I've not been that fond of glass ornaments for my Christmas
tree. I remember breaking far too many when I was young.
Every glass ornament on my tree has been a gift from a friend
who was not aware of my childhood mishaps. Every year as
the family put up the tree another glass treasure would be
shattered by eager clumsy little hands. Those casualties were
genuine hand blown and hand painted glass ornaments
brought home by my father from a trip he made to Europe in
1954. How he got them home in one piece is a wonder, but they
didn't stay that way long with three little kids ranging in age
from 2 to 6. Mother doesn't remember how many he brought
home but nary a one survived into my adulthood.
After I grew to be an adult I had pets that I never quite trusted
with a Christmas tree. The life lesson I learned was that pets
and/or children plus Christmas trees can be trouble. Back in
the days when our family Christmas tradition required a live tree
and real aluminum tinsel was all there was, the pets always
seemed to make tinsel and needles part of their diet the whole
Christmas season. We were just very lucky that one didn't land
in the hospital.
Possibility of breakage aside, nothing adds sparkle to a tree like
glass. Each one of these was a gift addition to my collection of
cat ornaments from a friend who works at a garden center.
Each year, starting in late August and early September, once
planting season is over, her store, like garden centers
everywhere, turn themselves into a wonderland of seasonal
paraphernalia with a whole rooms devoted entirely to Old World
ornaments or the more expensive Radko.
When Beth met and married Tim Merck in 1977, he owned and
ran an antiques store in Spokane, WA. Sales slowed during the
Christmas shopping season so the couple needed something
to draw customers back into their store. It was Beth who drew
on a fond childhood memory of the heirloom glass ornaments
that adorned her grandmother’s tree. She loved them and
thought others of her baby boomer generation, with a nostalgic
need to bring back old-time tradition to the holiday, would love
So the couple set off for Germany to search for a source and
found a family operated glass-making operation with access to
scores of old ornament molds. They put in their first big order.
I’m sure it helped that the couple spoke fluent German.
Months later, back in their shop, the ornaments were a hit and,
as they say, the rest is history. Beth Merck has a degree in fine
arts from Eastern Washington University and is the creative
force behind the business. She has designed thousands of
different ornaments which are still manufactured in Germany.
Now, 30 years later, it is estimated that Merck Family’s Old
World Christmas manufactures and distributes 5 million glass
ornaments yearly. Their ornaments have been displayed on
magazine covers and on White House trees. The Mercks are
credited for revitalizing the art of mouth-blown fine glass and
reintroducing figural designs to the United States. With a $10
price point they bring the glass ornament within reach of the
masses. I enjoyed looking up the cats in my collection and you
might enjoy seeing their "Old World" selection.
While the Mercks brought hand blown glass ornaments to the
masses, Christopher Radko brought his designs to the upper
end elite some 8 years later. Radko’s success story had its
roots not in a fond Christmas memory but in a heartbreaking
Christmas disaster. In 1984, shortly after decorating the family
tree with their heirloom collection of over 2000 hand blown
European ornaments, the stand gave way and the tree came
down smashing practically every one. Radko's search to
replace the familiy treasures took him to Europe too where he
found glass blowers and introduced his first collection of 65
ornaments in 1986. He has created over 10,000 designs since
then. In May of 2005 Christopher Radko Designs was acquired
by Rauch Industries and they are now involved in lawsuits and
counter lawsuits, investigations and allegations that is more a
Halloween than Christmas story. I don’t know what the
outcome will be or how it will effect the Radko product line but it
is worth taking a look at their site to compare the quality and
designs of the two companies. There is also an interesting step
by step illustrated explanation of the processes used in making
mouth blown Christmas ornaments. If you will note the Radko
ornaments are silvered which is no doubt one good reason for
the price difference.
I've included two example Radko cat ornaments to the left.
Knitty Kitty lists for $45 while Mrs. Clause Perfect Paws lists for
$42. I'd say their quality and craftsmanship is comparable to
Old World but I know for certain that if I owned either Radko cat
I'd sure cry more tears if I dropped it.