What is a Christmas Kugel?
An antique Christmas kugel, or by its full German name, Biedermeierkugel, is a hand-blown glass Christmas ornament made between the mid 19th century and the early 20th century. The Biedermeier period is an era in central Europe in the early 19th century known for an awakening of the arts, music and interior design. Kugel is the German word for ball, but it is bit of a misnomer because in addition to balls, authentic antique kugels can be found in the shape of grape clusters, oval grapes, conical grapes, ribbed balls, ribbed eggs, smooth eggs, teardrops, leafed clusters of grapes, leafed oval grapes, and in a variety of extremely rare shapes including artichokes, pinecones, pineapples, ribbed pears, raspberries, strawberries, oranges, gourds, mushrooms, bells, finials and pacifiers.
Where Did Antique Christmas Kugels Come From?
There is not a lot of documentation about the manufacture and distribution of antique kugels but the following is what might be called the conventional wisdom. Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was a German nobleman who married Queen Victoria of England. He is said to have introduced the Queen to the idea of the decorated Christmas tree.
Antique Christmas kugels are thought to have been made in the area of Lauscha in Thuringia, which is within 50 miles of Coburg, the birthplace of Prince Albert. The Queen is thought to have been so enamored with the sparkly glass "baubles". as they are called in England, that she made a big thing of them among the English nobility of the time. So much so that the idea of the glass decorated Christmas tree rapidly gained popularity.
The First Artificial Christmas Trees
Around the same time as the emergence of antique Christmas kugels, the first artificial Christmas trees appeared. Like the one shown in the photograph to the right, they were made of heavy wire wrapped in green dyed goose feathers attached to a stout dowel wrapped in smooth brown paper. The resulting tree was then mounted on a turned or box base traditionally painted in white and red.
Feather trees, as they are called today, are popular means for displaying miniature kugels ranging from 1 inch diameter balls and 1.5 inch long eggs to 1.75 inch diameter ribbed balls and 2.5 inch long ribbed eggs and 3 inch long grapes and 3 inch long leafed grapes.
Antique feather trees range in size from 18 inches to 6 feet or more. The largest feather trees are capable of supporting antique Christmas kugels in the range of 3 inches in diameter or grapes that are 4 inches long. But what of the antique Christmas kugels that are 12 inches in diameter or grapes that are 8.5 inches long?
The Movement of Antique Christmas Kugels Across the Globe
Again there exists little documentation of market for antique Christmas kugels, but there is a lot of circumstantial evidence. Firstly is the geographic distribution of antique Christmas kugels today. Of course there are a lot of antique Christmas kugels in the United States where there is a vibrant collectors market. But what of Europe?
There are few antique Christmas kugels to be found in Germany for instance. The conventional wisdom is that two World Wars and the associated emigration pushed many of the kugels to other lands. US states with large German emigrant populations like Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and Maryland are great places to find kugels at estate sales. Interestingly, there are also antique Christmas kugels to be found in other locales that received German emigrants, including South America.
Worldwide Spread and New Uses
In addition to the eastern United States, we have also found authentic antique Christmas kugels that were made in Germany in such far flung places as England, Germany, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Italy, Poland, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, South Africa and India.
Once again, there is little documentation, but the conventional wisdom suggests that the spread of the British Empire contributed to the global distribution of kugels. In particular, British interests in India seem to have transplanted the love of kugels to Indian royalty, or Maharajahs, where they imported them as household decorations in large numbers. The Maharajahs seemed to enjoy kugels in large sizes, from 12 inch diameter and larger rounds to the largest size 8.5 inch grapes. Thus many kinds of kugels were "scaled up" to fit the demand.
Modern Reproduction Kugels : What is What?
We are often asked how to differentiate between authentic antique Christmas kugels and later or even modern reproductions. Is it the elongated pike, or neck above the pontil scar? That is not always fail safe because some authentic kugels have a pike and many reproduction kugels have had the pike ground down. Is it the cap? We have seen many reproduction kugels with authentic caps applied.
Here is our approach. Know firstly which molds are authentic and which are reproductions. The book has over 800 images of 570 authentic kugels. Secondly, know which cap designs are authentic and which cap design is most common on a specific kind/shape of kugel. Thirdly, for round kugels, know which colors go with which caps. To this end, we have handled almost 3000 kugels and made a detailed study of them all.
Resources for the Antique Christmas Kugel Collector
There are a number of rules of thumb related to distinguishing authentic antique Christmas kugels from reproductions. These are all covered in the book.
One is based upon the nature of the glass mold technology of the day. Almost all kugels were made with 3 part molds, meaning that the characteristics of the shapes tended to be symmetrical around 3s. For instance, each size of authentic ribbed rounds has a specific number of ribs - 21 or 24 or 27 or 30 or 33 or 36. Each diameter corresponds to one and only one correct number of ribs.
Another tell tale sign related to the 3 part mold is the appearance on some kugels of mold seams that meet at the end of the piece.
A Comprehensive Christmas Kugel Reference
Kugels : An Antique Christmas Obsession is a comprehensive photographic compendium of antique German 19th century hand blown glass kugel Christmas ornaments comprising 340 pages, 870 photographs, 570 unique kugels and 85 embossed brass caps.
It details nearly every known kugel mold and size and color combination. It includes a rarity guide based upon examination and measurement of nearly 3000 kugels and more than 20 of the most prominent kugel collections in the world.
The result is a comprehensive reference that organizes the entire antique Christmas kugel world in an easy to understand and reference volume.