Monday, December 26, 2016

Some Kugels Are for Hanging



QUESTION: I’ve been collecting Christmas ornaments for quite a few years. I don’t collect any particular type, just ones I like. Recently, I discovered several older ones in a booth in an antique coop. They were mixed in with a bunch of newer ornaments and at first, I didn’t pay much attention. But when I picked one up, it felt heavier than the thin glass ornaments of today. One of them looked like a bunch of grapes and the others like ribbed Christmas balls. So I bought them. Can you tell me anything about them?

ANSWER: It sounds like you’ve discovered some kugels, a type of heavy glass Christmas ornament made in Germany from about 1840 until 1914. The word kugel means “ball” in German, but it also is the name of a type of German pastry. The first ones were smooth, heavy glass balls that were too heavy to hang on anything but a stout pine in the yard, so people hung them in their windows. Kugel makers created them in the shape of grapes, apples, pears, pine cones, berries, tear drops and balls with melon-style ribs.

Louis Greiner-Schlotfeger invented the kugel to compete with the glassblowers of neighboring Bohemia who had perfected blowing glass beads lined with lead mirroring solution with produced a brilliant shine. And although he was able to duplicate the lead mirroring solution, he couldn’t hand blow his kugels thin enough. The result was heavy pieces of glass shaped as balls in a rainbow of colors in sizes ranging from an inch in diameter to over 30 inches.

Originally, the glassblowers hung their kugels with bits of wire. After blowing a glass bubble, they snipped it from the blowing tube which resulted in a small neck with a hole leading to the inside of the kugel. They ground the neck down leaving just a hole and attached a decorative brass cap, held in place with wire arms that spread apart inside the glass sphere. Finally, they attached hanging rings to the caps and hung them with wire hooks.

These early kugels became known as “witches balls.” People hung them in their windows and doors to ward off witches, who, legend says, were repulsed by round shapes.

Kugel makers began experimenting with silvering the interior of their balls. Some used lead, while others employed bismuth or tin. Eventually, most settled on silver nitrate to create a metallic finish. Larger versions of these early kugels, called “gazing orbs,” sat on pedestals in people’s gardens.

It wasn’t until 1867, when Greiner-Schlotfeger’s village built a gas works that he had a steady, hot, adjustable flame, enabling him to blow thin-walled glass balls. From that point, it was a simple step to blowing glass into cookie molds shaped like fruits and pine cones. The glassblowers called them Biedermeierkugeln—referring to the Beidermeier Period in which they made them. However, these kugels were thin enough to hang on a Christmas tree, giving birth to today’s Christmas ornaments. The exteriors of these early ornaments glowed in bright red, cobalt, blue, green, silver, gold, and amethyst. 

By 1880, full-sized trees decorated with expensive imported German glass ornaments became all the rage among the wealthy. American retailer, F.W. Woolworth, saw these ornaments on a trip to Germany, but was reluctant to order any for his stores—at least at first. To his amazement, his original order sold out in two days.

By the last decade of the 19th century, kugel manufacturing had moved to Nancy, France. The decorations that came out of this region were lighter than those made in Germany and offered new exterior colors, including tangerine. 

But as with many other collectibles, cheap knock-offs began appearing in the American market years ago in a national mail order catalog. New pieces, made in the old shapes, such as round 2-inch balls, grapes in 5 and 3-inch clusters, and a 2 1/8-inch melon-ribbed ball, arrived in retailer’s shops with a removable paper label marked "Made in India."

The major difference between new and old kugels is the glass around the hole in the top of the ornament. Makers of early kugels cut off the neck around the hole with a blowing iron, making it flush with the kugel’s surface. On new kugels, the neck, technically called a spear or pike, remains.

The tops of these new necks have a "cracked off" appearance while the surface around the hole on older kugels is smoother. New kugels arrive from the wholesaler with an “antiqued” brass caps and pre-rusted top wires and hanging loops.

The value of older kugels depends on their size, shape, and exterior color. Pink, purple, and orange pieces are the rarest while red kugels, though obtainable, are expensive. The most common colors are silver, gold, green, and cobalt, in that order. While new kugels sell for about $8, originals can sell for as high as $1,000 and more.

For more information on kugels, read my article on antique Christmas ornaments.

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