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FURNISHINGS : Collectors Bank on Snow Domes Again--and Not Just for Christmas

December 08, 1990|BARBARA MAYER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Remember snow domes--those glass ball Christmas paperweights that were filled with liquid and produced a blizzard of white flakes when shaken? Perhaps you called them water globes, blizzard weights or shaky toys--all common names for the same thing.

They're making a comeback. These days, they are being collected not only for Christmas but year-round, according to Nancy McMichael, a collector and author of the book, "Snowdomes" (Abbeville Press, $19.95). Besides the traditional glass balls, contemporary plastic snow domes are also popular.

Imagination has soared beyond yesteryear's trite snow-covered mountains or Santa Claus coming down the chimney. Today, there is a snow dome to celebrate every imaginable holiday and every facet of life, from birthdays and weddings to space exploration, says McMichael, whose book is illustrated with prize examples from her collection of 3,000.

Snow domes are big business for manufacturers of gift items. The Enesco Corp. of Elk Grove, Ill., for example, expects to sell more than 600,000 by year's end and has several hundred models in its line, according to Pat Shaw, director of public relations.

Some collectors want only the old glass domes, says McMichael, who bought her first one six years ago. That initial purchase was for a gift, but it struck a chord and started a quest that developed into a passion. McMichael, who says she prefers "the tacky plastic ones," buys everything, even those she doesn't like, if they don't duplicate what she already owns.

She displays her collection in narrow cabinets with glass doors and lighted shelves which run from floor to ceiling, filling an entire room of her Washington home.

Snow domes originated in France in the mid-19th Century as an extension of the solid glass paperweight, McMichael says. Soon, the novelties were being made in European glassmaking centers in Germany, present-day Austria and Czechoslovakia. Since they were hand blown, they tended to be made in areas that already had a thriving glass-blowing industry. They have been sold worldwide, so old ones may turn up in antiques stores anywhere.

New technology and materials have led to many manufacturing changes. These days, thanks to the advent of microelectronics, snow domes are more like a Hollywood extravaganza than a paperweight. They have lights, action and music. With batteries and a tiny fan secreted in the base, it's possible for the snow-- flitter in industry jargon--to swirl perpetually while the figures turn and an appropriate tune plays.

One of Enesco's models, $55 and geared to the bridal gift market, features a revolving bride and bridegroom amid a shower of pink and white flower petals and an appropriate wedding tune. A post-honeymoon model depicts a woman throwing a plate as her spouse cowers, trying to shield himself from pieces of broken crockery flying through the air.

Domes now come in shapes other than round, and they're no longer filled with plain water. Today's solution includes glycol, an antifreeze, and a thickening agent to keep the flitter in suspension.

The old-fashioned glass domes can be taken apart for cleaning, repair and refilling, McMichael says. It is a time-consuming process as described in her quarterly newsletter, "Snowbiz."

New domes cannot be tampered with. "They are sealed with waterproof adhesives and if you unseal them, you destroy them," says Doug Fridell, product development director for Enesco.

There used to be problems with leaks and evaporation, but technology has minimized both. "Today," he says, "the higher quality pieces have no bubble inside the dome and no water line. A vibration technique forces all the air out, and another shot of water is added. Then the base is permanently sealed."

The figures are glued onto the plug. They are much tinier than they look. The water will distort and magnify them, effects that are taken into account in the design.

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