JABO: A Classic. January 14, 2009Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
Tags: David McCullough, JABO marbles, machine-made marbles, marble collecting, marbles, toy marbles
A while back, our friend Ben wrote a post called “We’ve lost our marbles” about how the great tradition of American toy marble-making has almost become a lost art. While elaborate contemporary handmade marbles continue to enjoy a niche as (often pricey) collectibles, the great companies that dominated the world market from the 1900s through the 1950s with amazingly elaborate machine-made marbles have died out one by one. M.F. Christensen, Akro, Christensen Agate, Peltier, Alley, Ravenswood, and dozens of others are now just names reverently intoned by marble enthusiasts and collectors.
As I write, our friend Ben knows of only two companies still making machine-made “toy” marbles in America. One, Marble King of West Virginia, is still making some of the marbles that made it a household name among marbles-playing kids back in the 1950s. But the other, JABO, is doing something that every marble enthusiast should be watching: It is making American marble history, right before our eyes.
JABO’s beginnings were humble, like most great American success stories. It began in 1987 when Jack Bogard of the Bogard marble family joined forces with accountant and marble enthusiast Joanne Argabrite to create a new company in what had been the Heaton marble factory in Cairo, West Virginia. Today, JABO operates out of Reno, Ohio, and has become something of a pilgrimage site, thanks to far-seeing marble collectors who recognized the genius of JABO’s marble maker, David McCullough.
If America had the good sense to establish a Living Treasures roster, as Japan and other countries have, David McCullough (along with such great artists as Hopi potter Dextra Quotskuyva) would be on that list. David’s talents as a marble-maker were evident when he worked for Champion Agate, another classic American marble company, and are especially evident in his series of Champion “Old-Fashioneds.” Jack Bogard and Joanne Argabrite had the great good sense to hire David to make JABO’s marbles, and the first intimations of a sea change came in his first year with the company, 1991, when he produced the first run of JABO Classics, limited-production special marbles.
Let me quote Robert S. Block, a leading marble authority, on these Classic runs (from his Marble Collectors Handbook): “The company produced industrial marbles, mainly opaques. However, Dave McCullough would produce three or four limited runs each year of ‘Classics’ in sizes from 5/8″ to 1″. Each run was different from any previous run, and the marbles were not like any other company’s. Many fluoresce, and they contain many innovative colors and were produced in very short runs.” (The shorter the run, i.e., the fewer marbles produced, the more collectible they are.)
When Robert Block wrote this, David, for many years now a full partner at JABO, was only warming up. The marbles he has produced in the last couple of years—2007 and especially 2008—are arguably more innovative and gorgeous than any machine-made marbles ever previously produced. His JOKER, Madyia, JINKS, Dark Knight, Marley, and Last Dance runs display incredibly ornate patterns, and showcase rare materials formerly only found in handmade or single-company legendary marbles: oxblood (an opaque dark red), aventurine (glittery green, blue or black sparkles), lutz (gold glitter), mica. Even the less spectacular marbles from various runs are being named by collectors, like the famous Peltiers and Akros of old: JABO’s Captain Megan, Rebel, Punkin Peewees, Tie Dye, Lilac Expression. Extraordinary marbles like the Woodstock shooters (shooters are the big marbles, in this case about an inch) are so outstanding, they belong in museums.
Every JABO marble is different, but there is something about JABOs that makes them instantly recognizable, even by rank amateurs like our friend Ben. Perhaps it’s the depth of the transparent glass, the intricacy of the designs, the unusually rich glow of the clear colors. JABO marbles simply stand alone, like all the great marbles of the past—the Christensen Agates, with their unbelievably bright, pure colors; the Akro corkscrews and Popeyes; the M.F. Christensen “9″ slags. You know when you’re seeing a JABO, just as you know when you’re seeing a Peltier. It’s an incredible achievement.
What makes it more incredible is that this is 2009, not 1909 or 1939, when labor was cheap and marbles were a hugely popular kids’ game. In these days, when everything tends to come down to the bottom line, Dave McCullough’s and JABO’s achievement is nothing short of a miracle. And it’s ultimately a five-part miracle. Let’s break that down into its five component parts.
First of course is David McCullough’s extraordinary talent and willingness to experiment, and Joanne Argabrite’s and Jack Bogard’s willingness to support him in his work. Second is the enthusiasm of private collectors to fund special runs like the extraordinary JOKER run of 2008. Third is the dedicated work of the JABO historians, which I’ll get to in a moment. Fourth is the group of handmade marble makers who recognize the glory of JABOs and use them in their own work, such as Eddie Seese’s Rebel Shooters and other JABO remelts by such contemporary marble-makers as Joe Schlemmer, Sammy Hogue, and Jim Davis. And fifth are the ordinary everyday collectors like you and me who support David McCullough’s and JABO’s work by buying their marbles for our collections.
Let’s backtrack to those marble historians for a minute. There could be no history without historians to record it, and this is as true of JABO marbles as it was of the Revolutionary or Civil War. JABO is blessed to have dedicated enthusiasts following what’s happening as each new development in David McCullough’s marble-making adventure unfolds.
Steve Sturtz and Michael Johnson have already written two books documenting the JABO phenomenon, JABO: A Classic and David’s JABO Renaissance. Thanks to Sturtz and Johnson, we can follow along as living marble history is made before our eyes. I hope that many more will follow, and that David McCullough and JABO keep on forging new ground. It’s incredibly exciting to be present when history is being made, and you’re aware of that, be it marble history or statecraft! What a privilege, and thanks to Steve, Michael, Dave, and everyone who’s making it possible.
Want to pick up a few JABOs and/or JABO books of your own and get in on the ground floor of the most exciting development in American machine-made marbles in our lifetime? Forget about the official JABO website (www.jabovitro.com). It’s shockingly behind the times in terms of picking up on what’s going on with its own company and the marble-collecting community.
Instead, head to eBay, where JABO enthusiasts like JABO historian Steve Sturtz offer books and exceptional marbles for sale. You’ll also find a nice, affordable selection of JABOs, including JOKERs, at Land of Marbles (www.landofmarbles.com). And you can see fantastic photos of named JABOs, learn some JABO lore, and find sources of JABOs for sale at JABO Land. (Luddite that our friend Ben is, I couldn’t exactly figure out the web address of JABO Land, but if you Google it, you’ll get there.)
Prices are starting to skyrocket as marble collectors finally realize what JABO is doing, however, so get over there now if you want to own a piece of marble-making history for a bargain price! Because these special runs are being supported by collectors and investors rather than the open market, there’s no telling how long JABO can remain viable, which adds a poignant urgency to the whole story. But for now, you too can still be instrumental in marble-making history.