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The Man Who Makes Baubles for the Pope

JohannWannerBauble003 blue bauble

Switzerland

Weinachtsbaumschmuckausstattungsgeschäft. At 40 letters long, Weinachtsbaumschmuckausstattungsgeschäft’s the longest word there is, at least on the snowy-sweet streets of Basel. And while pharmaceutical powerhouses steam away on the outskirts, here in the Old Town, alchemy takes on a more festive form.

For Weinachtsbaumschmuckausstattungsgeschäft translates to mean “Christmas Tree Ornaments & Amenities” and it’s the home of one of the most famous Christmas bauble makers in the world: Johann Wanner.

“Designers may dress women,” he tells me. “I dress trees.”

Johann Wanner

Dressing Trees

Wanner himself stands immaculately dressed in a waistcoat, jacket and tie, surrounded by baskets of baubles, flaxen-haired cherubs and dripping twinkling lights. Passers by recognise him as we walk through the streets and he’s frequently stopped and asked for advice.

Inside his shop, I look at the baubles. Giant ones hang from the ceiling like overweight balloons. Tiny ones snuggle together like beads from a 1920s necklace. The baubles are purple and green. Blue and deep red and frosted with glitter. They come as spheres, teardrops and even what looks like a scooped-out soap dish.

“That’s the traditional shape,” says Wanner, following my eye. “And they’re all handmade, each and every one. From glass in a mould or by blowing them until they reach that shape.”

Union Jack BaubleI take one in my hand. It feels so light, so fragile. So perfect. It’s hard to believe someone just huffed and puffed and created this. And so nerve wracking to realise how much it would cost if I dropped it.

Wanner’s favourite is the black one.

“You are not distracted by the colour,” he says. “You just see the reflection of the lights.”

Towards the back of the shop, he introduces me to the one he thinks I’ll like the most: a bauble that represents the Union Jack.

“These have been very popular this year,” he tells me as proof that the Olympic phenomenon really does spread far and wide.

In general, says Wanner, Brits choose cherry reds and deep pine greens, while the French have a penchant for blue. He declines to discuss the tastes of his most renowned customers: the Pope, the White House and the crowd at Buck Pal.

But will he let me ask him about his own preference for baubles?

“At home, I decorate my own tree,” he says. “Even though I am married, this I must do by myself.

And does he follow the fashions? The trends he sets for the rest of the world at large?

“Not myself,” he says with a twinkle in his own eye. “Here I work with the season’s colours. At home, I unpack  – with care – each year the memories I have gathered in my life.”

Now he smiles. “It is very different, my tree at home.”

It’s the answer that resonates the most with me. However beautiful and coordinated a place, tree or person can look, I always prefer the footprint of personality and the mark of a life lived well.

How about you? How do you decorate your Christmas tree?

(Or, you know, culturally relevant festive decoration.)

Disclosure: I visited Basel thanks to Basel Tourism and InterRail.

 

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6 Responses to The Man Who Makes Baubles for the Pope

  1. Kirstie December 7, 2012 at 8:41 pm #

    I like to think of The Pope having a tree decorated in Union Jacks. Have you tweeted him to ask what he uses? Perhaps The Queen could reciprocate by having hers decorated in Pope Baubles. I’ll be thinking about all that tomorrow as we have our annual row about tangled fairy lights.

    • Abi December 11, 2012 at 1:48 pm #

      I’ll be thinking about that now when I decorate my tree! Cheers for the chuckle. Still smiling at the mental image ;-)

  2. Gayla~ December 9, 2012 at 11:54 am #

    I’m fascinated by the craftmanship that goes into making any tree ornaments, be they glass, wood, or stitched fabric or even tattined thread. All are so beautiful, but that simple and elegant black glass ball ornament is extraordinary. When I decorate my own holiday tree, I put up my collection of German wood ornaments, sometimes adding the few felt ornaments I’ve kept from my childhood which are characters from the 12 Days of Christmas. I’m also fond of crocheted snowflakes my brother makes. Beautiful and special…
    Great article, Abi!

    • Abi December 11, 2012 at 1:51 pm #

      That sounds fantastic – particularly if you have a few things still from your childhood. I love the intricate wooden carvings you can find in Germany and Switzerland…and candy canes (even though they always seem to fall off!)

  3. Sofie December 10, 2012 at 3:40 pm #

    Boyfriend and I live in an appartement and we just put up this tiny, fake (but grat, not plastic looking!) tree with tiny baubles in it. We use red, white and silver as those colours go with the res tof our appartement and I think red is the Christmas colour. We also hang baubles on several other places in our appartement. Actually, anywhere we can:D

    • Abi December 11, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

      Sounds very festive. I might pinch the idea of hanging baubles elsewhere as well! Cheers.

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