When F.W. Woolworth bought 200,000 glass Christmas tree ornaments from the most noted German glassblowers in 1890, he launched an America love affair with shimmer and shine.
Between then and now, we've had our little flings with other styles - dressing the Christmas tree follows trends like everything else in interior design. There were the American-country and the lodge-look trees, with ornaments made from natural materials. They were rough-textured,
homespun and earthy adornments - miniature twig furniture, quilted hearts and folk-art figures hung on boughs with nuts, berries and pine cones.
We loved the old-fashioned romance of the Victorian tree with its antique toys, satin and water-stained silk stitched to bisque dolls, all lace and ribbons and very much mauve, showing nostalgic ladies and gentlemen and angels, angels and more angels. This was the style of decorating a live tree that crossed the English Channel in 1850, when Queen Victoria and her German husband, Albert Edward, lavishly decorated an evergreen with a multitude of glass ornaments, toys and confections, each made more radiant in the illumination of hundreds of candles.
But we've always come back to decorating the tree with objects that shimmer and shine. Blown glass ornaments are enjoying a revival today, due in part to the appeal of nostalgia, but also to the discovery and preservation of the antique German molds that were originally used. Modern technology also has provided high-quality molds that produce the contour and detail of the first glass ornaments.
Following the same time-honored tradition of the German masters is Old World Christmas, a Spokane, Wash., company that uses antique German molds to craft more than 2 million blown-glass ornaments a year. Founded by Beth and Tim Merck, Old World Christmas operates a factory in Coburg, Germany, under the supervision of Klaus Muller-Blech and his father, Heinz, a 14th-generation glassblower whose family owns more than 6,000 original molds.
Old World Christmas ornaments are available across the country through gift, garden and floral stores and catalogs, including such prestigious retailers as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. They can be distinguished by their caps, uniquely accented with a wire star, and sell for $2.50 to $30.
Beaded fruit ornaments are also based on original glass fruit molds in color and size, but for the do-it-yourselfer, the materials - essentially plastic fruit and beads - are easy to find. If you are inspired by the slender twists of blown glass that were the icicles of the last century, you can make a more contemporary version using modern technology. With a strip of plastic that is sensitive to hot water, you can twist the icicle shape and then coat it with glitter in any high-voltage color you like.
Another designer who has taken the market by blizzard is Christopher Radko, whose company has been blanketing fine retailers and the pages of catalogs with blown-glass ornaments produced in Poland, Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic since 1986.
Adding whimsy to the traditional Santa and snowmen, Radko's ornaments are known for their trendy and high-styled sensibility. One ornament, called the Morning After, depicts Santa in sunglasses and a dressing gown seated in an easy chair with a kitten in his lap. His feet are soaking in a tub of water, and he is reading a newspaper dated Dec. 26.
Radko's first collection consisted of only 50 designs. He now produces more than 3,000, including characters from popular culture such as Mickey Mouse, Kermit, Barbie and Rocky and Bullwinkle. Prices for a limited-edition boxed set run from $12 to $100. Radko ornaments have so appreciated in value that his
first Partridge in a Pear Tree ornament, which sold for $38 in 1986, was sold recently in the collectors' market for $1,000.
Other manufacturers are offering glitter and twinkle in such catalogs as Crate & Barrel. There you'll find gorgeous mercury glass balls in gold - a set of two 3-inch-diameter balls for $11.95, and a set of two 5-inch-diameter balls in matte and crinkle textures for $26.95.
Besides balls, fruit is really in this year in such catalogs as Horchow, and the Smith & Hawken Holiday Catalog features fruit ornaments in a set of three pieces (an apple, a pear and a peach) for $29, and a set of dewy blown-glass vegetables frosted with glitter (corn, garlic, eggplant, cucumber and tomato) also for $29.
According to designer Raymond Waites, this Christmas will bring a Bacchanalian feast of glittering fruits and vegetables, along with butterflies, a praying mantis, dragonflies and other colorful bugs, to the shelves of every store with a tree-trimming section.
The proliferation of these types of ornaments is, Waites says, "an extension of the botanicals used in home decorating and appearing on products from fabrics to wall covering for the last three years."
We can't afford to start from scratch every year when our tastes change or the whim of fashion catches our eye, but we do adapt our collections in many ways. We may find ourselves editing our selections, decorating our trees with ornaments of one theme, or we may even go so far as to set up a second tree, focusing on
precious collectibles made of one material, such as sterling silver.
But whatever we choose, there seems to be a strong inclination toward objects that reflect light, very much in the spirit of earlier days.
You probably won't be blowing your own glass ornaments this year, and you may not want to buy some, but you can still capture the elegance and character of those early ornaments by making your own versions of the classics. These publications can guide you:
* Handcraft Illustrated magazine, P.O. Box 7448, Red Oak, Iowa 51591; 800-526-8447
* Martha Stewart Living magazine, 11 W. 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10036
* "Holiday Decorations" by Genevieve A. Sterbenz (Smithmark, $14.95)
* "Decorating for Christmas" by Sheila Pickles (Harmony Books, $22.50)
* Crate & Barrel, P.O. Box 9059, Wheeling, Ill. 60090; 800-323-5461
* Gardener's Eden, 3250 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, Calif. 94103; 415-421-7900
* Horchow, P.O. Box 620048, Dallas, Texas 75262; 800-456-7000
* Smith & Hawken, 2 Arbor Lane, Box 6900, Florence, Ky. 41022; 800-776-3336; www.smith-hawken.com
* Old World Christmas, P.O. Box 8000, Spokane, Wash. 99203; 800-962-7669
* Christopher Radko, 500 Saw Mill River Road, Elmsford, N.Y. 10523; 914-345-6114
Pub Date: 12/06/98