Open a box of antique ornaments, and the past comes rushing back. Heirlooms eagerly brought from storage each year and decades-old pieces picked up at antiques shops aren't just tree trimmings -- they're cultural artifacts, insights into past generations. Artificial trees, with their well-spaced branches, are perfect for displaying elaborate vintage ornaments.
The Germans started the custom of decorating Christmas trees in the 17th century, hanging cookies, candies, paper flowers, and fruits on them. By the 19th century, they had progressed to glass globes. Called Kugels ("hollow balls"), they were first made by glassmakers who were merely amusing themselves at the end of the day. The globes, which were silvered inside, were perfect for hanging on a tree because they reflected the glow of candlelight. In the 1860s, German immigrants brought them to America.
The Dresden, an elaborately detailed silvered and gilded cardboard ornament named for the town in Germany where it was first manufactured, is also ripe for collecting. Dresdens are much harder to find and pricier than Kugels. "You'll see hundreds of glass pieces before you see one Dresden," says Barbara Trujillo, a Long Island-based collector. Three-dimensional Dresdens often held candy and were discarded when empty; flat ones were more likely to be preserved, usually in Victorian scrapbooks.
Since modern ornament makers are using vintage molds and methods, it pays to know how to recognize authentic pieces. "Many molds were destroyed in the world wars," says New Jersey dealer Barbara Copius-Altman. "But if old ones are used, it can be difficult to tell if a piece is a reproduction."
Newer glass ornaments are lighter and the colors more garish. They also lack small details, says Copius-Altman. For instance, "before the wars, when an artist painted an eye, they used four or five different colors to make it look like a real eye," she says. Many collectors claim you can date glass ornaments accurately by the style of the cap, but that can be dicey, says San Francisco dealer Judith Carrasco of J. Goldsmith Antiques, since an ornament and its original cap are oft parted. Some replacement caps were newer and some older, so a collector must also learn to recognize the heft and patina of an antique piece.
Experts agree that attics and basements, prone to fluctuations in temperatures and humidity, are the worst places to store vintage ornaments. Each piece should be wrapped in acid-free tissue paper (some dealers tuck them inside an air-filled Ziploc bag, which provides a cushion against breakage) and stored in a compartmentalized box. Moisture-trapping packs of silica gel (available at floral-supply and craft stores) inside the packing will also help preserve painted surfaces and prevent mildew. Never wash antique ornaments, since many were painted with water-based colors. Dusting with a soft brush is the most any piece can take.