Collectors of the Burgh Series
    Four ornaments from the Flora of Christmas series by Reed & Barton, which began issuing in 1988.

    Four ornaments from the Flora of Christmas series by Reed & Barton, which began issuing in 1988.

    Collecting is finding something of interest to enjoy, and often you can bring joy to others with your collection. There is no more beautiful a holiday than Christmas. Ornaments commemorate Christmases past—nostalgia, all beautifully wrapped in your very own tree. There is excited anticipation as you trek to the attic, retrieving ornaments and trim. Each opened box evokes a memory. With current and former Pittsburghers, Steelers ornaments and trees are popular. Travel ornaments also offer fond vacation memories.

    Where did all the joyful baubles originate? The decorating of indoor Christmas trees is said to have begun in Strasbourg, France, in 1600. Those first trees were adorned with paper roses, sweets, nuts, and lighted candles. Soon after, in 1610, came tinsel or icicles (still widely used today). By 1880, most European countries were competing for ornament design. Germany took hold of the production of glass ornaments, and those from Lauscha, prized for their design, captured the world market.

    Christopher Smith hand-blown glass icicles.

    Christopher Smith hand-blown glass icicles.

    These hand-blown orbs are what Americans recognize as their first ornaments. By 1900, the F. W. Woolworth stores were credited with selling $25 million of ornaments. Post World War II, Woolworth, Macy’s, and Gimbels were the main source of Christmas ornaments and decorations in the U.S. During the 1950s mass production of ornaments became commonplace. But the public still yearned for the hand-finished ornaments. By the 1960s, American silversmiths with their hand craftsmanship would rise to the forefront of the industry.

    Christmas was the holiday in our family. Since we’re Eastern Orthodox, our family celebrated two Christmases. What a joy for a child to have almost three weeks of Christmas. My collection of gold electroplate, sterling silver, silverplate, sand-cast pewter, crystal, bone china, and porcelain ornaments indeed inspires a trip to Christmases past. Now considered vintage, they date from the 1970s to the early 2000s. The manufacturer usually offered annual collections of 4 to 30. My ornaments, though never counted, are estimated at 400 to 500 pieces. These ornaments are from well-known American silversmiths and European china, porcelain, and crystal manufacturers. All manufacturers employed finishers, who completed each design by hand. Today, only the Hand & Hammer Silversmiths company hand-finishes ornaments.

    Royal Doulton Bunnykins porcelain Christmas ornaments.

    Royal Doulton Bunnykins porcelain Christmas ornaments.

    Finding my ornaments was as much about the hunt as the find. My parents and I shopped for ornaments “in town.” “Going to town” in Pittsburgh vernacular meant taking your entire family downtown on a Saturday morning to shop. A hot pretzel from the street vendor, then shopping at such beautiful department stores as Kaufmann’s, Gimbels, and Horne’s was an experience unto itself. At Christmastime, not only were the windows awe-inspiring, but it seemed that every inch of the department store was perfectly decorated. The window dressers and decorators gave us a spectacular holiday season year after year. The day “in town” was spent shopping with your family. You ate lunch at the Tick Tock in Kaufmann’s or the Mayflower restaurant with its big windows to enjoy the sights of the season.

    Every store had a Christmas village. Greeting you was Santa, sometimes Mrs. Claus, and at Kaufmann’s the Talking Christmas Tree. As you climbed the escalator, you envisioned your Christmas meal in the china department. Many tables were set with the most regal dinnerware, with Christmas ornaments in its midst. There were coordinating ornaments to your favorite set of china. I fell in love with the beauty and design of the dinnerware and the sculptural quality of the ornaments and for many years I collected both.

    A silverplate ornament interpreting children’s toys of colonial days; from a series of yearly issues from 1986 through 1990.

    A silverplate ornament interpreting children’s toys of colonial days; from a series of yearly issues from 1986 through 1990.

    Today at Christmas I set my table with Noel by Hutschenreuther. Hutschenreuther Porzellan of Selb, Bavaria, is famed for the bright white color of its dinnerware accompanied by crisp design. This pattern is known for its simple holly, berries, and ribbon trim. For many years, it was hard to pick one Christmas pattern. The breadth of selection made it difficult. Fortunately, knowledgeable salesclerks knew tastes and guided your selection.

    In earlier years only the flagship department store stocked ornaments. Made in molds and hand finished, they sparkled on the tree. They were unique and of high quality, usually priced at $25 to $30. But the china department brought in limited quantities, and the ornament you desired may have been sold. Many of these ornaments were annual, which led to the rush for that year’s acquisition. When the department stores were out of stock, it was not unusual to search from store to store. You might go from the china departments to the Vendome Shop at Kaufmann’s, then to the Colonial Williamsburg Shop at Horne’s, then to John M. Roberts Jewelers for your find.

    Hutschenreuther Noel dinnerware

    Hutschenreuther Noel dinnerware, Wallace Lucerne flatware, Waterford Sheila water goblet, Ecru Damask napkin with International Silver Santa ornament for a napkin ring; Virginia Metalcrafters candlestick with Bayberry candle.

    These delicate and graceful ornaments come in varying shapes, themes, and sizes, either intricate or sublime. The ornaments offer depictions of Christmas stories, angels, antique toys, bells, flowers, historic designs, Santa, sleigh bells, and the Nativity.

    As a long-time collector, it’s difficult to pick a favorite. For me, each one evokes a memory. In 1977, Kirk Silver, now Kirk Stieff, began offering a collection of musical bells, and inside each was a handmade music box. The first few in the series were engraved with the year and a Christmas motif. The music box played a Christmas song. The 1978 bell played “White Christmas,” a longtime favorite of my family. Over the years these have gotten more elaborate, with a snowflake or snowman on the yearly bell. As my collection has grown, these ornaments have become the anchor pieces of the tree.

    In the late 1990s, Wedgwood’s Jasperware line released a collection of “puff” ornaments. Jasperware, a ceramic, is opaque and is known for a matte or unglazed bisque finish. Originally priced at $25, these off-white ornaments depict angels, cherubs, and Santa. Large in size, they take in the light and are easily noticed. Another favorite, the 1988 Flora of Christmas Series by Reed and Barton, cost $15 a pair. Not carried by many merchants, I tracked this series through online auction sites and old jewelry stores. The flowers of Christmas, snowdrops, ivy, and poinsettia are intricate and have a depth of design. The yearly cleaning with silver paste adds to the beauty of these ornaments: they shimmer and glisten with the light.

    Wallace Silversmiths’ sleigh bells, from a series of 46.

    Wallace Silversmiths’ sleigh bells, from a series of 46.

    These ornaments have always been about the craftsmanship for me. I normally search for something hand done—an art piece. In recent years hand-blown glass icicles have been my sought-after accent. I was lucky to come upon Christopher Smith at Tamarack in West Virginia. He designs hand-blown icicles, each $8, and ornaments. The icicles bounce the tree lights in many directions. The intricacy of each ornament either takes in or reflects the light. They give a warm, welcoming glow throughout your home for the holiday season.

    The custom of collecting ornaments takes on a special meaning. When I finish decorating a tree, wreath, or stairs wrapped in garland, it’s a gift. For family and friends, these objects provide the most beautiful Christmas I can imagine, the memories of all those Christmases past guiding my way.

    Sharon Danovich Lupone and her husband John live in Edgewood with their Miniature Schnauzer, Samson.