If you enjoy idly browsing the shelves of high street stores, you have American entrepreneur Frank Woolworth to thank. The 19th century dime-store magnate pioneered the practice of self-service shopping, whereby customers can handle goods without the assistance of a clerk. Woolworth also enforced the idea of fixed pricing, rather than haggling, as the common practice in his stores.
In 1884, Woolworth visited Germany and returned home to New York with a crate loaded with Europe’s latest must-have Christmas decoration: baubles, from the tiny glassblowing town of Lauscha. These delicate ornaments, whose origins can be traced back to the late 16th century, were an evolution of the more traditional tree decorations of tin-men, stuffed songbirds and fruit.
By the turn of the 20th century, Woolworth had made a fortune, importing more than 200,000 baubles and raking in $25m per year in sales. Today, the Christmas decoration industry is second only to gifts in seasonal sales. Baubles are big business.
“The designs we see in baubles today have hardly changed since they were first made almost 500 years ago,” says Michael Peterson, founder of Bombki, a bespoke bauble manufacturer on Pall Mall. “While your average mass-produced bauble will be made using plastic rather than glass, the construction and decoration is still very traditional. You can still see the same patterns and designs used all those years ago.”
We see ourselves as the Gucci of baubles, we’ve made baubles for No. 10 Downing Street and Paul Smith."
Lauschan baubles were the product of the town’s thriving glass industry. It was so relied upon that during the 1940s, when the glassblowers of East Germany fell under state-control, dolls in western Europe were produced, creepily enough, without eyes. Today there are around 20 glassblowing workshops operating in Lauscha, and the town’s population doubles over the Christmas season as thousands of tourists flock to the snow-covered river valley to visit the Glass Museum and Kugelmarkt (kugel is the German word for bauble).
“With inexpensive baubles so readily available in stores,” says Peterson, “our customers come to us looking for something a little more special. We see ourselves as the Gucci of baubles, we’ve made baubles for No. 10 Downing Street and Paul Smith.”
Bespoke baubles can accent and enhance a drab looking tree, but those looking for something truly special to dangle from their spruce might need to break the bank. The most expensive Christmas bauble ever made cost £82,000 and took one year for Hallmark Jewellers to design and construct. Coated in more than 1,500 diamonds and ringed with 188 red rubies, the pricey ornament is formed of two 18 carat white gold hemispheres, rather than glass.
Regardless of how much you’re willing to spend, the basic bauble is steadfast in its appeal. “They are our most popular decoration,” says Dan Cooper, Christmas shop buyer at John Lewis. “Unusual shapes and whimsical characters are growing in popularity, but the traditional round bauble is always a staple.”
Rina Bhansali, head of home at Harrods, agrees. “Tradition, craftsmanship and heritage never go out of style. Glass and ceramic baubles are timeless, classic, and can work with any Christmas look.”
Whether you’re working with delicate Lauschan originals or poundshop baubles, decorating your Christmas tree takes a lot of balls. The result, however, is something unique. “They’re really unique objects that are reused every year and passed down from generation to generation,” says Peterson. “In this way, Christmas trees almost become personal stories. Every family’s tree looks a little different.”