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The marbles of my dreams. February 17, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and my fellow marble collectors are fortunate to be living in a renaissance of glorious machine-made marbles.

Unfortunately, when the first flowering of machine-made marbles, with the glorious slags, brilliant colors, and intricate designs of the M.F. Christensen Company, Christensen Agate, Akro Agate, and the rest, occurred in the early part of the 20th century, marbles were considered children’s toys. The equivalent of penny candy, they were played with, damaged, and discarded without a thought. (The same fate had befallen their predecessors, the fabulously ornate handmade marbles of the 19th and early 20th centuries.)

As a result, finding undamaged examples of early marbles, hand- or machine-made, is next to impossible, since the few that remain intact are mostly already in the hands of collectors, and are rare enough to be featured in books like fine antiques. The rest of us are lucky to find “lightly-played” examples without noticeable chips and cracks. Sob! It seems impossible to believe that such beautiful marbles were treated with such casual disregard, or that, alternatively, marble-makers put such time and talent into toys that they knew would be destroyed.

Today, however, high-end marbles have largely passed into the realm of collectibles. Some collectors value them as historical artifacts, others because they remember playing with them as children, and still others, like our friend Ben, simply because they’re beautiful. And those of us who collect because we simply love gorgeous marbles are in luck, since for the past decade and more, David McCullough, arguably the greatest maker of machine-made marbles who has ever lived, has been making special runs for us.

First at JABO, with famous runs like the JOKER series, and now with gifted marble-maker Sammy Hogue at Sammy’s Mountain Marbles, Dave has been producing marbles to rival anything the early greats produced: marbles with gold lutz, green and blue aventurine, oxblood, and innumerable flames and color combinations. Awesome!!!

Our friend Ben was thinking about what Dave, Sammy, and the teams at JABO and Sammy’s Mountain Marbles have achieved, and of course I couldn’t help fantasizing about my own perfect marbles. Could they make them? Could anyone? Could anyone ever? I don’t know. But I wish!

My dream marbles would be transparent/translucent, in jewel tones: rich ruby, deep sapphire, emerald, azure, purple, topaz, carnelian orange, amber, pink, jade green. Through them would run gold, silver, copper lutz; vaseline glass; blue, green and black aventurine; strands of glistening silk-white and garnet. (Not all in the same marble, obviously!) Picture a glowing red marble, looking slick and luscious like a candy apple, with strands of silver or gold or copper lutz and endless depth, maybe with ribbons of vaseline glass. Wow! Imagine some glistening version in emerald or sapphire or azure. Yow!

Will we ever see marbles like these, with the clear, brilliant colors of the very best slags combined with the bells and whistles of lutz, aventurine, fluorescent glass, and so on? Who’s to know? Maybe this is just my personal marble fantasy and nobody else would even be interested. But wow, to see a glistening candy-apple red marble, much less one with embellishments: Bring it on!!!

Dave, Sammy, are you listening?

What are your dream marbles?

The rarest marble in the world? November 13, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben isn’t talking about the marble that is used to make kitchen countertops, palaces, and sculptures here, but about the round glass marbles, the so-called “toy” marbles, revered and collected by folks like me.

On my computer desk is a “Dr. Franklin” marble, named after our hero and blog mentor here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, the great Benjamin Franklin. It was created in a marble run sponsored by Steve Sturtz, “Dr. JABO,” produced at the JABO plant in Marietta, Ohio, one of the last marble producers in the U.S. (with the iconic Marble King), and created by the preeminent machine marble-maker of all time, the legendary Dave McCullough. (Check out Sammy’s Mountain Marbles for his latest amazing creations.)

“Dr. Franklin” is a beautiful, complex creation, with brilliant opaque orange, opaque pink, and glittery black aventurine suspended in a clear matrix. It’s spectacular. But it’s also rare. There are probably fewer than 50 Dr. Franklin marbles in existence, certainly fewer than 100. They are one of the most beautiful marbles our friend Ben, a rabid marble collector, has ever seen. I love marbles, I have many jars and boxes of marbles, but the Dr. Franklin is the only marble I showcase.

Thank you Dr. Franklin, thank you Steve, thank you Dave, and thank you to the crew at JABO that made these marvelous marbles. As the Marines’ motto goes, the few, the proud. The rarest marble in the world?

What has become of the Marble Master? February 3, 2013

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As longtime readers know, our friend Ben is an avid marble collector. So I was thrilled to find a DVD at Land of Marbles (http://www.LandofMarbles.com) called “Marbles: Ancient Art and Modern Play.” It arrived yesterday and I couldn’t wait to watch it.

Unfortunately, the first half of the DVD was devoted to the National Marbles Tournament in Wildwood, New Jersey. This is a tournament for boys and girls ages 7-14, and has been a yearly event since it was launched by Berry Pink in 1922. It was fun to hear the action narrated by Beri Fox, whose father founded Marble King—one of just two companies still making marbles in the U.S. and only three in all North America—with Berry Pink (for whom she is named). Marble King still sponsors the annual event.

So why was this unfortunate? If you collect marbles, the only games you’re prepared to play with them are solitaire and Chinese checkers, which don’t harm the marbles. Games like “ringer” (the one played in the tournament) involve shooting marbles out of a ring by hitting them with other marbles. Ouch! This can result in chips, cracks and scuffs to the marbles. Since even the finest antique handmade marbles and the rarest, most coveted machine-made marbles were all intended for rough children’s play, all collectors have known the heartbreak of seeing masterpieces of the marble-maker’s craft defaced by play. It hurts to even think about it, much less watch it.

After the tournament segment, the cameras rolled on an event that would make any self-respecting marble collector drool: The annual MarbleFest in Cairo (pronounced like Karo syrup rather than the city of the pharaohs), West Virginia, where marbles are bought and sold and displayed for purely educational purposes. Here, in tray after tray, was the cream of the marble crop, a collector’s heaven. Our friend Ben has never been lucky enough to attend a marble show, but having been to shell and coin shows (and to bead shows with Silence Dogood), I know what to expect. Imagine an antiques show where all the booths were full of marbles! It sure makes my heart beat faster.

Next came a segment in which the cameras followed Beri Fox, now the owner of Marble King, back to the plant, where we got to see machine-made marbles being made, and got a history lesson on marble production as well. (I believe she said that Marble King produces a million marbles a day!)

Seeing the machines in action reminded our friend Ben of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I had several years ago to go to JABO Inc., to see the great master of machine-made marbles, Dave McCullough, do a special run of marbles on JABO’s machines. It was a privilege and a thrill, both an extremely educational and an awe-inspiring experience. (Thank you, Steve Sturtz, for making that possible!)

The DVD ended with profiles of modern art-glass masters Steve Davis and Eddie Seese, visiting their studios and watching them produce intricate hand-made marbles. (This was especially fun since I own marbles made by both artists.) It was fascinating to me to see how different the two artists’ techniques were, and how incredibly time-consuming the process of marble-making is when done by hand.

Given how long it takes to make a single marble, and how many intricate steps are involved, and how easy it would be to screw everything up, I’m now more grateful to own these beautiful works than ever, and simply wonder how they could possibly be affordable. Thanks be to all who put their time and creativity into making beautiful marbles!

But after watching the DVD, I couldn’t help but wonder why the producers hadn’t visited that other great bastion of American marble-making, JABO, and interviewed the greatest maker of machine-made marbles who ever lived, the Man, David McCullough. (Not that I don’t love M.F. Christensen and the fabulous Christensen Agate and Akro Agate, Peltier, Marble King, and all the others, but you just have to look at Dave’s special runs and the competition is over.) I was disappointed not to see the master at work and hear his thoughts on marble-making, not to mention some of his more recent work.

In a blow to marble collectors everywhere, Dave retired from JABO a few years ago; his last special marble run, to the best of my knowledge, was in 2010. There was excitement in the marble community in 2012 when a rumor flew around that Dave and some of his most talented colleagues were planning to open a marble production facility of their own. Our friend Ben couldn’t wait to see what Dave and company would come up with next! But sadly, I’ve heard nothing further on this, and can find nothing on the internet.

Those of you who are more tied into the marble community than our friend Ben, if you have any updates, please let me know! Fingers crossed that the plans are still in progress. In the meantime, thank you, Beri, for keeping a great tradition alive. Long live the (Marble) King! And long live the Marble Master.

Why John Adams? September 18, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, our friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders, and his fiance Bridget were watching a DVD of the miniseries “John Adams” the other night. We’re all huge fans of Colonial and Revolutionary history, but we all also found ourselves asking, as we do every time we watch this excellent series, “What the bleep?”

This is perhaps the best series about Colonial America that was ever made. But instead of featuring the movers and shakers of the Revolution, the colorful characters—George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, Sam Adams, John Hancock, Gouverneur Morris, Lighthorse Harry Lee, Paul Revere—it stars the fat, bald, irritating, paranoid, unpopular John Adams. Why?!

John Adams was unloved in his day and is just as unlovable in the series. Even the flag that serves as the icon of the film, the severed snake of the 13 colonies with the motto “Join or Die,” was the creation of Benjamin Franklin, not Adams. Adams had no part in the shaping of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the Treaty of Paris. What could have possessed the creators of this series to focus on the man his own contemporary legislators contemptuously dismissed as “His Rotundity”? 

Perhaps they were sentimentalists who focused on the lifelong love affair between John Adams and his wife Abigail. Like Martha Washington and Dolley Madison (and, for that matter, Deborah Franklin), Abigail Adams was a very strong woman, who supported her husband and bolstered his confidence no matter how his contemporaries viewed him.

Unlike Martha, Dolley, and Deborah, Abigail had her work cut out for her, with a pompous, unpopular husband. But she recognized her husband’s brilliance even as she also recognized how he needed to curb his ambition and arrogance to make that brilliance heard. (Thank God Ben Franklin inherently understood this and combined his gargantuan intellect with wit, humor, and compromise, or we’d have lost the Revolution.) Humor wasn’t John Adams’s strong suit, nor was an understanding of his fellow men. He stood for the law and for honor and justice, whatever the personal cost. And he paid a very high price for his noble ideals.

That the series (and the book by David McCullough that inspired it) is able to so brilliantly bring Colonial and Revolutionary America to life through the eyes of John Adams and his family is what our friend Ben would have called an impossible attainment. And yet it does attain it.

You may pity or despise John Adams at the series’ end, or feel terribly sad for a man with great gifts and great blindness about human nature. You will definitely feel desperately sad for his wife Abigail and his brave, tragic daughter. But you will also feel ennobled by the story of a people who collectively rose above themselves and above their station and achieved something no one had seen in over a thousand years: A republic where the citizens claimed the right to represent themselves and elect their officials.

Why John Adams? Our friend Ben still doesn’t have a clue.  A less appealing character could hardly have been found. It would be like making a movie about the Civil War era and focusing on Confederate General Marcus J. Wright rather than Generals Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Stonewall Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest , William Tecumseh Sherman, Philip Henry Sheridan, George Gordon Meade, Admiral Raphael Semmes, or, say, Presidents Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis. It’s not that Wright was irrelevant, he just wasn’t compelling. Nor was John Adams.

But the series “John Adams” is compelling. Thanks to historian David McCullough’s deep knowledge of the era and the filmmakers’ ability to bring it to life, it’s a must-watch for anyone who enjoys American history or values American liberty. And thank you, John Adams, for being so unattractive and so unpopular and still showing us what one person’s passionate beliefs, backed by their heartfelt actions, whatever their personal drawbacks, can accomplish.

JABO: Recreated? March 29, 2012

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Sad news for marble lovers (like our friend Ben) everywhere: JABO, the world’s premier creator of machine-made marbles, is losing the creative geniuses who made these exceptional marbles possible. Find the details in today’s guest post, contributed by our marble buddy and JABO authority Steve Sturtz:

JABO is closed and will be reopening in the near future with a new glass maker. No longer will the three glass makers who made JABO famous be there: Richard, Ronnie, and David are gone.

I think of all the wonderful things that have happened… the wonderful marbles that have been made by David McCullough in the last 20 years and particularly the last five or six years with the Experimentals. I have documented the beginnings of these marbles in “David’s JABO Renaissance” and in “2008 JABO Classics: The Experimentals.” The rest of his great body of work will be documented in the near future. I believe the standards of excellence he has set in machine-made marble making will stand the test of time.

JABO no longer has a proven think tank so they begin anew with high hopes, great expectations, and a very curious marble-buying community. There are huge shoes to be filled and there will be many questions about their ability to do so. 

That said, whoever is lucky enough to run JABO Classics in the near future has a huge advantage. They will have the advantage of using the tank that David McCullough has designed, a tank that reflects his latest advancements in marble-making. So over the short-term, anyone who makes marbles in that tank should get reasonable West Virginia swirls. The only disadvantage for the new team at JABO is that they do not have 40 years of experience, 40 years of their blood, sweat and tears and 40 years of the McCullough magic.

I wish the new unproven team at JABO well, but they will be a new JABO. They will be using a tank that David McCullough designed with almost forty years of experience. It is a tank that can and should make great West Virginia swirls and flames. I hope the new group can make the tank sing the sweet music that David has built into its fiery core. The first run they make will be interesting and fun, but the real test of their mastery will come when they will eventually have to build their own tank. Their excellence can only begin to show when marbles are created out of a new JABO tank with a new JABO palette.

The contract runs are supposed to continue according to a statement by JABO’s accountant. These runs provided a way for JABO to generate incremental income to (reportedly) move from losses to becoming a profitable business again. 

One thing is very clear. Any marbles made in the future will not be the same. They will not be McCullough JABOs. In the past, all of the Experimentals that were made were JABO contract runs. They were contracted with JABO on the condition that David McCullough makes those marbles, not because of JABO, or the JABO name, but because of the art and skill of David McCullough. Anyone who comes in behind David is going to have a very steep learning curve. The new crew will also have to make improvements to what has already been made before them. I am not aware of anyone who has that much experience or such a strong supporting cast. So any marble that is made in the future will not be the same as those made in the past. They may be better. They may be worse. I wish anyone who makes marbles at JABO well. They are keeping one of the last marble companies still operating open.

No matter what happens, David McCullough is retired and JABO enters a new era. David will be missed for his kindness, knowledge, and beautiful marbles. 

Good luck to the new and very different JABO.

                                 —Steve Sturtz

                                     March 27, 2012

Why are JABO marbles so famous? July 9, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben thought this reader query was funny at first, but then I realized that it was no laughing matter. People didn’t realize why JABO marbles weren’t like other marbles. People needed to know.

All righty, then. JABO marbles are, first of all, so famous because of the genius of their creator, David McCullough, and his talented crew. No machine-made marbles, not even the revered Akro, Peltier, and etc., marbles, have ever approached JABOs for their colorful complexity.

JABO marbles are, secondly, so famous because Dave McCullough and company had the brilliant idea of producing limited runs of marbles for private investors, using different materials to make sure each run was different and giving them all catchy names. This made them exclusive, interesting, limited, and extremely collectible.

Finally, JABO marbles are so famous because of the efforts of marble historians like Steve Sturtz, aka Dr. JABO, whose books and articles chronicle the history and thinking behind these marvelous marbles. It’s exciting to live in a time when marble history is being simultaneously made and documented for posterity.

‘Nuff said?

Weldon Eaton: A Tribute July 28, 2010

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Our marble buddy, aka Paul Revere, recently gave our friend Ben and Silence Dogood some sad and shocking news. Fellow marble enthusiast and pillar of the marble community Weldon Eaton was killed by a freak auto accident in Moab, Utah last week, when his vehicle blew a tire and rolled down a 15-foot embankment. (By God’s grace, Weldon’s wife Edna and grandson Joseph emerged from the wreck with cuts and bruises.) Our friend Rob, who has been to Moab many times, told us when we conveyed the news that roads in the area followed steep ravines and were definitely not for the faint of heart.

But our friend Ben is writing this post not as an obituary but as a tribute, because Weldon Eaton inspired countless people throughout his life, and I’m convinced that he’ll inspire you even in death, whoever you are, whatever your interests and passions. Read on and you’ll see why.

Our friend Ben met Weldon because Paul Revere had invited me to attend one of the exclusive JABO Tribute marble runs down in Reno, Ohio. (A marble run is the actual marble production process, which is fascinating to watch, and JABO is the premier machine-made marble producer in the world, thanks to its presiding genius, David McCullough.) It was such a thrill to get a behind-the-scenes look at marbles in the making and to meet the marble community’s cognoscenti. Thanks, Paul!

The first time our friend Ben saw Weldon, everyone had gathered for dinner at a local restaurant. As I took my seat at the table and introductions were made, I was immediately struck by his intensely blue eyes. Our friend Ben has blue eyes, but they paled by comparison to Weldon’s.

But it wasn’t just the color of Weldon’s eyes that impressed me: It was the look of wisdom, patience, humor, and kindness that they held. They seemed to say, “I’ve been around a lot of people, and I’ve spent time studying them, and I know them, their strivings and failings, their strengths and weaknesses, their greatness and their quirks. And I still get a kick out of them.” Meeting those kind eyes was like encountering a rock in the midst of a swiftly flowing stream, a place of strength, a place of safety in the turbulent waters of ordinary life. It was so unexpected in the chaos of the restaurant and the excited marble talk, it took my breath away.

The next time I saw Weldon, he was walking. If you could call it that. The steel braces that confined his legs helped him move them forward as his arms bore his weight, their steel poles inching forward step by agonizing step. What on earth had happened, I wondered: Was he wounded in a war? Had he suffered a crippling accident? Was it childhood polio? No wonder he had mastered patience, that hardest skill for us frantic moderns to learn. No wonder he had been able to slow down, to take the time to actually see rather than simply looking.

Much later, Paul told me the back-story: Weldon had been born disabled, his legs twisted on top of his abdomen. The doctors told his parents he would die. Many excruciating surgeries later, his legs were straight enough for the braces he would wear throughout his life. A lot of children who’d been through what Weldon endured would have taken to a wheelchair and expected their parents to see to their needs for the rest of their lives. They had, after all, already been through enough.

Not Weldon Eaton. As a child, he helped his family pick cotton, carried on a tarp down the rows. As he grew up, he participated in the recreational activities his friends and family enjoyed; he was a lifelong hunter and fisherman. He went to college and on to get his master’s degree. Along the way, he met and married his college’s fiesty beauty queen, Edna, who saw the man and not his legs; they were married 49 years at the time of the tragedy. He and Edna raised a son. Weldon was on the board of his church and was a member of the volunteer fire department, along with many other memberships. He was a very active member of his community.

But the most amazing thing to our friend Ben was Weldon’s choice of profession: He became a school teacher and athletic trainer in his home state of Texas. Think about the courage this took! Everybody knows how cruel and mocking kids can be over the least little thing: a wart, nerdy glasses, the wrong shoes, bad hair, a pimple. Weldon could have gone to work in a lab or somewhere where he’d be working with other adults. But he followed his vocation, and he followed his heart, and he faced his classrooms and his athletes every day. And our friend Ben is certain that he inspired generations to rise above their perceived limitations and follow their dreams.

Marble-lovers who knew Weldon well have many wonderful stories to tell of his generosity: How he always carried marbles in the pocket of his bibb overalls so he could give them to kids; how he and Edna created a “marble tree” outside their home in Waller, Texas, placing hundreds of marbles around the large roots of a tree at the street so anyone passing by could take one. What a good friend and supporter he was to the marble community, and how he never lost his sense of wonder and enthusiasm for those colorful little balls of glass.

Our friend Ben’s life was enriched, changed for the better, by meeting Weldon once. I can imagine how richly blessed those who knew him well must feel, and what a hole his passing has left in their world. I can only hope that all of us whose lives Weldon touched will carry something of his spirit—his kindness, his patience, his humor, his generosity, his courage, his wisdom, his tolerance, his enthusiasm, his endurance, his sense of community, his faith—so that others may see and be touched and inspired in their turn. It would be a fitting tribute to a wonderful man.

Breaking news for JABO lovers! April 8, 2010

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Attention, marble lovers and collectors everywhere: Here’s a scoop on today’s hottest machine-made marbles, JABOs. Remember, you read it here first!

Around midnight last night, a shadowy figure who, in keeping with our blog’s Colonial tone, prefers to be known only as Paul Revere,* rode up to Hawk’s Haven, our friend Ben’s and Silence Dogood’s cottage home, swinging his lantern and shouting “The JABOs are coming! The JABOs are coming!!!”

Lurching groggily to the door, our friend Ben opened it to be hit with a faceful of dust from the rapidly advancing hooves of the noted silversmith’s horse as he reined to a halt and swung off his steed. Once sight was restored, OFB, still coughing slightly, invited Paul inside.

“Silence! It’s Paul Revere! Would you bring us some ale, please? I’ll be starting up the fire in the living room.” No slouch, Silence was at the living room door with two brimming mugs of ale before you could say “Lexington and Concord.”

“Paul, what’s going on? Don’t tell me the British are at it again!”

Turns out, it was even more momentous news, at least as far as marble-lovers are concerned. Here’s what Paul told us:

“While I was resting over a tankard in Marietta, I overheard Joe, the postal worker from Wells Fargo, tell a wonderfully exciting story of a JABO marble run that is about to take place. The story was told to him by a generally unreliable old cur of a hound, but for once he had some of the facts.

“I edged closer to hear the full scoop. It appears that the JABO Tributes were given the chance to do a 1″ run at JABO.** He said that this will be the first and maybe the only 1″ run in 3 years. Everyone at his table shouted ‘No!’ and ‘Impossible!’, so I didn’t hear what he said next, but as the table quieted down, I heard him say something about how huge the costs would be. The base glass will be custom-batched, with some extra glass added for another group to run smaller marbles.

“The whole table was in an uproar by this time, so I left the inn with the idea that even though Joe had some of the specifics, there was more to this story… “

“Speaking of leaving the inn, Paul, I see that your mug is empty. Care for a refill?”

“Thank’ee, Silence, don’t mind if I do. Riding these dusty backroads every midnight shouting the news is mighty thirsty work. Now, where was I? Oh, yes…

“I walked around the town and talked to the usual supporters in the area. Still, the information was sketchy at best, so I decided to go straight to the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Did you say something, Ben?”

“Me? Not a word, Paul. Please go on!”

“Hmpf. Well, I raced to the blacksmith shop where my horse was tethered for the night and I galloped the 7 miles to Reno, Ohio. My steed was tired and I, excited. I spoke with David McCullough himself,*** and he completed the story.

“According to David, the amount of base glass per marble will be 2 1/2 times that used to make a 3/4″ marble, because the surface area of a 1″ marble is 2 1/4 times that of a 3/4″ marble.”

“Then why won’t the amount of base glass be 2 1/4 times as much instead of 2 1/2 times?”

“Ben, I’m a silversmith, not a marble-maker! You’ll have to ask David that question yourself. But if he said it, I’m sure it’s true.”

“I agree with you there, Paul! David is as great a marble-maker as you were, ah, are a silversmith, for sure. Maybe there’s some evaporation involved or something.”

“Slept through chemistry class, eh, Ben?”

“Shut up, Silence. Paul, you were saying?”

“According to David, the gold aventurine will cost about $15,000—“

“WHAT?!!!”

“Ben, did you think making premium marbles was cheap? Think about it: Between the cost of materials, the cost of buying, maintaining, and running the equipment, and the priceless expertise involved in creating these masterworks, maybe you can see why collectors invest thousands of dollars in their collections. It’s not like we’re talking about, say, scribbling away on a computer.”

“GRRRRRR… “

“Ben!!!”

“Uh, sorry, Silence, Paul. Just clearing a little road dust out of my throat. Paul, you were saying?”

“Right. The gold aventurine will cost about $15,000, and then the gold Lutz rod will be about $500 per kilo, and many kilos will be used. The total cost of this run will be 2 to 3 times more than any 3/4″ run to date. Apparently, the Tributes have gathered most of the money and are planning on a mid- to late-May run. The name they have chosen for this unique run is ‘What a Tribute!’ It sure looks like David McCullough will have all the materials he wants to set still another standard of excellence in marble-making.”

“So what does David think about the run, Paul?”

“The rumor is that David is very excited about this run and was overheard to say with a huge smile and a wink, ‘We’ll make you some real pretty marbles.’

“Will JABO collectors like us be able to watch the marbles being made, Paul?”

“You betcha, Ben. Tributes from the four corners of the continent will assemble at the JABO factory in Reno, Ohio, to watch these beautiful marbles being made. It’s a great opportunity to be a part of marble history, just like I became part of American history.

“So, Ben and Silence, I hope you’re as excited about this development as I am. I will keep watch over the proceedings and inform you of any new developments. So au revoir for now! I must take to horse and return to Marietta to keep an eye on things.”

Leaping onto his long-suffering—I mean, trusty—steed, the last we saw of Paul Revere was his retreating form, trailed by a cloud of dust and the echo of “The JABOs are coming!”

* The modest personage wishing to be known simply as Paul Revere, and bearing no resemblance whatever to the “generally unreliable old cur of a hound” of his story, might nonetheless be known to the cognoscenti by his alter-ego, JABO’s principal historian, aka Dr. JABO.

** For those new to the wide and wild world of marble collecting, three explanations are due here. First, marbles are made in numerous sizes, but machine-made marbles are typically made in 1/2, 3/4, and 1-inch sizes. Second, marble production typically occurs in “runs,” so-called because the machines are fired up, the glass and other materials are shoveled in, and the marbles are produced in a single stretch of time and at full tilt, with everyone running to complete that batch of marbles until the raw materials run out. And third, if you’re wondering why these particular collectors are referred to by Paul Revere as “Tributes,” it’s because they collect and finance the Tribute runs that David McCullough has produced for JABO.

*** David McCullough is not only the presiding genius responsible for the creation of JABO marbles, arguably the hottest collectibles in the marble field today, but is almost certainly the greatest creator of machine-made marbles who ever lived.

JABO: A Classic. January 14, 2009

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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.

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