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The rarest marble in the world? November 13, 2013

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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: 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

Through a glass, brightly. October 10, 2011

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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share a crowlike love of bright, glittery objects. OFB is a passionate marble collector, and Silence loves vintage and modern colored glassware, beads and jewelry, glass ornaments, and pretty much anything that sparkles. So this past weekend, when we decided to take a mini-vacation to Corning, New York to enjoy the beautiful area and peak foliage season, it won’t surprise you to learn that the first place we visited was the Corning Museum of Glass (www.cmog.org).

The museum was just a short walk from our hotel. As the brochure says, “The Corning Museum of Glass is the world’s largest glass museum, featuring live glassblowing demonstrations, 35 centuries of glass artistry, Make Your Own Glass experiences for all ages, and an international GlassMarket.” From Ancient Egyptian, Roman and Chinese glass through the Renaissance to African trade beads, Tiffany lamps, and modern glass by masters like Dale Chihuly, the enormous collection spans the globe and human history.

Despite being full of fragile, priceless glass pieces, the museum is surprisingly child-friendly. Kids and teens (19 and under) get in free. They can also make their own glass creations like beads and windchimes (for a fee). The most popular exhibit for the kids was definitely the Innovation Center, which shows the science of glassmaking from early microscopes through fiber optics and glass for space missions, with lots of hands-on, interactive displays. There’s even a “Science Top 10 favorites!” brochure to help kids find the most fun stuff. (The glassblowing demos also were hits with kids.) There are two cafes with indoor and outdoor seating and kid-friendly fare. Even the eight boutiques in the GlassMarket had some great stuff for kids, including age-appropriate jewelry and science kits, and a huge gizmo with all sorts of elaborate chutes and ladders that directed a continuous flow of marbles in every conceivable direction. Plenty of dads seemed mesmerized by this display as well, and Silence had to drag OFB away.

Speaking of marbles… Drat. Silence says I need to tell you that adult admission is $14.95 ($11.95 for 55 and older and folks with AAA) before I get to the marbles. She also points out that people might be more interested in hearing about the magnificent Louis Comfort Tiffany window, the impressive collection of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Arts & Crafts glass, and the superb collection of early European stemware than about marbles. Not to mention the Early American glass collection, including several portraits of our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, and one of his musical instruments, the glass armonica. (Not to be confused with a harmonica; it looked more like an especially tusky piano, and was so popular during Ben’s life that Mozart actually composed for it.)  Or the special exhibits, including Beyond Venice and Glass in the Islamic World.

Sheesh! What’s happened to people’s priorities?! Including the museum’s. Marbles, those universally beloved, endlessly intricate, touch-friendly favorites were noticeably lacking from the museum’s extensive displays. Our friend Ben was expecting an entire display devoted to marble-making through the ages, with a timelined series of cases taking us from prehistoric stone marbles through the classic era of handmade marbles and the golden age of machine-made marbles to today’s marble renaissance, where both handmade and machine-made marbles have reached unprecedented levels of virtuosity and beauty. I was practically drooling with anticipation as we entered the museum.

But no. If memory serves, there were precisely two marbles in the entire museum. What a wasted opportunity to appeal to the child in everyone! (Paperweight lovers, there was an extensive paperweight display, so don’t panic.) Grrrrrrrr. But at least the two marbles were by one of my all-time favorite marble makers, Josh Simpson.

I first encountered Josh Simpson’s incredible “Inhabited Planet” marble series before I’d even begun to seriously collect marbles, aside from a childhood cache I’d been unable to part with. But the minute I saw these extraordinary glass worlds, I knew I had to have one. Mine, which is about an inch and a half in diameter, looks like a sister planet to our own Earth, with glittery green land masses and cobalt lakes suspended in changeable turquoise seas. I have owned this beautiful art marble for decades, and it never ceases to fascinate. I have yet to see another marble, even by Josh Simpson himself, that appeals to me more.

Silence didn’t give me nearly enough time to grumble before dragging me off to the GlassMarket. We both were on missions from God: I was looking for a few good marbles to add to my collection, while Silence was hoping to find a Roman glass ring to go with her Roman glass bracelet, pendant, and earrings. Sadly, we both were disappointed. There was tons of jewelry, but no Roman glass jewelry. There were a few Josh Simpson marbles (www.joshsimpson.com/), but none I could afford, and much more affordable marbles by Jody Fine (www.jfineglass.com/), whom I love, but none that were sufficiently different from the ones I already own to tempt me.

I did hit the jackpot with two books on Josh Simpson’s work, though: Josh Simpson: A Visionary Journey in Glass (Huntsville Museum of Art, 2007) and Josh Simpson: Glass Artist (Guild Publishing, 2008). Since the Visionary Journey is a beautifully produced retrospective museum catalogue, it lacks the depth and compelling readability of Josh Simpson: Glass Artist, but it does showcase more than three decades of work and contains this marvelous quote from Josh: “My challenge as a person and an artist is to find my comfort zone… and then stay out of it.” Needless to say, I left the museum with both books.

Silence and I were also disappointed to see a complete absence of one of our favorite glassmaker’s works, Blenko Glass of West Virginia. Our salad bowl and individual serving bowls are Blenko Glass, lovingly purchased over time in Asheville, NC, and Silence has quite a collection of Blenko’s uniquely designed water/juice/tea pitchers, both vintage and modern, and still has her eyes set on a ruby glass pitcher.

But overall, we were thrilled with the museum’s displays and learned a lot on our tour through the many exhibits. At the end, you could vote for your favorite of 60 selections, and, though I was tempted to vote for Josh and Silence favored a ruby-glass plate with the most amazing Greek revival scene in milk glass (think the greatest piece of Wedgwood ever created, but made with transparent and opaque glass), we both had to admit that the most amazing thing of all was the architecture of the museum itself, with its astonishing curving glass walls. We also loved the simple but dramatic landscaping of mixed ornamental grasses, at their peak of color and form when we visited, so simple, yet such a perfect backdrop for the glass.

Though Silence never did find her Roman glass ring, I found a treasure trove of marbles at The Glass Menagerie (www.corningmenagerie.com) on Market Street in downtown Corning’s historic Gaffer District. I succumbed to two, a Jody Fine clear marble with intricate, DNA-like white laciniata caning inside, and a fabulous milk glass and pumpkin-orange double spiral inside a big transparent turquoise-glass marble by Fritz Glass (www.fritzglass.com/). Silence admired but resisted the gorgeous, glittery displays of Steuben Glass up and down Market Street, but just had to go into a couple of antiques malls, emerging triumphantly with the perfect Christmas gifts for a couple of dear friends.

Would Silence and I go back to the Corning Museum of Glass? Absolutely. Would we recommend it to you? In a heartbeat. You could go when we did, in October, the peak of foliage season, or in May for the amazing Memorial Day Weekend GlassFest, when the whole “Crystal City” turns into a giant indoor-outdoor glass celebration, or (brrrr) the Crystal City Christmas Celebration, launching November 11 and extending into December. At any time of year, you could hit the road for a Finger Lakes Wine Trail driving tour, and/or take in the Cheese Trail and Cuisine Trail as you revel in the beauty of the Finger Lakes district. 

Look for more amazing adventures as the week goes on!

Why are JABO marbles so famous? July 9, 2011

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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?

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’s on a roll. August 4, 2009

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Our friend Ben is a marble enthusiast. No, not marbles as in marble countertops, marbles as in those intricate, colorful spheres that were once used as street toys by Depression-era boys and now are cherished by collectors, including yours truly. I love the old, handmade German marbles of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I love the homely clay marbles that have been made from Ancient Egypt through the Civil War, and beyond. I love the impressive array of machine-made marbles that emerged when America became the marble-making capital of the world at the turn of the twentieth century, and great names like M.F. Christensen, Christensen Agate, Akro, Peltier, Alley, Champion, and Marble King worked their wizardry in glass. I love the fabulous handmade artisanal marbles being made today by artists in studios across the country and the world.

But as dedicated readers will recall from previous posts (“JABO: A Classic” and “Pretty enough to be a JABO”), one of my greatest marble love affairs is with JABO Inc. JABO is a comparatively modern marble factory, coming into existence in the late 1980s after Mexico had already made a bid for marble supremacy through its Vacor marble factory. JABO’s industrial marble production withstood the threat of Vacor, even diversifying into what are called “gems,” the flat glass disks that crafters use in vases and aquariums. But ultimately, JABO’s profitabililty was dealt an apparent death blow by the rise of China as a source of industrial and cheap play marbles.

By the time JABO rose to prominence, almost all the American marble titans had fallen like dominoes, first to Japan’s cheap, innovative post-WWII cat’s-eye marbles, then to Mexico’s cheap labor, and finally to the death of marbles as a hugely popular kids’ game. Marbles was one of the preeminent kids’ games in the 1930s, but by the 1960s, TV, air conditioning, and faceless suburbs had supplanted neighborhoods where parents socialized on front porches and kids played in the dusty streets. Marbles went the way of Pogo, Buster Brown, and Flappers: into the quaint archives of social history. The great American marble industry, which had thrived through the Depression as more august businesses withered, could not withstand the isolation and alienation that characterized 20th-century suburban living.

Still, two American marble companies managed to hang on: Marble King, the last of the old-time marble companies, and JABO, the new kid on the block. Marble King has survived by doing what it always did, promoting the sale of play marbles to kids as affordably as possible. JABO has survived because of its visionary leader, marble-maker extraordinaire David McCullough, his talented staff, and marble enthusiasts who can’t wait to see what they’ll come up with next.

In 2009, when the marble world was watching JABO with bated breath, wondering when it would breathe its last, the company has been going forward, breaking new ground in machine-made marble history, if anything revitalized by the threat to its existence. It’s a real testament to the faith and vision of Dave McCullough & co., to the support of patrons who appreciate JABO’s contributions to machine-made marble history, and to the ongoing interest in beautiful marbles among collectors.  

Marbles are made in “runs,” when scrap glass, called cullet, is shoveled into a fiery furnace and the molten glass pours out through a series of mechanisms to form the familiar orbs. They’re called “runs” because, once you’ve heated the furnace and started shovelling the glass, you don’t stop until you’ve run out of the cullet and there’s nothing more to put in the fire. (To watch this process in action, check out the video Joe Street made of a JABO Tribute run at http://www.vidler.com/explore/joemarbles/videos/1/.)

The process sounds simple, right? Heat the furnace, dump in scrap glass, make marbles. Not quite. The genius of great marble-makers is knowing exactly what kinds of glass cullet to add, in what quantity and order, at what heat, to get what results. They say that God is in the details, and that’s never more true than in marble-making, where results depend on the weather, the available materials, the marble-maker’s vision and knowledge, and simple dumb luck as much as anything else. That’s why JABO’s 2009 runs, including the Tribute to Friendship run, in which our friend Ben was honored to participate, as well as March Madness, JOKER II, the fabulous Ultra run, and numerous others, have been such an extraordinary testament to the skill of Dave McCullough and such a fantastic legacy for American marble-making.

If you love marbles but haven’t really thought about them in a while, make sure you check out what JABO’s been up to and get some of these extraordinary marbles for yourself (eBay’s a great source). If you’re already a JABO fanatic, don’t miss Dave’s latest and greatest.

And if you simply love the nostalgia of a simpler time, when Lincoln Logs, marbles, Monopoly, and other real, touchable games reigned supreme and you faced your opponents—usually good friends—in real life, rather than in cyberspace, you might want to start a collection of marbles from the last great American marble company. Our friend Ben knows one thing: You won’t regret it.

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.

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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