Paula Tillander – muse and enablerer

At the time Atelier Torbjörn Tillander was founded, men normally went out to do things while women supported them from the side-lines.
The Tillanders' family business bears the name of Torbjörn Tillander, but it was, of course the determination and hard work of his wife, Paula Tillander, that ensured the business got off to a good start and is still going strong now, 60 years down the line.

A family of millers. Paula Tillander turned 81 on 23 January 2020. Originally from a family of millers, Paula was born at a mill in 1939 in Pornainen and moved to the capital city Helsinki with her family as a young child. She was then evacuated to Kalmar in Sweden for a few years during the Continuation War, along with thousands of other Finnish children. Those years gave Paula native-speaker fluency in Swedish as well as a life-long tradition to visit her "other mother" in Kalmar with the family every summer. 

Paula Tillander, née Laine, showed great resolve and true grit from early on. When her father became ill with asthma at the mill, Paula dropped off school at 15 and took a job as an errand girl at Philips, where she soon worked her way up to an office clerk. One day she and her girlfriends went on a boat trip to the island of Villinki and met a group of young men, including a certain tall, dark and handsome one. His name was Torbjörn Tillander, and they fell in love at the first sight. 


That was it.

A cobbler's wife with plenty of jewellery. When Torbjörn Tillander met Paula, he already had his own atelier where he designed jewellery for other brands, such as Kalevala Koru Oy (Kalevala Jewelry). The young entrepreneur's life was hectic; for the first decade Torbjörn didn't take even one day off work.

His new wife adapted to the fast-paced work right away. Torbjörn worked on customer orders in the back room and Paula served the customers in the shop, stringing strands of pearls, looking after Thomas, Annette and Tina, and keeping everything in order. The family often brought along some of their dogs, too, so the shop didn't get too quiet.

They lived on the island of Villinki, an important place for the whole wider family, for many years when the children were young. Torbjörn travelled to Helsinki for work in his little metal boat and Paula took care of the house and children on the island, learning all about gems and their characteristics in a huge poster on their fridge door. She studied hard on top of everything else and graduated as a gemmologist, to be better able to contribute to the family business.

Torbjörn Tillander was an artist who saw Paula Tillander as his efficient and industrious assistant as well as the woman of his life and his source of inspiration. Like most men at the time, Torbjörn was no poet, but he had a charming way of showing his wife how much he appreciated her; by designing and making her gorgeous jewellery of his best pearls and rarest gems. He always made them in secret, surprising her with his creations.

The main photograph of this article shows a strand of pearls Torbjörn just slipped around Paula's neck in the opening of their Tehtaankatu shop in 1967. Its clasp features a rare chrysoberyl in the pale green shade so loved by her.

The modern bracelet from 1979 is one of the most beautiful pieces Torbjörn created for Paula: the tiny squares are made of different tones of gold. The bracelet weighs a hundred grams and is the result of a hundred hours of painstaking craftsmanship – in secret, of course. It was his present for Paula's 40th birthday.

Torbjörn Tillander's career was crowned by well-deserved recognition in 1991, when his celebratory exhibition "Korut koko elämäni – 45 vuotta taidekäsityötä", or "Jewellery, my whole life – 45 years of craftsmanship" drew record numbers of visitors to Galerie Strindberg. One guest greatly impressed by the exhibition was the then President's wife Tellervo Koivisto who spent hours admiring his jewellery at Strindberg's. Later that year Torbjörn and Paula Tillander were honoured by an invite to the traditional Independence Day Reception at the Presidential Palace.

Diamonds and dirty dishes. You may have gathered at this point that the life of a goldsmith's wife was not always made of Champagne and lavish evening gowns. In a small family business, everyone must be willing to do the dishes and wash toilets, and their daughters Annette and Tina started to work at the shop as teenagers.

Decades at the heart of Atelier Torbjörn Tillander have given Paula Tillander a long-term perspective of the Finnish jewellery sector; she has been actively involved in it for over half of the time Finland has been independent. What has changed during this period of time?

– These days most of Tina's made-to-order customers are women, but it was very different when we were starting out, says Paula Tillander.

– In the 60s, a typical customer was a husband who wanted to surprise his wife with bespoke jewellery. Today women want to choose the type of jewellery they wear, whether they buy it themselves or someone else gives it to them as a gift.

Finland is also more wealthy now, and more people want to invest in precious jewellery than ever before. Another difference is that the boundary between what is considered strictly for special occasions or for every-day use has blurred, for instance, you wouldn't have hung genuine pearls and gemstones on a leather cord 20 years ago. Whereas now we do – in fact, precious pendants on leather cords are among the most popular products at Atelier Torbjörn Tillander.

However, some traditional products have disappeared from our shop, perhaps never to return. Do you remember how families used to collect silverware and babies were given silver mugs for christening? Tillander sold those too, but it was before the start of this millennium.

The story goes on. Tillander is an iconic name in the world of Finnish jewellery. The patriarch of this extensive family, Alexander E. Tillander, left Helsinki and travelled to east, St. Petersburg, in the 1860s. Jenny Tillander represents the sixth generation after him, but, unlike her ancestor, she chose to go west to study gems. Jenny studied at the Gemological Institute of America in London and graduated as a gemmologist in 2017. A third generation of Tillanders is now working at Atelier Torbjörn Tillander, established in 1956.

Paula Tillander has been gradually stepping aside from the daily running of the business, but she still visits Atelier Torbjörn Tillander's office weekly to help with the finances. Not that she needs to, it's just that she likes to.