Joachim Matthias Wendt a silversmith and watchmaker, was born on 26 June 1830 at Dägeling, near Itzehoe, Holstein, Denmark. He was the son of Joachim Matthias Wendt Smith, and his wife Christina, née Schlichting; his mother died when he was only 9 years. Wendt was raised by his father and two of his sisters. He was apprenticed to be a watchmaker and learned the silversmith’s craft in his village of birth. At the time, this part of Northern Europe was a point of disputed territory for years, and had an eminent war with Prussia looming on the horizon; this triggered his urge to migrate to a new world and a life in Australia.
Wendt migrated to Adelaide in 1854. He went straight into his own business and set up as J. M. Wendt; watchmaker and jeweller outlet. His business flourished and within a short time, he had established himself as a watchmaker in Pirie Street, and within twelve months, became a naturalised British subject. After some time and great success, he moved the business to Rundle Street. During the silver boom of the 1880s, Wendt opened a store at Broken Hill and crafted a model of the Block 10 mine. The Wendt family still controls the family business which is still in the same address at Rundle Street and is registered as Wendt’s Pty Ltd.
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.
He soon became a well-known watchmaker, gold and silver smith and jeweller. The quality of his workmanship and design was recognised at the New Zealand Exhibition of 1865, held in Dunedin. His silverware and jewellery won first prize; Wendt was also awarded a prize medal for his work from New Zealand in 1865 and a year later another from Victoria. In 1864 and 1865, is when he gained first prizes at the Dunedin Exhibition in Scotland and in 1870, New South Wales awarded a medal for his work.
Wendt’s firm produced four presentation caskets for the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit to Adelaide in 1867; their quality prompted the duke to commission further work and appointed him the Jeweller to His Royal Highness in the colony of South Australia. Wendt’s staff now had expanded in number reaching twelve silversmiths. In 1869, he opened another shop at Mount Gambier. In the same year, on Christmas Day at his North Terrace home, he married with Unitarian forms Johanna Maria Caroline; Johanna Koeppen, née Ohlmeyer; a widow with four children.
In addition to his interest in gold and silver, and watchmaking, he was also involved as a member of a syndicate that erected the Adelaide Arcade; a Freemason Hall in Flinders Street, which he later owned. Later with August Helling, they invested in a land development of 60,000 acres in the Mallee scrub, Tintinara district. Wendt also had a significant interest in the Theatre Royal in Hindley Street.
Wendt was also very involved in the mining industry and was a director in several South Australian companies, including the Lyndoch Valley Mining Company; with W.S. Whitington as the secretary. Among some of its shareholders were Dr William Gosse, who had assisted Tolmer at Mount Alexander 15 years before, and George Henry Catchlove of North Adelaide. In 1868, he was on the Board of Directors of the West Kanmantoo mine. While a shareholder in the Nil Desperandun, he pressed for an extraordinary meeting on 9th December 1869, with the purpose of this meeting being to remove all its directors because of their many mistakes and blunders.
In 1870, Joachim Matthias Wendt was involved with the Eclipse Gold Mine; which was founded in 1870, by Captain Terrell. When gold was discovered in the Northern Territory, he became heavily involved in the Douglas gold mine. Later, he became a shareholder and director of the Alma gold mine in South Australia.
Wendt’s notable commissions
Wendt’s silverwork included extravagant naturalistic creations, stylish Edwardian domestic designs, and pieces which had a restrained Regency touch. His pieces were undoubtedly the finest produced in Australia in the second half of the 19th century.
Some of his important commissions were the salver presented to E. M. Young in 1870, currently held by the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. He also submitted a pair of prize-winning epergnes to the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1878. Wendt’s commercial success led him in 1888 to open another branch at Broken Hill, New South Wales; his model of the Block 10 mine was executed five years later.
In 1903, his son Julius and stepson Hermann Koeppen-Wendt became partners in the firm and took over its management. Due to being upright and honest, with heavy-lidded eyes, a trim beard, and a sense of serenity, Wendt received numerous expressions of affection from his employees and tenants even in his retirement.
Despite being naturalised in 1864, Wendt deflected anti-German sentiment during World War I, by stressing his Danish roots, and by lauding the British Empire. He died on 7th September 1917 at his home in Wakefield Street, Adelaide, and was buried in North Road cemetery. He was survived by his wife, their son, and two daughters. At his death, his estate was sworn for probate at £33,883.
In 1903, after his son and stepson joined him as partners in the family firm, they took on much of the workload and consolidated their position as Adelaide’s leading jewellers well into the twentieth century.
The 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, in public and private collections around the country.