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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.

JABO: A Classic. January 14, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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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.

We’ve lost our marbles. November 13, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Did you play with marbles when you were a kid? Neither did our friend Ben. In fact, I tend to think of marbles as a Depression-era game, with kids in Buster Brown suits and Nancy dresses playing marbles and hopscotch on the sidewalk. But when I was growing up, marbles were still available everywhere. Those little plastic mesh bags of marbles were in bins or on hooks in every five and dime, grocery, drug store, and toy store.

Our friend Ben was thinking about all this recently after Silence and I went to visit our friends Bruce and Cole in beautiful Charlottesville, Virginia over Hallowe’en. Like us, Cole is a collector, and his latest collecting passion is marbles. He showed us exquisitely crafted cases and vases of marbles, expounding on marble types and makers as he held each marble to the light. He brought out books on marbles and marble collecting. When we visited local antiques stores and malls, Cole trolled for marbles while Silence searched for her ever-elusive ruby glass chicken salt cellar (still no luck) and I looked for antique chess pieces (forget it).

By the time Silence and I got back to Pennsylvania, we were kind of hooked on marbles. They’re great collectibles because they don’t take up much space, and you can still find jars and bags of them for a few dollars (if you’re lucky). Of course, the kinds valued by collectors, typically the early American machine-made marbles, tend to cost a lot more, especially when they’re in excellent condition.

Thanks to Cole, our friend Ben learned that I was almost right about my Depression-era concept, as long as I broadened it out a bit. The Golden Age of American marble-making was really in the 1920s and ’30s. Before that, marbles were usually made by hand, typically in glass factories that made other types of glassware for a living and made a few marbles at the end of the day with their leftover glass. The elegant glass marbles were made in Europe, chiefly in Germany.

Then, around the turn of the century, Americans perfected a marble-making machine, and American marbles came into their own. By the Roaring Twenties, American machine-made marbles dominated the world market. Hundreds (if not thousands) of kinds of marbles were made in factories across the country, with most of the marble companies concentrated in West Virginia and Ohio. White marbles with multicolored patches and swirls, clear marbles with streaks of color, glass marbles that mimicked the old agate marbles hand-carved from stone—anything a glassmaker could think of, in every color combination he could devise, made its way to market.

But then came World War II. Glassmaking supplies, like everything else, were needed for the war effort. Those of us who didn’t live through it can’t really imagine how the war changed the lives of ordinary Americans. From groceries to gasoline, it affected the everyday lives of families across the country in a way nothing else has ever done since. And after the war, when the U.S. was trying to get Japan back on its feet economically, one of the things they taught the Japanese to make was marbles.

The Japanese didn’t make the many kinds of marbles that had been produced in American factories before the war. They made one kind, called a cat’s eye. These are the clear marbles with bands of color inside them. Japan learned to make cat’s eyes cheaply and well. Imports of Japanese cat’s eyes flooded and quickly dominated the American market. One by one, the American marble companies closed. Even in our friend Ben’s day, cat’s eyes were still the only marble available in those many, many mesh bags in all the stores. American marble-making had passed into the hands of historians and collectors.

Today, marble-making is enjoying a renaissance of sorts in America, thanks to the collector market. Art glass in general, from lampworked and dichroic glass beads and jewelry to marbles and larger pieces, is flourishing, though of course these exquisite marbles are as pricey as their ancient handmade relations were back in Germany in the 1800s. And at least one American factory, JABO, is making limited runs of machine-made marbles for the collector market. Even the Japanese cat’s-eye marbles now have their  aficionados and collectors. But today’s marble market is dominated by a single factory, Vacor de Mexico, that makes Mega Marbles in an unbelievable assortment of styles and colors. Vacor is clearly the inheritor of the great tradition of the glory days of American machine-made marbles. You’d definitely admire their marbles… assuming you could find any.

This at last brings our friend Ben to the point of this post. Thinking about marbles made me realize that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen them in a store. So this week, I did a little research. I went to grocery stores, drug stores, dollar stores, even children’s consignment shops. Sure enough: no marbles. When I asked at one drug store, a cashier told me a sad tale: Her son, an elementary school teacher, had asked her to get him some marbles for his class. After looking everywhere with no luck, she had been forced to resort to a crafts store where they sell marbles for vases and aquariums. You know, the clear glass marbles in various colors that all look the same. Pretty enough, but boring.

So what’s happened to marbles in America? Are we so terrified that our children will swallow them that we’re afraid to even carry them in stores? Our friend Ben thinks not, especially after seeing shelves bulging with packets of tiny, usually plastic, toys with their “choking hazard” warning. Or is it just that, like our friend Ben back in the day, we no longer play with these venerable toys?

Whatever the case, I think I can now definitively say that, as a nation, we’ve lost our marbles. But, marble-wise, all is not lost. You can still admire the many beautiful types of Mega Marbles online, and buy packs of them, including the big shooters, for less than $3 a pack. You can also buy and enjoy every kind of marble ever made, from polished stone and machine-made marbles to the old ceramic Benningtons and the most modern art glass, on eBay, at flea markets, antiques stores, and marble and toy shows, and at specialty sites online. Three current favorites are Land of Marbles (www.landofmarbles.com), Collectible Marbles (www.collectiblemarbles.com), and Mega Marbles (www.megamarbles.com). (I know there are plenty more, I just don’t know about them. Maybe an experienced marble collector out there will help me out!)

There are also marble books galore, sold through Land of Marbles, Amazon, and doubtless many another store. If you have a favorite antiques mall or flea market that carries a selection of collectors’ books, check there, too. Buying a jar of old marbles for $8 is one thing, but before you spend serious money on marbles, it pays to look into collector pricing. Read before you buy! And unless you’re an antiquarian, buy a current book with lots of color photos. Older books are fascinating, but black-and-white photos aren’t nearly as helpful when it comes to marble ID.

The great era of American marble-making may be lost. But fortunately for marble lovers, it’s still possible to find our marbles. Next time you come upon one of these cunning little spheres, take a closer look. Like our friend Cole, you may find that yesterday’s simple pleasure is today’s treasure.

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