Published: December 18, 2001
By Catherine Saunders-Watson
You can just imagine the sound: A majestic, 14-foot Christmas fir, loaded down with thousands of antique glass ornaments and lights, suddenly teeters off-center and then – with a lumbering, time-stopping swoooosh – crashes to the floor.
That was the scene, Christmas 1983, in the Scarsdale, N.Y. home of Christopher Radko’s family. There was already enough guilt riding on the young Columbia grad’s shoulders, knowing it was he who had replaced the rusty but trustworthy old cast-iron tree stand with a new and obviously less-reliable aluminum model, but Radko’s anguish was further compounded by his relatives’ not-so-subtle reminders that most of the demolished ornaments had come from Europe and dated back to his great-grandmother’s time.
Replacing the shattered heirlooms became a mission of paramount importance to Radko, but when he set out on his buying quest, he soon found that mouth-blown glass ornaments were next to impossible to find.
“They were no longer being produced. They had died off in the early ’70s,” Radko said, “when department stores looked at the bottom line and saw that it was cheaper to import ornaments from the Orient, where there was no tradition of glass-making. Instead, there was plastic or Styrofoam, the materials of the Atomic Age … without any heart or soul.”
It was during a visit to his family’s ancestral homeland of Poland that Radko unwittingly stepped onto a path that would change his life forever. He had located a retired glassblower who could work from old molds and the sketches Radko provided to recreate some of the beloved figurals, umbrella balls and Victorian icicles that had been lost in the Christmas tree crash of ’83. Radko returned home jubilant that he would be able to present his grandmother and parents with several-dozen replacement ornaments made in the Nineteenth Century manner. But those ornaments never made it to the family tree. Friends who had seen the shimmering glass baubles insisted on buying them, which gave Radko pause to consider the retail possibilities.
Radko returned to Poland, commissioned more ornaments made from antique molds, and during his lunch breaks from the talent agency where he worked embarked on door-to-door rounds, showing the wares to hard-nosed department store buyers. By his second year in the part-time venture he was chalking up $75,000 in sales – not bad for a $12,000 a year mailroom clerk. Clearly the handwriting was on the wall, and Radko could see a glittering future ahead for his Christmas ornament business – which now enjoys $50 million in annual sales.
Today Radko, who has been dubbed “The Czar of Christmas Present” by The New York Times, headquarters his empire in a 5,000-square-foot showroom whose sumptuous Victorian decor never changes. It’s always Christmas, with an ornament-bedecked, seven-foot tree perennially serving as the focal point. Seven additional showrooms and 70 sales reps throughout the country handle the orders that are dispatched from a 90,000-square-foot warehouse in Elmsford, N.Y.
The company’s manufacturing division remains in Europe. There are over 3,000 artisans in Poland, Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic contributing their talents to Radko’s holiday decorations and ornaments, each of which takes a full seven days to create. Every ornament is mouth-blown and hand-painted, with no shortcuts taken. Because each example is individually detailed, no two are exactly alike.
“There are even specialists who paint only eyelashes or only the seeds on fruit ornaments,” Radko said.
Retaining a hands-on philosophy toward the business that bears his name, Radko still comes up with the initial designs, which are then submitted to carvers who interpret the ideas into clay or plastic. After a three-dimensional sample is approved, a sand-cast “mother” mold is created from molten metal, using a technique that dates back to the Renaissance Period. Various stages of production then ensue, starting with the blowing of glass, tempered for extra strength; the hand-injection of liquid sterling to render luminescence; base-painting; lacquering; application of fine details; and finally, glitter dusting, tagging and packing for shipment.
Those who collect Radko ornaments do so because they appreciate the Old World quality and nostalgia inherent in each piece. Even diehards who draw an uncompromising line in the sand to separate antiques from collectibles find Radko’s range irresistible. The rationale is that there simply is no way to find Nineteenth Century ornaments in any great quantity, no matter how much money a person has to spend, so the next best thing is a Christopher Radko ornament made by skilled European glassblowers using age-old techniques. Radko designs interface seamlessly and beautifully with antique ornaments and, because of their obvious quality, don’t have to “explain” themselves, even to purists.
After all, whatever is good enough for the White House is good enough for most American households. Radko’s artistry has decorated not only parts of the White House during President Clinton’s tenure, but also the Vice President’s Queen Anne-style residence while the Gore family lived there, the Governor’s Mansion in Connecticut, historic Woodlawn Plantation and New York’s Gracie Mansion. Barbra Streisand, Whoopi Goldberg, Elton John and Robert De Niro are just a few of the celebrities known to be avid Radko collectors.
Since issuing his first collection of 65 ornaments in 1986, Christopher Radko has produced over 7,500 designs, carried by some of the country’s most prestigious department stores, including Bloomingdale’s, Neiman-Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. Over the years the range has been expanded beyond standard ornaments to incorporate glass garlands, finials, miniature ornaments and clip-on birds, and most recently, Radko has resurrected the American Post-war Christmas decoration company Shiny-Brite.
Featuring 1940s styles to appeal to the boomer generation, the Shiny-Brite line includes such classics as bubble lights, sparkly plaster-coated snow villages and striped or rippled glass balls in colors evocative of that period. Radko has also ventured into holiday home decor with the newly released Christopher Radko’s Heart of Christmas (Clarkson Potter Publ.), a guide to creating classic holiday looks, whether it’s for a farmhouse in Fairfield County or a penthouse in Manhattan.
Each year since 1993, Radko has created special designs to benefit charities of his choosing, and to date, well over $3 million has been raised. This year’s fundraising ornaments will benefit AIDS, breast cancer and pediatric cancer charities, as well as a Polish orphanage and organizations who work to control America’s pet overpopulation. Like all Radko ornaments, they can be purchased online (www.ChristopherRadko.com) or through any of his retail outlets.
Although they were never intended as “collectibles” per se, Christopher Radko ornaments have attracted a loyal following and can bring prices on the secondary market that rival – even surpass – those of bona fide Christmas antiques. Approximately one-third of Radko’s designs are retired each year, which automatically enhances their collectibility. His “Partridge in a Pear Tree,” for example, originally retailed for $38 and has been known to sell for as much as $1,000 in recent years. There is nothing artificial driving the market, however. Radko retires ornaments only because there is a limited workforce to create his products in the painstaking, old-fashioned way, and they already produce to capacity. If he wishes to introduce new designs, others must go.
Another reason why Radko’s ornaments have proven so popular on the secondary market is that collectors are reluctant to resell them. They choose their purchases emotionally and use them for the purpose for which they were intended: as tree decorations. Once a Radko ornament is bought, it becomes part of a family’s tradition, to be enjoyed year after year, generation after generation. And no one can put a price on that.
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