If you remember reading “It’s no secret that styles, techniques and technology advance as the years go on. But I had NO IDEA what wonderful history I was about to unveil as I sought out the expertise of our ornament designers to help me put together this [Annual Ornament Designs] post. My mind is still whirling.” Then you may have been waiting for this very post – a nostalgic look Bronner’s exclusive ornament history and design process through the years!
And if you’ve been following Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland for any time, you likely know that what is now known as the “World’s Largest Christmas Store” actually started off as a sign painting and window trimming business back in 1945! It was while originator Wally Bronner was window trimming in Bay City that destiny would have him colliding in to the world of creating custom Christmas decorations! (If you’re new around here, welcome! You can catch up and learn a bit more about the humble beginnings of Bronner’s here!)
Creating thousands of unique, one-of-a-kind Christmas decorations is something Bronner’s has been doing for many decades now thanks in part to ornament artist Connie Larsen, who joined the team in 1972. Her energy while sharing memories from Bronner’s exclusive ornament history in those early days was electrifying. As a result, I was inspired to share it with you here!
While looking at vintage Christmas ornaments most people will see one of two things:
(A.) cool stuff … history – or –
(B.) something “simple and old” … outdated.
But in coming to understand the process of creation while discovering Bronner’s exclusive ornament history, I’m convinced even “B-types” will find a new appreciation for these nostalgic relics!
Connie had first taken me to the ornament sample room back in 2017 and I was immediately and completely enthralled with what hung before my eyes! In the 10+ years I’d been with Bronner’s, I had no idea something so magnificent existed. That room felt like more of a time-capsule, displaying the evolution of Bronner’s exclusive ornament designs all the way back to the early 70s. I was intrigued to see designs that have stood the test of time, some offered still today, and other style trends staging their comeback.
I wouldn’t have even known where to start, there were so many ornaments! But that was the beauty of having Connie walk me through this ornament archive. To her, these are more than just “old ornaments” hanging on hooks – each design that she helped to create was an investment of herself, her time, her talent. Each ornament has meaning and memories. She would light up with each ornament she chose as she shared its history with me.
BRONNER’S EXCLUSIVE ORNAMENT HISTORY – THE START
We started with what may seem a simple design by today’s standard – ice-crackled ornaments with titles printed on them, “Mom,” “Dad,” “Grandma,” “Grandpa” etc. (These were from the early 70s.) But these were actually produced through an intricate process from original hand lettered art in a time before the ease of digital hand-lettering and printing we experience today. This is where Connie gave me an introduction to former staff member, fellow artist and friend, Frank Fulco.
Connie explains of the process, “Frank would letter in black paint on cardstock [see image for some of Frank’s original lettering]. Using our process camera we would create a film positive which would be sent to Austria (at the time.) They would make a screen with the image on the film. This was typical of the screenprint process. (Where film positive is mounted on emulsion-coated screen, exposed to ultraviolet light. Areas where the film is dark protect the emulsion from hardening and it is power-washed away, leaving a screen to imprint the ornament on a machine with a squeegee.”
“This is me in the darkroom at the back of the camera where the film is positioned for exposure, sometime around 1975. The picture in the middle is also in the darkroom processing a film positive. And the far right are [in-factory] ornament screens [used to transfer the design on to the ornament].” Connie explained further.
DID YOU KNOW: Bronner’s hand-painted personalized ornaments are still done in the original hand-lettering style, similar to Frank’s early designs?!
BRONNER’S EXCLUSIVE COLLECTION GROWS
Connie had also shown me a few other collections. Including a cross stitch set based on sewing patterns she had created for a publication and a Santa series. These are where I caught a glimpse of another way ornaments were produced. Line art would be printed on to the bulbs, much like the hand-lettered name ornaments were printed, but then European artists would hand-paint the color into each design! Looking more closely at others, I was intrigued to notice the pinstriping also done by hand on additional designs. Knowing that these vintage Christmas ornaments are each hand-painted, how can one not appreciate the craftsmanship in that?!
Thanks to Wally’s affinity for taking photos and documenting things, we have the privilege of getting to see the relationships he developed with many European producers and painters who brought these early designs to life through images like this:
BRONNER’S EXCLUSIVE ORNAMENT HISTORY – THE BIRTH OF CHRIST SERIES
Connie also showed me one of her prized collections, “The Birth of Christ” series. The amount of detail in each of the 8 ornaments in this set, really gives the sense that it was a labor of love. It wasn’t until later that I learned just how much!
This beautiful “Birth Of Christ” ornament series was slowly released. In fact, just one ornament a year from the mid-80s to the early-90s! Much like many of Bronner’s exclusive designs, Connie would start with a sketch. Once she had the details finalized she would turn them in to ink drawings to be photographed, screened and then printed on the ornaments. Though the series was sold as line art, there are a few surviving (private) collections that had been hand-painted.
TIME TO PLAN & DESIGN BRONNER’S EXCLUSIVE ORNAMENTS
Nowadays it’s nothing to send a message across the world and hear right back! And even still, the exclusive ornament process takes some time. First, our design committee must sort through ideas and demand for new products. Then comes the design process. Once a design is approved, our manufacturers produce samples. Which, once the sample is finalized, it is then produced.
I found it fascinating to read in a March 5, 1975 article form the Frankenmuth News, that Wally Bronner was quoted as having said “We program about 1½ to 2 years ahead of the actual Christmas season.”
Shannon McGinnis, another talented Bronner’s ornament artist estimates that time now to be as little as 6 weeks to a couple of months on our exclusive round designs. Since those early days, Bronner’s now also offers a variety of formed glass or resin exclusive designs; these traditionally take a little longer according to Shannon, roughly “5-6 months from start to finish.”
Ornaments are now printed through a variety of applications thanks to technological advancement. Shannon shared that in one process, called pad printing, the design area is limited to a 3 inch circle.
For ornaments that are still screen printed, “we try to limit it to 2 colors since getting the screens to line up around the bulb can be tricky.” But this method allows for a larger print area.
Because printing capabilities have evolved so much, color no longer needs to be applied by hand. But there are still ornament collections at Bronner’s that are done this way with glitter! Our glass penguin family ornaments and glass snowman family ornaments are a perfect example. “The black on the snowmen and penguins is screened on. Then the colored glitter is all applied by hand,” explained Shannon.
TRENDS MAKING A COMEBACK
“What goes around comes around.” … “What’s old is new.” The old adage is definitely true!
In recent years I’ve seen the magic of ice crackle ornaments returning. But there was one style that had surprised me when looking through the ornament room! What I had perceived to be a “new” ornament style making its appearance in Bronner’s store, was actually inspired by ornaments from Bronner’s early years: ornaments filled with angel hair.
DIY ANGEL HAIR CHRISTMAS ORNAMENT
You can easily create some of these vintage styled ornaments on your own! All you need are a box set of clear ornaments (available in two sizes) and some angel hair tinsel strands using this short video tutorial:
STANDING THE TEST OF TIME
If you loved this post, you’ll love finding (or reading) about many of Bronner’s artifacts in this Scavenger Hunt!