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The Times Shopper: Basel

Christmas Trees, Ornaments Shine Year-Round

December 13, 1987|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer .

In the charming Swiss city of Basel, Johann Wanner is known as Father Christmas. And everyone knows that in Wanner's delightful shop at Spalenberg 14, in the heart of one of Basel's oldest and most beautiful areas, it is Christmas almost all year long.

Johann Wanner has the largest and most unusual selection of Christmas tree ornaments in the world, and he is constantly adding items to his stock.

Starting in late summer, Baselers and people from other places visit this glittering and delightful shop to see its forest of model Christmas trees, each exquisitely dressed with color-coordinated decorations.

And from late September to Christmas people often wait in line to buy new items to add to their Christmas tree ornament collections and to get ideas about how to trim their trees.

People know they're buying more than the pleasure of a beautifully decorated tree. These ornaments are collectible items. Also, they are a little bit of history. That's because Wanner has his delicate and exquisite baubles handmade by time-honored techniques, following traditions that have all but disappeared from the contemporary world.

This modern Father Christmas says there is something about making things in the old ways that makes them more special.

Reasonable Prices

With such labor-intensive manufacture, you would expect these ornaments to cost a small fortune. Not so. Prices for simpler items, including sparkling glass globes and shimmering cone shapes, start at 60 cents each. The average price per item is $2.50.

And $25 buys elaborate tree toppers, including magnificent minaret-like pieces that are about two feet tall and have a pair of doves, with real feathers, sitting atop their points. Some of Wanner's models are sold in specialty shops in the United States, but their prices are at least double.

To help customers, Wanner, his wife, Ursel, and several dedicated helpers set up model trees trimmed entirely with silver decorations, as well as those clad in blue, or in traditional red and green, or trendy black and white, and in every imaginable assortment of colors to blend or contrast with every sort of home decor.

Some of the trees are decorated thematically with scores of tiny, shiny musical instruments, for example, or dressed with a menagerie of miniature farm animals. Others show small, shimmering fish that seemingly swim through tree branches as if they were in the sea.

Wall-to-Wall Displays

The trees are attractively arranged in groves of colors throughout the several rooms. Each area is a wall-to-wall display of everything that rings of Christmas: twinkling lights, shimmering tinsel in various lengths and shapes, bows and pine cones, miniature toys and seemingly endless strings of brightly colored beads, Christmas dolls of various sorts and an astonishing array of the specially made, hand-crafted, shiny, glass Christmas tree ornaments.

Most glass Christmas tree ornaments are made by machine, often by companies that also produce light bulbs. But Wanner has resisted the temptation to turn to automation, even though the demand for his decorations clearly exceeds the amount he is able to produce using traditional methods. Yet he wouldn't dream of changing.

The Wanners have sought out families and small factories in Bohemia and throughout Europe and traveled to the Orient to find artisans who can make the fragile, paper-thin ornaments to specifications. During the past 20 years the Wanners have collected hundreds of antique ornament molds. These are used to create their most unusual collection.

Manufacturing Process

During manufacture, craftsmen first heat small sticks of clear glass over a gas flame. They blow the molten glass into small balloons that are clamped into a double-sided mold. After the glass sets in its desired shape, silver nitrate is poured into it.

The ornament is then dipped into warm water to set its silver lining. Details are painstakingly painted onto the exterior and small wire hangers attached to the ornament's neck.

In this process, no details are stamped nor are decals added. So each little Santa Claus has his own cheerful, twinkling expression, each snowman its own whimsy and each angel shows its sweet personality with a special smile.

The ornaments are so beautiful that you don't have to collect them only for Christmas.

Most popular of the traditional items are the little Santas, snowmen and angels. Then there are colorful little bells, some with tiny clappers that tinkle very softly against their fragile glass cones, as well as colorful, but silent, drums and bugles.

These and other musical instruments originally symbolized the announcement of Christ's birth, but through the years have been given the additional meaning of announcing the New Year, too.

Symbolic Meanings

Johann Wanner can tell you symbolic meanings for many of the ornaments.

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