Nutcracker season is upon us, both the beloved Christmas ballet and the implements used for cracking open the pecans, filberts and walnuts that seem to appear by the bowlful this time of year.
But lots of nutcracker nuts are not interested in the utilitarian devices made to crush shells. They're smitten by the elaborately painted, costumed, often bewhiskered figures--from noble kings to humble peddlers, from soldiers in snappy uniforms to Dopey the Disney dwarf--made to be collected and displayed all year.
Ranging in height from a few inches to well over a foot, the most pronounced feature of these decorative objects is often a set of enormous painted teeth that opens wide enough to accommodate a nut, then shuts tightly to do the job.
These days, the most expensive and collectible models are made in Germany, where the tradition dates back hundreds of years. In the 17th and 18th centuries, German nut-cracking figurines were not the festive or fictional characters we know today. Early models resembled monks or unpopular authorities, writes Hellmut Bilz in the book "Popular Arts and Crafts from the Erzgebirge Mountains." By the 19th century, several fairy tales depicted an anthropomorphic nutcracker as a friend of children and later as a king with scepter and crown.
In 1870, toymaker Wilhelm Friedrich Fuchtner of Seiffen--a played-out mining town turned wood-crafting center near the Czech border in the Erzgebirge mountains--was making nutcracker toys that included hussars, miners and kings, writes Bilz. After World War II, master craftsmen in Seiffen, which became part of East Germany, fled across the border to democratic West Germany and resumed production.
Among the refugees was Christian Steinbach, a fifth-generation nutcracker-maker whose family factory was seized by the state. After the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was reunified, he reclaimed the facility, which today produces some of the most sought-after nutcrackers in this country.
Steinbach's principal rival for the hearts and wallets of American collectors is Christian Ulbricht, whose father, Otto, was an accomplished wood turner who began making nutcrackers in the 1930s. After the war, Otto spirited the family out to West Germany and started business anew. Like the Steinbachs, the Ulbrichts also reclaimed a family factory in the east.
For some Americans, the first exposure to the traditional, decorative nutcrackers came when they were stationed in Germany as military personnel. "You look for a souvenir that is so very German, and what you find is a nutcracker to bring home," Ulbricht said.
But there was another force at work.
"The Americans started collecting nutcrackers about the time in the 1940s that the ballet was widely done in the United States, and that increased their popularity right there. Today, more than 200 ballet companies stage 'The Nutcracker,' " said Arlene Wagner, a onetime ballet teacher who owns 4,000 nutcrackers, some dating to the 16th century.
Five years ago, she and her husband, George, opened the Nussknacker Haus museum and shop in Leavenworth, Wash.
"Nutcrackers are made for the American market," said Ulbricht, noting that "for the German market we mostly make incense burners, music boxes, miniature angels, figurines and Christmas ornaments."
Today, nutcracker sales in the United States are regularly boosted by indefatigable rivals Steinbach, 80, and Ulbricht, 67, who make personal appearances at gift shows and in shops nationwide that carry their wares. They spend hours schmoozing with merchants and customers and autographing nutcrackers. (Steinbach said his record is 2,100 signatures in two days.)
"They have become a year-round collectible. It's not just Santas or soldiers or drummers anymore. It's everything from Indians to Bugs Bunny to the Tin Man from 'The Wizard of Oz' to the Thief of Baghdad," said Norm Recksiek, owner of the Mount Olympus Clock Shop outside Salt Lake City. "We found that the majority of people who collect nutcrackers will collect Ulbricht and Steinbach. The way they look at it, it's like a Lladro or a Hummel," he said, referring to pricey porcelain figurines from Spain and Germany.
There are stylistic differences between the titans' Nussknackers, as they are called in German.
"Steinbach has more of a stern look, which he feels is what wards off the evil spirit. That is why the teeth are always showing. He believes if you have a nutcracker in your home, it's like a lucky charm. Ulbricht nutcrackers have a kinder, gentler look. That's why he puts more fur on the face," said Recksiek.
There are production differences as well. Steinbach limited editions can run as high as 12,000 copies of a single character, while Ulbricht will make only 2,000 to 3,000. Limited-edition pieces retail from $100 to $300 or more, depending on the shop. Once a series sells out, prices can skyrocket.