Goldbeater’s workshop in the Stadtmuseum Schwabach.
Goldbeater’s workshop in the Stadtmuseum Schwabach. Wikimedia

Golden times in the East

The Thirty Years’ War devastated Europe. Though not involved in the war, Switzerland also suffered. Countless people emigrated, moving north, and also eastwards. Some, such as goldbeater Heinrich Schlatter, found a happier future in their new homelands.

Katrin Brunner

Katrin Brunner

Katrin Brunner is a self-employed journalist specialising in history and chronicler of Niederweningen.

When Heinrich Schlatter was born in 1663 in the Wehntal, near the German border, the Thirty Years’ War had already been over for 15 years. Even so, the consequences of the war were still felt throughout Europe. Famine and disease had left southern Germany depopulated. While Switzerland was largely spared the chaos of war, living conditions were poor and numerous families were compelled to emigrate. When Heinrich was two years old his father, actually a miller by trade, tried to find extra work as a stonemason to support the family. It was no easy task; food prices were rising and people were always in debt. And Switzerland’s population was high, unlike in the countries that had formerly been at war; this was an additional burden on society. So it’s not surprising that in the years after the war, thousands of people from Zurich, Bern and Schaffhausen moved to southwest Germany. Years earlier, about a third of Germany’s civilian population in that area had been killed in the war or fallen victim to the famines that followed.
The Thirty Years’ War was brutal and claimed countless lives.
The Thirty Years’ War was brutal and claimed countless lives. Wikimedia

A rare and sought-after profession

20-year-old Heinrich learned the unusual but highly sought-after profession of goldbeater. The apprentice headed first to Reformation-era Basel. Together with Zurich, the city on the Rhine was the centre of Switzerland’s goldbeating industry, producing fine gold leaf that was used by carpenters, architects and jewellers for furniture, structural decorations and pieces of jewellery. Europe was now divided along religious lines. Having already experienced an initial flashpoint in the 16th century with the French Wars of Religion and the expulsion of the Huguenots in Protestant dominated areas, the two cities were in danger of losing their monopoly status in gold leaf production. The local craft guilds took issue with the massive increase in well-trained Protestant competition. So Heinrich, his brother Jakob and 22 other young men moved on. In 1687 the Swiss group arrived in Berlin. There, economic life had recovered rapidly after Elector Friedrich Wilhelm took power in the mid-17th century. Shortly after his arrival in the German city, Heinrich Schlatter married the ‘maiden Catharina Typken’. He also operated a gold and silver braiding workshop and a shop for ‘fancy goods’. It earned him enough money to support his wife and their nine children.
Gold leaf, the result of a goldbeater’s work.
Gold leaf, the result of a goldbeater’s work. Pixabay

Heeding the Tsar’s call

The Russian Tsar Peter the Great was a big fan of Western culture and art. St Petersburg, the city he founded, was characterised by a number of Western-style reforms and architecture modelled on the West. Peter I brought in a whole army of experts from the West: winemakers, cheese makers, merchants and, of course, goldbeaters. In 1718 Heinrich Schlatter went to St Petersburg, accompanied by his son Johann Wilhelm, then ten years old. At that time, they were already classified as Germans. Together with the Schlatters, around 10,000 Germans and Swiss emigrated to Russia at the beginning of the 18th century. Heinrich Schlatter was employed as a senior official at the newly founded college of mining. His son Johann Wilhelm, or ‘Ivan Andreyevich Slater’, as he called himself in his new homeland, learned the Russian language and rose to become a talented mining engineer at a young age. He was the first person to write a book on mining in the Russian language. This was followed by other well-respected papers about mining. The Schlatter family stayed in Russia. It seems they found their path to happiness in a foreign land.
Portrait of Tsar Peter I, also known as Peter the Great.
Portrait of Tsar Peter I, also known as Peter the Great. Wikimedia

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