Choices abound when it comes to trimming a Christmas tree with antique ornaments. Some favorites with ardent collectors are kugels, and in this context a kugel shouldn’t be confused with a yummy Jewish pudding. The word kugel actually means “ball” in German, but some of the priciest kugels aren’t round at all.
These mold-blown glass ornaments were actually made for year-round use early on, according to an Antique Trader article by editor Karen Knapstein. Those made beginning in 1830 to 1840 – which falls in the Biedermeier period – were made of very thick glass so they were a bit too heavy to grace the branches of the tabletop parlor trees popular at the time. Instead, they were hung in various parts of the home and left up all year long.
Those balls resembled earlier “witch balls” that were hung in windows to dissuade evil spirits from entering a home in the same way that turnips were carved into the first jack-o-lanterns for Halloween. Kugels were lined with silver, however, as silvered glass came into vogue in the mid-1800s. The Golden Glow of Christmas Past, a club dedicated to collecting Christmas memorabilia, shares regarding the silvered versions, “These glass globes were first used as reflection balls that were hung in windows, from ceilings or placed in gardens on stakes."
Kugels made later, beginning in 1855 or so, were crafted of glass but they were somewhat lighter and smaller so they could then be hung on Christmas trees of the day. The fact that trees in Victorian era homes grew in size as they moved from the tabletop to the floor also helped to support embellishments that were a bit heftier like Kugels. The caps, which came in both plain metal and embossed versions in many varieties, served the purpose of not only holding a wire so they could be hung, but to seal them so the silver within would not oxidize.
It is not surprising to learn that these ornaments were in demand in Europe where they originated, not only in Germany but in France as well. They made their way to the United States a few decades later. Woolworth’s, the popular five and dime store, reportedly sold the first kugels to American shoppers in the 1880s and their popularity eventually waned around 1900.
As with other types of desirable Christmas ornaments, figural kugels tend to be valued the highest. Clusters of grapes are the most common examples of these figurals, but they’re certainly still desirable. Other shapes known to bring prices higher than round kugels are fruits such as apples, berries, and pears; pine cones; and those shaped like teardrops. There are also round and egg-shaped variations with ribs that are prized by collectors. Colors come into play as well, and certain hues can sell for far more than others.
How much more? A plain spherical kugel in yellow-green can be found reasonably priced. Start looking for one in cobalt blue, however, and you’ll have to pay several hundred dollars unless you get extremely lucky. Most grape cluster kugels sell for more than $150 each, with clear glass lined with silver being the most common, but colors like deep red or orange fetch a premium price. Amethyst is the rarest color in the kugel family, so even a round one in this deep purple color would be quite a find. If you get your hands on what you believe to be an original, it’s wise to look at both the shape and the color in combination when valuing it.
One of the pitfalls of collecting kugels is distinguishing old examples from the many that have been made in India to simulate them in recent decades. The first thing to remember is that kugels will be thick and heavy in comparison to later, thinner glass Christmas ornaments, so don't try to apply the same rules for distinguishing reproductions to both.
With that in mind, Jackie Chamberlain, a dealer specializing in vintage Christmas décor, shares a few tips in a Ruby Lane “Real or Repro” feature on RubyLane.com:
- The most common reproduction kugel shapes are round balls, grape clusters in both three- and five-inch sizes, and melon-ribbed balls.
- New examples have a “neck” of glass at the top. Older ones will not have this extra glass so the cap sits flush on the top.
- The metal caps and wires on the new kugels have been artificially treated to give them an aged appearance. Do not use the presence of an aged-looking cap with artificial patina to determine the age of one of these ornaments.
In spite of the reproduction pitfalls to dodge, collecting kugels can yield a beautiful vintage look for a holiday tree. With a little care as you're shopping, you can enjoy them, too.