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JABO: A Classic. January 14, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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A while back, our friend Ben wrote a post called “We’ve lost our marbles” about how the great tradition of American toy marble-making has almost become a lost art. While elaborate contemporary handmade marbles continue to enjoy a niche as (often pricey) collectibles, the great companies that dominated the world market from the 1900s through the 1950s with amazingly elaborate machine-made marbles have died out one by one. M.F. Christensen, Akro, Christensen Agate, Peltier, Alley, Ravenswood, and dozens of others are now just names reverently intoned by marble enthusiasts and collectors.

As I write, our friend Ben knows of only two companies still making machine-made “toy” marbles in America. One, Marble King of West Virginia, is still making some of the marbles that made it a household name among marbles-playing kids back in the 1950s. But the other, JABO, is doing something that every marble enthusiast should be watching: It is making American marble history, right before our eyes.

JABO’s beginnings were humble, like most great American success stories. It began in 1987 when Jack Bogard of the Bogard marble family joined forces with accountant and marble enthusiast Joanne Argabrite to create a new company in what had been the Heaton marble factory in Cairo, West Virginia.  Today, JABO operates out of Reno, Ohio, and has become something of a pilgrimage site, thanks to far-seeing marble collectors who recognized the genius of JABO’s marble maker, David McCullough.

If America had the good sense to establish a Living Treasures roster, as Japan and other countries have, David McCullough (along with such great artists as Hopi potter Dextra Quotskuyva) would be on that list. David’s talents as a marble-maker were evident when he worked for Champion Agate, another classic American marble company, and are especially evident in his series of Champion “Old-Fashioneds.” Jack Bogard and Joanne Argabrite had the great good sense to hire David to make JABO’s marbles, and the first intimations of a sea change came in his first year with the company, 1991, when he produced the first run of JABO Classics, limited-production special marbles.

Let me quote Robert S. Block, a leading marble authority, on these Classic runs (from his Marble Collectors Handbook): “The company produced industrial marbles, mainly opaques. However, Dave McCullough would produce three or four limited runs each year of ‘Classics’ in sizes from 5/8″ to 1″. Each run was different from any previous run, and the marbles were not like any other company’s. Many fluoresce, and they contain many innovative colors and were produced in very short runs.” (The shorter the run, i.e., the fewer marbles produced, the more collectible they are.) 

When Robert Block wrote this, David, for many years now a full partner at JABO, was only warming up. The marbles he has produced in the last couple of years—2007 and especially 2008—are arguably more innovative and gorgeous than any machine-made marbles ever previously produced. His JOKER, Madyia, JINKS, Dark Knight, Marley, and Last Dance runs display incredibly ornate patterns, and showcase rare materials formerly only found in handmade or single-company legendary marbles: oxblood (an opaque dark red), aventurine (glittery green, blue or black sparkles), lutz (gold glitter), mica. Even the less spectacular marbles from various runs are being named by collectors, like the famous Peltiers and Akros of old: JABO’s Captain Megan, Rebel, Punkin Peewees, Tie Dye, Lilac Expression. Extraordinary marbles like the Woodstock shooters (shooters are the big marbles, in this case about an inch) are so outstanding, they belong in museums.

Every JABO marble is different, but there is something about JABOs that makes them instantly recognizable, even by rank amateurs like our friend Ben. Perhaps it’s the depth of the transparent glass, the intricacy of the designs, the unusually rich glow of the clear colors. JABO marbles simply stand alone, like all the great marbles of the past—the Christensen Agates, with their unbelievably bright, pure colors; the Akro corkscrews and Popeyes; the M.F. Christensen “9” slags. You know when you’re seeing a JABO, just as you know when you’re seeing a Peltier. It’s an incredible achievement.

What makes it more incredible is that this is 2009, not 1909 or 1939, when labor was cheap and marbles were a hugely popular kids’ game. In these days, when everything tends to come down to the bottom line, Dave McCullough’s and JABO’s achievement is nothing short of a miracle. And it’s ultimately a five-part miracle. Let’s break that down into its five component parts.

First of course is David McCullough’s extraordinary talent and willingness to experiment, and Joanne Argabrite’s and Jack Bogard’s willingness to support him in his work. Second is the enthusiasm of private collectors to fund special runs like the extraordinary JOKER run of 2008. Third is the dedicated work of the JABO historians, which I’ll get to in a moment. Fourth is the group of handmade marble makers who recognize the glory of JABOs and use them in their own work, such as Eddie Seese’s Rebel Shooters and other JABO remelts by such contemporary marble-makers as Joe Schlemmer, Sammy Hogue, and Jim Davis. And fifth are the ordinary everyday collectors like you and me who support David McCullough’s and JABO’s work by buying their marbles for our collections.

Let’s backtrack to those marble historians for a minute. There could be no history without historians to record it, and this is as true of JABO marbles as it was of the Revolutionary or Civil War. JABO is blessed to have dedicated enthusiasts following what’s happening as each new development in David McCullough’s marble-making adventure unfolds.

Steve Sturtz and Michael Johnson have already written two books documenting the JABO phenomenon, JABO: A Classic and David’s JABO Renaissance. Thanks to Sturtz and Johnson, we can follow along as living marble history is made before our eyes. I hope that many more will follow, and that David McCullough and JABO keep on forging new ground. It’s incredibly exciting to be present when history is being made, and you’re aware of that, be it marble history or statecraft! What a privilege, and thanks to Steve, Michael, Dave, and everyone who’s making it possible.

Want to pick up a few JABOs and/or JABO books of your own and get in on the ground floor of the most exciting development in American machine-made marbles in our lifetime? Forget about the official JABO website (www.jabovitro.com). It’s shockingly behind the times in terms of picking up on what’s going on with its own company and the marble-collecting community.

Instead, head to eBay, where JABO enthusiasts like JABO historian Steve Sturtz offer books and exceptional marbles for sale. You’ll also find a nice, affordable selection of JABOs, including JOKERs, at Land of Marbles (www.landofmarbles.com). And you can see fantastic photos of named JABOs, learn some JABO lore,  and find sources of JABOs for sale at JABO Land. (Luddite that our friend Ben is, I couldn’t exactly figure out the web address of JABO Land, but if you Google it, you’ll get there.)

Prices are starting to skyrocket as marble collectors finally realize what JABO is doing, however, so get over there now if you want to own a piece of marble-making history for a bargain price! Because these special runs are being supported by collectors and investors rather than the open market, there’s no telling how long JABO can remain viable, which adds a poignant urgency to the whole story. But for now, you too can still be instrumental in marble-making history.



1. nancybond - January 14, 2009

What a fascinating post!

Thanks, Nancy!

2. Becca - January 15, 2009

OFB, you have been such a prolific writer during my blogging hiatus that I can never hope to catch up. However, I did want to thank you for some of the seed pointers. Here at BrightHaven, we are looking at making up our spring seed order as well. Baker’s Creek has me bewildered as to which ten tomato varieties I want to order. Thanks for the suggestion. I like the idea of growing our own popcorn as well. In fact, I’d pop some right now if it wasn’t so late!

Thanks, Becca, and wlecome back! And I agree, one of the tough things about narrowing down the Baker Creek selection is that Jere obviously loves ALL the varieties he offers! I enjoy trying a few new varieties every year while still saving space for my all-time faves, and consoling myself for not trying every single one with the thought that there’s always another year!

3. Dave McCullough - January 19, 2009

Hi, I just wanted to drop you a line and thank you for the great article you have written on Jabo 2008 experimentals. There are those whom will disagree with some of your positions but many more will more than agree with what you have written. I must say , without ever speaking to you, many of the facts that you had makes one believe you did some research before putting into print this article. I appreciate the article and have saved it for future reference. Thank You for such a positive article.
Dave McCullough
VP Jabo Inc

Wow, Dave, I’m so honored that you read my post! What you all have done at JABO is just an incredible achievement. You have earned not just a place, but a major role in marble-making history. Thank you for your wonderful work!!!

4. Steve Sturtz - January 20, 2009

Hey Ben,

Thank you so much for such a wonderful article. It was such a pleasant surprise to see it. We certainly appeciate your kind observations.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first article outside the marble community to recognize David for his excellence. He set so many new standards in marbles this year with the 2008 JABO Classic experimentals.

Please accept this note as a thank you and an invitation to be my guest at the first run of the 2009 JABO Tributes Classics.

Wow, Steve!!! What a thrilling opportunity! Thank you so much!!!

5. Banjo - January 24, 2009

Hi Ben. You sound like one of us because I’ve sure caught the Jabo fever.I started collecting vintage marbles around 10 years ago and got hooked on Jabo about a year or so ago and would be safe to say my Jabo collection outnumbers my vintage 5 to 1 and I have lots of vintage marbles! Jabo really is every man’s marble and if you can’t afford a Christensen agate layered sand at 1500 dollars(have only seen one in books) then you can own a really beautiful Jabo experimental with aventurine ,lutz or mica or a gorgeous green eggs and ham(love the name,try it you’ll like it) for a fraction of the cost.Thanks Dave for making us the classics and experimentals, thanks Steve and Michael for telling us all about them and thanks Ben for spreading the word. Yours in Jabo.

Hi Banjo! Wish I could see your fabulous collection! I have loved and acquired the odd marble over the years because I couldn’t resist them, but the very first marbles I bought when I decided to really get into collecting were a pair of JABO Rebels, and I’ve never looked back! I’m always thrilled to come upon a fabulous vintage marble or a fun contemporary handmade, but after being lucky enough to acquire some examples of most of the recent JABO special runs, I can’t say that I’ve ever seen any machine-mades that can compete. (Admittedly, I’ll probably never give up trying to find a nice jar full of Christensen Agate Submarines and Sandlayers for $8!!! And I confess to an addiction for some of the old handmades, especially Peppermint Swirls.) As you could probably tell, JABO’s Woodstock shooters are special favorites of mine, both because they’re fabulous and because Dave McCullough named them himself. But every JABO I buy makes me respect them, and Dave’s achievement, more. What a trip!

6. Edna Eaton - January 25, 2009

Hi Ben,

I really enjoyed your article on JABO and Dave McCullough. I’ve known David since the mid 1990’s and my husband and I have been admirers of his work since our first meeting. We have been part of two marble runs and we’re waiting to do the third. The marbles are really beautiful. For some reason, there are people who try to take credit for David’s work and knowledge, but you got it right. Without David, nobody’s JABO’s would exist. Thanks for giving David recognition outside of the marble community.

Thanks, Edna, and good to hear from you! Maybe we’ll get to meet at the next JABO run. I’d love that!

7. jeff steeves - July 29, 2010

hey everone, just wanted to give steve sturtz a big pat on the back from jeff in novy.

Thanks, Jeff! He deserves it!

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