at Tor Design.  Our almost secret location meant all of our work was wholesale or trade.   Most of our work was ordered by a shop in the Capitol Arcade called Ceciles.   It was a tiny little shop, full of contempory, Scandinavian style gold and silver pieces set with semi-precious stones.  On a Saturday morning Ceciles was overflowing with customers and we at Tor’s made most of their stock.   The French Jewel Box in the Block Arcade was also a client we regularly supplied.  All the re-sizes and repairs of the George Jensen jewellery and silverware for the Georges store were also our work.   On Fridays we had “play day” when Tor encouraged us to design and make stock as we pleased.

Stg Silver christening mug Tor made for his son Nicholas, with repousse work.

Ring by Tor Design, around 1972

In 1973 Tor and Kate bought a shop and residence in High St Armadale.   This was a great address and was amongst other interesting businesses and many antique shops.  There was a gallery style showroom in the shop front with the workshop behind.   This position increased the private clients and we continued to make for Ceciles.  Our work consisted of one-off cast pieces as well as handmade fabricated works.  We were encouraged to make our own designs and add our own personal hallmark stamp to these pieces along with the “Tor Design” hallmark.    Tor was very relaxed about security, trusted all of us completely and did not even own a safe.  Nikko, their five-year-old son was constantly in and out of the workshop, along with the two schnauzers.

                                           Pendant with agate made by Tor Design

 Cuff-bracelet in stg silver with cabochon amethyst by Tor Design

By 1974 I decided to leave Tor and set up my own little business in Brighton.   I returned to introduce my new husband Ralph, to Tor and Kate in 1976  because we had decided to live in Queensland.   We were shocked to hear of their recent robbery.   Two men had forced them at gun point to all lie on the floor and demanded to see the safe full of diamonds which of course did not exist.   Tor’s greatest fear during all this was that Nikko and his friend, who were playing up stairs after returning from school, would come running into the workshop as they regularly did.   The robbers cleaned them out of all their stock and metals and left behind a psychological scar from which Tor never recovered.

A model wearing some of the Tor Design work in stg silver, 18ct yellow gold and semi-precious gems 

Early in 2010, I decided I wanted to contact Tor and Kate with the hope of visiting them while on our next trip to Melbourne in July.   I tried the usual searches, white pages, Google etc but could not find any trace of them.   Then I tried Facebook and did a search for Nick Schwanck who I realized would now be around 40.   Bingo!   his photo even looked like his Dad.   “Are you the son of Tor” I sent….. “Yes” came the reply almost immediately…  “Tor died in 2005”

                                                        Ring with quartz crystal

From many conversations via email with Nick I have learned the sad story of Tor and Kate.   It seems that the robbery caused Tor to suffer severe post- traumatic stress disorder, (to which his childhood may have also contributed).  Heavy drinking, smoking and eventual alcoholism led to him giving up his jewellery making in his early forties.   This was not long after I last saw him.   They apparently sold the shop and residence in High St and moved to a house with a workshop attached.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments