Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday
Location: 5504 Main St., Flowery Branch
Phone number: 770-967-5585
Glittering beneath the winter daylight, dozens of vintage ornaments sway in the windows of Sample Pleasures, waiting patiently for a home between the green needles of a Christmas tree. And keeping the nearly 100 Christmas ornaments company is a light-up statue of Mrs. Claus.
Each of the ornaments has traveled as far and wide as Mrs. Claus only to wind up in the hands of a local shopper thanks to Janet Upchurch. The owner of Sample Pleasures in Flowery Branch collects antique ornaments year-round and each is often accompanied by fascinating histories.
“All vintage ornaments have a different look,” Upchurch said. “(Vintage) ornaments ... usually come generally from the United States, or they come from Germany or Poland.”
Upchurch began the holiday season with more than 300 antique ornaments from all regions of the world, and about 100 ornaments are left for sale.
Original Christmas tree decorations were largely composed of edible foods such as hard cookies, candies or strings of popcorn and cranberries.
The only ornaments available internationally were restricted to Germany’s handcast lead and handblown glass ornaments, but even those were difficult and expensive to purchase. Then German entrepreneurs began manufacturing ornaments on a mass scale in the 1880s. They were introduced in the United States by American entrepreneur F.W. Woolworth. The glass figurines spread like wildfire and a craze for glass ornaments swept through the United States and Europe.
The tidal wave of demand for German ornaments gradually attracted the attention of other countries. Japan established itself in the market in the 1920s and offered brightly pigmented baubles similar to its European counterparts. Then the Czech Republic proved a serious competitor.
World War I brought a dramatic halt to the prosperity of the German market and instilled anti-German sentiments in most countries, officially shattering its reign as the king of glass ornaments.
American entrepreneurs were forced to play their hand. They responded by developing a style entirely of their own and producing mass amounts of colorful, spherical baubles.
The days of handmade ornaments gradually came to a close as technology assumed the roles of production. Machines replaced the hands of workers and removed the imperfections that made ornaments truly one-of-a-kind.
“(Businesses) are trying to do some reproductions, and there is such a glaring difference,” Upchurch said. “The old ornaments and the reproductions, it’s like old furniture versus the new furniture ... like real wood versus pasteboard.
“Even if you try and copy them today, they’re so different. They just have a look that is unique.”
While Christmas ornaments share common themes, certain characteristics are attributed to specific countries and regions.
Germans were known for their skills with mercury glass, and their most valued ornaments are referred to as kugels. In German, kugel means “sphere” or “ball,” although the ornaments were produced in the shapes of grapes, pears, bells and teardrops.
Kugels differentiate from other glass ornaments because of the sheer thickness and heaviness of their bodies. Before the invention of more advanced technology, it was impossible for producers to create an ornament with thin glass walls. Kugels were so heavy they could not be hung from tree branches and were instead attached to house ceilings.
Today, kugels are more lightweight, although they are still handblown. Antique kugels are rare and highly expensive, as they are a trademark of German heritage.
The Polish are known for their “teardrop” style of ornaments. These ornaments are usually round and taper into points near the base of the body, and often have craters on their faces. The shallow craters are usually intricately decorated with Christmas scenes or abstract, colorful designs.
Americans had a slightly more eccentric style.
“Some of them are totally funky,” Upchurch said with a laugh.
She gestured toward a particular ornament to emphasize her point: a dusky blue ornament embellished with silver shooting stars and a cartoon sketch of Saturn.
“This is kind of like the Sputnik era ... it’s kind of like The Jetsons’ meets Christmas,” she said. “The Sputnik-type kind of off-the-wall things are definitely indicative of our country. You know, we’re a little different.”
Although factory-made spheres are more prevalent in the modern market, an increasing number of consumers are rekindling the national demand for historic and handcrafted ornaments.
“All vintage ornaments have a different look and there are people who collect them because they want to go back to that nostalgic feel,” Upchurch said. “I strongly suggest that people (collect antique ornaments) because it’s our heritage.
“I feel like if you mix these with the newer ornaments, your tree is going to have more character instead of just the tree that looks like it was done in some magazine.”
In business since 1990, Sample Pleasures sells Christmas items year-round as well as other antiques and crafts made by local artists. For last-minute shoppers, Upchurch said her store will be open on Christmas Eve.
For more information about the ornaments or other antique gifts, call Sample Pleasures at 770-967-5585.