Ornaments of distinction


The Christopher Radko story starts with a tragedy: Hundreds of Christmas memories shattered into bright shards of glass. But there's no Grinch in it, and it has a happy ending.

Ten years ago, the Radko family's 14-foot Christmas tree came crashing down because of a faulty tree stand. With it went a century's worth of glass ornaments, some brought from Poland when a great-grandmother immigrated, others collected lovingly over the years.

Young Christopher Radko, then working as a mail clerk in a New York talent agency, spent the weeks before Christmas frantically searching for replacements. There were none to be found.

The family ornaments were from Europe, of hand-painted, hand-blown glass. The kind no one was making anymore. All he found in the New York stores were plastic decorations.

He couldn't do much about the tree that Christmas, but the following spring he visited relatives in Poland and started his quest again. When he talked to glassblowers, he found they made the standard plain Christmas balls but not the elaborate shapes in glorious colors he remembered from his childhood.

He sketched a few rough designs to explain what he was looking for. The glassblowers told him, "These are old-fashioned. You don't want these." But Christopher persisted, and finally got them to make the ornaments he wanted. He had no art or design background, just memories from Christmases past.

Back at home he showed the Polish-made ornaments of his own design to friends; they wanted to buy them. He wasn't ready to quit his day job yet (he had aspirations of becoming a famous Hollywood agent), but he could see a way to supplement his income. He took around his shimmery glass parasols, stars, angels and reflectors to local stores.

They loved them, and it was "Goodbye, Hollywood. Hello, Christmas," as the 34-year-old Mr. Radko puts it now. Since then, parlayed his Santa Clauses and glittery-bright balls into a multi-million dollar business.

Vice president Al Gore's Christmas tree is covered with Christopher Radko ornaments this year. Katharine Hepburn, Liza Minnelli, Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton and Demi Moore all collect them.

And people no longer buy Radko ornaments just for Christmas. Mary Pat Andrea, owner of NightGoods in the Gallery, says that "Scarlett's Wedding Dress," an oversized white and gold ball, has sold very well as wedding and anniversary gifts. "Ornaments are something you really keep in your life," she says. "It makes sense to invest in special ones."

The appeal is the high quality of the hand-blown, hand-painted glass, and the ornaments' nostalgic, old-fashioned look. Mr. Radko now has more than 600 craftspeople working for him in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Italy and Germany. He has an eyelash lady who does nothing but paint eyelashes on the figurines. And for this year's strawberry ornament -- hand-painted, it shades from white to pink to rosy red -- "We have a seed lady," he says. "Each seed is individually painted on."

The Radko holiday collection this year includes nearly 500 designs, most of them priced between $20 and $60. The ornaments are fashioned from Pyrex, less fragile than traditional glass.

"I kept creating new designs," Mr. Radko says, "and unbeknownst to me I created a collectors' market by retiring designs every year." (Ornaments from earlier collections have doubled and tripled in value because they are no longer available new.) When he realized his ornaments had become modern collectibles, he started his own collectors club, Starlight, which now has over 15,000 members. Radko fans get a quarterly newsletter through which they learn the legends behind the ornament designs, take part in contests and get advice on collecting.

Kathy Debus, manager of Valley View Farms' Christmas shop, one of the largest in the Baltimore area, describes Radko ornaments as "highly collectible." Says John Stevens of Watson's, which also has an extensive Christmas display, "Radko ornaments just get more and more popular each year. They're a throwback to the traditional Christmas."

"I believe in collecting for the magic and sparkle of Christmas," Mr. Radko says, but there's no denying the current mania for collecting has made his business even more lucrative. In the past few years he's introduced limited-edition series of ornaments, like last year's Twelve Days of Christmas. The first in the series was "The Partridge in the Pear Tree"; this year it's "Two Turtle Doves." The partridge cost $38 before the design was retired; this year it's selling for over $600, according to Mr. Radko -- if you can even find one.

But no Christmas story can be just about making money. Last year saw the introduction of "A Shy Rabbit's Heart," which raised $90,000 to help the fight against AIDS. This year Mr. Radko released a second AIDS ornament, "Frosty Cares"; and all proceeds from another design, "A Gifted Santa," will go to pediatric cancer research.

Mr. Radko also helps support an orphanage in Poland, which he and his family will visit this New Year's. "I get to be Santa to 70 kids," he says with delight.

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