The History of Antique Kugel Christmas Ornaments
Antique kugels come in an array of colors, which were often created by adding trace amounts of metals—iron, for example, to make green, or cobalt to make deep blue—to molten glass. Silver kugels are clear glass; their metallic appearance comes from mirrored interiors. Two- to four-inch balls are most common, but kugels can be found in myriad sizes and shapes, including grapes and eggs. Forms such as the gold mushroom and silver artichoke shown here are very rare.
The silvery, shining glass of a Victorian kugel ornament is a mirror onto the past. Hold one in your hand and you can imagine it on an old-fashioned Christmas tree, reflecting the flickering flames of candles. "Kugels have a weight and beautifully aged patina that other decorations can't rival," says Craig McManus, a collector in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, who owns more than 400 kugels, many of which appear here.
Kugels, ranging from one-half inch to eight inches long, hang from lengths of ribbon or trimming or their original chains: an egg, grapes, an egg with a ball attached with what is known as a double-hanger, an "end-of-day" ball made with leftover materials, and an early "piked" sphere designed before the use of brass caps.
Given the yuletide images they conjure, kugels' origins are somewhat surprising. Indeed, the first glass spheres, called "witch balls," were hung year-round in windows and doors in 17th-century England and later in the United States. Their purpose was to ward off witches, "who were thought to be repulsed by round shapes," McManus says. But the ornaments also brought beauty and bright bursts of color into the home, just as they do today.
A goose-feather topiary showcases an assortment of silver and gold kugels. Feather trees, popularized in the nineteenth century, were the first artificial Christmas trees. Ours sits in a vintage wooden tree stand adorned with milk-glass reindeer; it is flanked by a pair of silver kugels in mercury-glass saltcellars.
In the early 19th century, glassmakers began to silver the balls, coating their hollow interiors with tin, lead, or bismuth-and eventually silver nitrate-to create a metallic finish. Large versions of the orbs, called gazing balls, were displayed on pedestals in gardens.
Rose-colored kugels in pink lustreware goblets and tumblers are a cheerful centerpiece (secure pieces with utility wax). A dramatic twenty-inch ball trimmed with pink heather and suspended from the ceiling reflects the composition below.
Embossed brass caps with rings were added to globes of various sizes in the 1840s, giving birth to the first Christmas tree ornaments, known as kugels (the word means "balls" in German). Most of these were made in Lauscha, Germany, where shapes were expanded to include clusters of grapes, pears, ribbed balls, eggs, and teardrops. Silver, gold, and green, which brilliantly reflected candlelight, were the most popular colors. Amethyst ornaments, though exquisite in natural light, were rejected by Victorians, who thought the hue appeared muddy on the tree.
An emerald-green kugel, dangling from picture wire strung with vintage beads, is set off by a eucalyptus-leaf graland and a grid of tiny balls in verdant hues. The latter are fastened to pieces of wire and secured to each muntin with utility wax.
In the 1890s, the center of kugel manufacturing shifted to Nancy, France. The decorations that came out of this region were a bit lighter in weight than their German predecessors and boasted new shades, such as tangerine.
A fixture drips with dazzling glass baugles in various sizes that are attached with fourteen-gauge wire. Green ornaments are plentiful because their color was relatively inexpensive to produce. (The iron needed to make lighter shades is found in some types of sand.) This makes them an excellent choice for a beginning collector.
Nowadays, color is paramount in determining kugels' desirability and value. You'll find the ornaments in antiques shops and online from about $40 to more than $1,000, depending on the size, shape, and availability of the shade. Pink, purple, and orange pieces are most rare; red kugels are obtainable but costly. The most common hues are silver, then gold, green, and cobalt. (Pale blue and turquoise tones are less abundant.) Among kugel shapes, balls are most prevalent, followed by grapes. Eggs, teardrops, and especially ribbed forms are highly coveted. Other shapes, such as berries or artichokes, are extremely difficult to find.
Here, a profusion of kugel grapes and other ornaments in cool tones is piled on an antique silver-plated tea tray and secured with utility wax; sprigs of fruiting eucalyptus add a pretty flourish. Grapes were made in both stylized and naturalistic forms.