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The marbles of my dreams. February 17, 2014

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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

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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?

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’s on a roll. August 4, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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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.

Reeling in. March 28, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are feeling sorry for ourselves. There are four, count them four, things happening this weekend that we’ve wanted to attend for months or even a year, and we’re both trapped here frantically working on deadlines.

First is the Longwood Gardens orchid show and sale, sponsored by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Orchid Society (SEPOS). This is a simply fabulous show, at one of America’s great gardens, and continues through tomorrow (Sunday), should you happen to be within driving distance. As it happens, we have more than a passing connection to this show: Silence’s ex is a distinguished orchid judge for SEPOS; our good friend Rudy is a SEPOS clerk, assisting the judges; and our friends Delilah and Chaz were going to the show today and invited us to come with them. It killed us to have to say no.

Then there’s the Greater Baltimore-Washington Marble Show, also happening today a mere 2 1/2 hours from here. Our friend Ben, an impassioned collector in any case, has become obsessed with marbles and would have loved to hop in the car and head on down.

Silence and OFB both love antiques, and there’s a big antiques show in nearby Allentown, PA this weekend that we’d had on our calendar for many months. And to top it off, tomorrow there’s a local stamp show. OFB has stamps in the blood—my father, his father, and our beloved Mr. Hays have (or had) extensive collections.

Scream and scream again. We knew we couldn’t go to any of these long-anticipated events. The life of a freelancer means giving up personal time when an assignment hits, but in return, you have the privilege of working from home rather than reporting to an office. Usually, we feel the trade-off is so worth it. But this weekend has been tough: We’ve been looking glum, not talking about it, soldiering on. It’s hard when you’ve really, really been looking forward to something and it’s snatched away. 

Finally, we decided to face the issue and talk it through. Reading a post on Cinj’s Chat Room (http://cbmvwag.blogspot.com), about her “brown thumb” with houseplants reminded us that it was time to count our blessings. Yes, we’re missing the orchid show. We won’t have the chance to see great plants in bloom and buy some for our own collection. But we can picture the plants and displays, having been there in the past. Even now, some of our orchids are in bloom. Mr. Hays, who has a soft spot for Silence, has gotten her orchid-of-the-month subscriptions for Christmas for the past few years, and her Paphiopedilum ‘Pinocchio’ is blooming cheerfully in the kitchen as we speak. Surely we can survive until next year’s show, and hopefully we won’t be facing this deadline pressure then. And meanwhile, we have lots of thriving, gorgeous houseplants to enjoy “free” since we already own them.

As for marbles, stamps, and antiques, yes, it would be great to see them. We would love that. But frankly, we already have some. We have more of all of them than most people could ever imagine. And hey, there are antiques stores within driving distance once we’re past our deadlines, and eBay is always waiting.

Yes, we confessed, we’re really sorry to miss these much-anticipated treats. But let’s look at what we have now: We can take care of our houseplants and pet birds and aquaria and enrich our living space while appreciating them. We can enjoy the good company of our golden retriever, Molly, and our cats Linus, Layla and Athena. We can revisit our collections and enjoy what we already have, while feeling relief that, in an uncertain economy, we aren’t pouring our hard-earned money into new plants, marbles, stamps, and the like. We can, in short, focus on our pluses: our friends, our families, each other. Our wonderful pets and property and carefully chosen, cherished posessions. We can get past this, get over it, get on with it.

Anticipation is what it is: the looking forward to future delights. And the upside of this is that the future is ongoing, so the anticipation stretches out to infinity. If present realities intrude on future happiness, merge the two: grab happiness and drag it into the present. The future will always be waiting.

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