Discovering the Beauty of Marbles
I’ve been collecting marbles of all things for the last few years and have become somewhat infatuated with them at times. Why marbles? I ask that myself a lot. I guess after seeing so many bottles for so many years, I came across a marble dealer at of all places, a bottle show, and his assortment of marbles caught my eye.
If you thought antique bottles were a tough collectible to get a handle on, try marbles. I have around 20 books on marbles and have read or referred to them hundreds of times. There are so many different types, ages and designs, it’ll make your head spin. But what makes a marble special and what’s the big deal with collecting marbles? We are going to try and break it down into the basic categories and provide different pictures to show you what they look like. Hopefully after checking out this part 1 on handmade marbles, you’ll have a better understanding of what you come across and possibly even think about putting some marbles on your shelf.
Well, to start out with, marbles come in basically two different types, handmade (circa1850-1900) and machine made (circa 1900-present). These dates are fairly generalized as archeologists have found marbles dating back to 6,000 BC. Although some marbles like transitionals can fall between the cracks. Collectors today generally choose either handmade marbles mostly made in Lauscha, Germany or machine made marbles, which were made primarily in the United States. In this first part of the story we will talk about the handmades and will leave the machine made marbles for part 2.
Once you decide on handmade or machine made, you go to the different types of each category. We will be discussing mostly glass marbles in the handmade section. The examples we won’t be discussing but shouldn’t be forgotten are stone marbles, which were made since children could play. You’ve seen them, some are agate, they were a big deal when I was 10, not as big a deal now. As mentioned earlier, pre-Christ examples have been found and also many were made in the 16th Century up into the 20th Century when production methods were improved. Another category outside of glass are the clay and crockery examples which include Bennington examples and just about any type of material you could imagine to make a small sphere for kids to play with. No Play Stations for these young lads. Also worth mentioning are the China marbles, another important category mostly produced in Germany despite the name. Some are very beautiful and highly collectible.
So then you have all the glass handmade marbles of which there are a number of basic categories. These are your various clear glass cane type marbles, which include swirls further divided into solid core, divided core and ribbons, and really just about every combination of colored cut glass cane marbles you can imagine. You also have colored glass cane cut marbles, which include micas, which are single colored glass with tiny bits of silver flakes in the glass. You also have Lutz, which are marbles with a band or evenly covered marble with powdered copper, which glistens in light. Collectors often confuse Lutz marbles with Nicholas Lutz who developed the technique and is best known for his work with the Sandwich Glass Factory; such is not the case. There are also solidly colored swirls and opaques, which include Indians. Submarines are opaque marbles with bands and are also called maglights which can be seen through by holding a light behind them. There are the early handmade Submarines and machine made Submarines. We are only dealing here with the early handmades. Another category of opaque glass marbles are Clambroths. These are a single colored marble with patterned lines circiling the marble. They can come in loads of different colors and color combinations. Sulphides are in a category of their own, you’ve probably seen these clear marbles, usually fairly large with a white figure in the center. Rare examples of sulphides can come in colored glass and can also have colored figures in the center.
Onionskin’s are another very popular area of marble collecting. Onionskin’s can come anywhere from a half-inch to over two inches or more. They come with blotches, cased, single pontil or end of cane or end of day, which means they have one pontil. They come both fauceted and semi-ground or polished pontils. They can have mica flakes mixed in around the surface of the core and can also have lobes or divided or segmented cores. Onionskin marbles are one of the most popular of the handmades simply because of their size and generous choices of colors. When you throw in some mica and great condition you can have a very desirable and valuable marble. Another marble, which is similar to the Onionskin are the Joseph’s Coat. These are also very colorful marbles but unlike Onionskin’s, their cores are more uniform and can contain a plethora of different colors. Most Joseph Coats have the same type of pontil as Onionskin’s but aren’t typically as large. It is thought they were named after the biblical term for the coat Joseph wore. At first you might have some trouble differentiating the Onionskin and Joseph Coat but as you see more of each you’ll easily be able to identify the differences.
Another very early marble are the M.F. Christensen slags, these are generally single colored marbles with a white coloring mixed in. They come in essentially the entire color spectrum and like most of the M.F. Christensen marbles were made starting around 1900. Not many of their marbles are valuable although there are exceptions. These well-known marbles are usually a part of any early collection and although they don’t’ have a lot of value, can be seen in some beautiful colors and complex designs. They are occasionally found with two seams, which is extremely rare. The standard slag has the early 9 pattern at the end of the marble where it was dispensed from the machine. These are not to be confused with the later Christensen marbles made in the 1930’s. M.F. Christensen also made a marble called a brick. They resemble a brick in color and were really meant to resemble agates or a stone marble. They also made a marble called the American carnelian.
The final grouping of handmade marbles are the hand-gathered or transitional marbles, which were either made purely by hand or a combination of hand and machine. Called transitional because of the switch from handmade to machine, these were made using both techniques. Transitionals were made in both Germany and the United States and can be very beautiful and crude early marbles, too. Most transitionals were made in the late 20th Century or later. Some were allegedly made much earlier. There is a fair amount of controversy regarding transitionals but one thing is certain, they are rare and very desired by collectors today. There are basically two types of transitionals, the type with a distinct pontil mark, which was ground on a wheel. There is a very apparent flat mark or fauceted pontil on the end of the marble. They are also called Leighton type after the man who created the machine to produce them. These marbles are very colorful and can sell in the hundreds of dollars. Transitionals also come with a smooth type pontil, which was cut off when in a leathery state and folded into the marble leaving a smooth pontil. Kind of like an ice cream cone, the final drip blending into the ice cream. These are also called Navarre Swirls after the man who developed the technique. The Navarre transitionals are not as colorful and generally come in shades of purple, some green and amber. Both types are identified by a swirl at the end, which resembles the number 9. It is thought that a man named Harvey Leighton had invented the technique and in fact most ground pontil transitionals are called Leighton transitionals. Leightons are usually identified as being a more colorful marble, usually exhibiting egg yolk, oxblood or a deep red, blue and a myriad of patterns. New evidence suggests that these colorful ground pontiled Leightons were also discovered in Lauscha, Germany. It’s pretty clear that depending on who you ask you’re going to get different stories on transitionals. For more information on these fascinating early marbles pick up a couple books.
In all marbles you also have variances within that category. A cased marble is one that has a great deal of clear glass around the colored core. We’ve shown a number of different examples and cased marbles are fairly easily identified by the unevenness of the core. They can be very highly sought after as it shows the somewhat primitive glassblowing techniques of the time. So don’t be surprised if you see a cased Onionskin with mica with numerous colors with one ground pontil. Any combination is possible and as you check more marbles out, you’re likely to see them all. Make sure you pick up a book or two. A couple of favorites are Collecting Antique Marbles by Paul Baumann and Marble Mania by Stanley Block.
What better way to best explain the different types of handmade marbles than to present examples to look at? We have compiled a gallery of pictures, which will attempt to show the different types of handmades. One has to remember that a marble, much like an antique bottle, is valued by a number of factors. First off, the condition of marbles, like bottles is of utmost importance. Collectors are looking for the perfect, never played with examples. Why would a marble that was meant to play with never have seen the grubby hands of a youngster in the dirt? Well basically although marbles were meant to used as a toy, some, like occasional bottles were only brought out once or twice and thrown in a drawer. Others like some of the very large (2”) Onionskin’s or Joseph’s Coat marbles were made by a master glassblower as a gift, something that was too big to play with but rather to be displayed like a paperweight. In fact marble makers sometimes made paperweights. These larger than usual examples are often called “end of day” marbles because they were made at the end of a long day using left-over glass from the regular production. If they have one pontil they are called “end of cane” as they were they final piece of the cane with only the final pontil on one side. Or they could have been made one at a time leaving only the one pontil mark. Others in the middle of the cane had two pontils. Just to confuse you even more, there is some controversy on the term “end of day” or “end of cane.” Either way it means the marble has one pontil.
So getting back to condition, it is very important that it has no nicks, cracks, dings, just like bottles. Also, you want to stay away from polished marbles unless the price is right. They can be worth half of an original marble in fine condition. In addition, the overall beauty of a marble is obviously important. Some marbles are fairly plain and although they might catch your eye, they could be extremely common and have little value. Rarity in design is important. While the Mica marbles, which come in every color of the rainbow are beautiful with silver flakes in the glass glimmering in light, a green or amber one might be fairly common. But you get a red one of any size and the value goes up exponentially. The same goes for swirls; an odd colored or larger than usual example can fetch a much higher price than it’s smaller less complex counterpart. Size is very important; most marbles were made in the 5/8” or 11/16” size, very common, especially in machine made marbles. But when you find one that is say ¾” or what they call shooter size or even larger they can increase in value by a great deal.
Handmade marbles were created by first fashioning a cane or a fairly thick length of glass. The glassblower would first lay out a clear flat and long layer of glass. They would then add thin canes of colored glass depending on what type of marble they were making and place them throughout the surface of the clear base. Then they would roll it up and with a worker on each end, pull the entire cane until they reached an even thickness, depending on what size marble they were making. Then the cane in its still semi-molten state would be cut into pieces. Workmen would then re-heat the soon to be marble until it reached it’s spherical perfection and then either dislodged it from the pontil rod or simply rounded it by hand and swirled in a wooden bucket until round. There were a number of different techniques at different stages of time to produce handmade glass marbles but starting with the glass cane was the first step in the production of all handmade cane cut glass marbles.
In deciding what you like in marbles, you simply need to see what catches your fancy. Basically there’s handmade, machine made and once you get past that, the categories become much easier to understand and collect. But be careful, as in bottles we all know that although we loved inkwells at one time we can still fall in love with bitters bottles, too. It’s the same with marbles. Handmades are an example of what a craftsman can do with very little in the way of production technology. It’s amazing to see marbles made today look very much like the same style produced 150 years earlier using much more modern equipment. To think that with the tools they had early on that they could produce immensely beautiful examples of art with only the simplest of tools is amazing. There’s something special about owning an antique marble versus a machine made example produced in the United States in the 1930’s, almost a hundred years later. To each his own and once you see what is out there, you’ll be searching stores, malls and shows to find that perfect example of an antique marble made by master glass blower. No two are alike, they all seem to exhibit perfection in their crudely beautiful designs.
Ultimately the question of what marbles are worth will come up. Myself, I don’t deal per se in marbles; I collect and keep them. On occasion I might trade or sell a marble but generally just about everything I have I plan on keeping. So when I’m buying marbles I’m pretty much paying retail or trying to get a good deal. I will on occasion pay more than I want to but know that when I find the perfect combination of condition, rarity and beauty, you can’t lose. My mother always said that. You can buy marbles on Ebay, marbles and bottle shows and on different websites. Just Google marbles and there will be a lot to check out. Some marble auctions like Morphy and Block Auctions offer some great pieces.
So what about the values? Well, I’ve purchased marbles from everywhere from a buck to thousands of dollars. You get a pretty good bottle for a few hundred, but you get a great marble for that much. You can get a great marble for $1200 like I just did, buying a machine made marble called a Golden Rebel in a rare large size and perfect condition. That’s about double of what the usually sell for but I’ve only seen one other that nice and I own that one, too. The main thing you are looking for when determining buying a marble is first, the condition, second rarity and size, and thirdly the marble itself. Some marbles have pretty much set prices. A 2” Sulphide marble in really good condition with an average looking figure sells in the $250 range. That changes like bottles on the size, condition and placement of the figure and overall beauty of the marble. So there are some marbles that have pretty standard prices, especially with machine made marbles. With handmades size is very, very important. You can have a ¾” red latticino in perfect condition (graded on a 1-10 scale) grading a 9.9 and ask $250. If you get that same marble in a 1 ¾” size, you’re looking at $800. Same with Onionskin’s, basically all of the handmade marbles are strongly affected in value by their size and condition. They are older marbles, they tended to get dinged up, after 150 or so years versus around 80 years with machine made, condition is very important and it’s rare to find a perfect handmade marble. If you collect them you have to expect some typical wear and a ding or two. The addition of mica or tiny silver specs on the outer core of a marble can bring the value up, also. Unused handmade marbles in a rare pattern or size are highly sought after and can bring a lot of money. The most ever paid for a marble was $28,000 at auction. That was through Morphy’s Auctions in Pennsylvania and not too long ago. It was a beautiful split ribbon glass swirl that just had it all. Another very rare opaque purple banded Lutz, similar to what we show but with a purple or lavender core sold for $17,000. So it’s not uncommon for the best of the best to reach the tens of thousands of dollars and I think since it’s a fairly new hobby in terms of audience participation, it has the potential to grow. A few different groupings of marbles called Guineas, machine made marbles by Christensen, have also surfaced in the last few years and have topped the $15,000 mark.
In marbles it’s not that unusual to have a one-of-a-kind marble. Take a look at some of the examples shown here. It’s not too hard to believe that through either a mistake or just a glassblowers ingenuity that a one-off type marble was made. In the gallery section of pictures, we show for example, a single ribbon that is split in half. How did that happen? It’s the only example I’ve seen; in fact it’s the only example that anyone’s seen. How do you value it? Well you have to remember that like bottles, there are a lot of one known examples. So when one turns up, it’s not like you’ve found the Holy Grail. You’ve found one of a very rare group of rare things. I believe I paid $500 or so for the split ribbon, it’s rare but so are other things and that’s a fair price for a pretty good condition extremely rare marble in a decent size, one inch. Another way to value it is to think of something else you’ve paid $500 for and determine whether or not it’s as attractive as other pieces you’ve paid that much for.
So read books, check out auctions, go on Ebay and go after the best. To start out with there’s nothing wrong with buying a jar full of marbles and sorting through them, you can find them on Ebay and sometimes you can get a good deal. The auction houses sell groupings of marbles and people will buy the group just to get that one particular marble they need to fill their collection. The people selling them usually don’t know what they have and people are hesitant to buy a jar full of hope. I’ve purchased a number of jars of marbles in my early collecting days and if it doesn’t make you an instant tycoon it will at least make you a much more savvy collector in identifying all those marbles. And go to marble shows. The best way to learn about marbles is to see them. We will try and give you information on where marble shows are being held, they are a lot of fun and you’ll learn a lot. The folks are friendly and you might find something really special.
So here we go, check out the gallery and see what looks good. We have a lot of different marble pictures and we will try and show you at least one of each type. Also check out our marble photo gallery. Lots of everything to see. Good luck!
By Jeff Wichmann