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CHRISTMAS ORNAMENTS TURN INTO COLLECTIBLES : KEEPSAKE TRINKETS INCREASE IN VALUE.

Byline: Steve Everly Kansas City Star

For Nicki Pierce, it began simply enough 15 years ago.

She bought some Keepsake ornaments to decorate her Christmas tree. The next year she bought a few more of the ornaments made by Hallmark Cards. Now it's a family tradition.

She buys them because she likes the way they look. But to her surprise she has found that they're now worth more than she paid for them.

``My children and I would select a few each year, never dreaming they would increase in value over time,'' said Pierce, who lives in the Kansas City area.

Christmas ornaments are becoming one of the hottest collectibles in the country. Annual ornament sales are up to $2.4 billion.

In just one year - from 1994 to 1995 - sales increased 40 percent, fueled by the rise of collectible ornaments such as the Keepsake line. An estimated 22 million people collect ornaments, according to Unity Marketing, a Stevens, Pa., research company serving the collectibles and gift-ware industries.

The acknowledged leader in sales of collectible ornaments is Hallmark. The privately owned company doesn't release sales figures for the Keepsake line, but it says they are second only to greeting cards.

Also part of the trend is a host of competitors, including several that are bringing back a style of ornaments once popular in this country but not widely available since the 1950s.

These ornaments, as whimsical as slices of watermelon and spacemen on rockets, are creating their own fans.

``This is what people are getting back to,'' said Edward Straley, co-owner of the Everyday's a Holiday shop at Crown Center in Kansas City.

The growth has surprised just about everyone. But most point to 1973 as the year when the seeds of the resurgence were planted. That year Hallmark introduced its first Keepsake ornaments.

In the beginning, the Keepsake line was meager: six glass ornaments and a dozen made out of yarn. At the time they were considered part of a broader effort to introduce a line of Christmas decorations.

``We had no idea what we were getting started,'' said Linda Fewell, a Hallmark spokeswoman.

In fact, growth in the first few years was respectable but not spectacular. But in the mid-'80s, the ornaments began to be noticed by collectors, and sales took off.

Today, the National Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments Collectors Club has 300 local chapters.

Now, 23 Hallmark artists design Keepsake ornaments. About 60 percent of the line sells for under $10, although some, such as an ornament with Santa Claus in a fire truck, go for more than $40.

Each year a new batch of 200 styles of ornaments is offered. Licensed figures, such as Ziggy and Winnie the Pooh, are big sellers. Sports figures, such as Nolan Ryan and Joe Montana, are popular. Series of ornaments issued over several years, such as different styles of rocking horses, also are hits.

Those are some of the specifics of the business, but they don't begin to describe the fervor around the ornaments.

Each year's Keepsake ornaments officially debut the last weekend of July. But collectors begin asking about them earlier. Ferrel's Hallmark Shops, for example, sends order forms in April to a list of 30,000 customers.

``It's a big part of our business,'' said Wynn Ferrel, president of Ferrel's.

Even spring isn't early enough for many customers. In February retailers are invited to a preview of the upcoming Keepsake line. Word soon leaks through a cottage industry of newsletters, magazines and hot lines around the country.

For example, Rosie Wells Enterprises in Canton, Ill., publishes price guidebooks, a magazine and a newsletter. It even has a 900 telephone number for weekly updates.

This interest hasn't gone unnoticed, and other makers of collectible ornaments also have seen their businesses grow.

Manufacturers of collectible ornaments say nostalgia is a big factor in the growth of the business. Indeed, they urge customers to buy ornaments for those reasons instead of as investments.

However, a large secondary market has grown that trades the ornaments. A 1981 Rocking Horse in the Keepsake line goes for about $550, although subsequent years in the series go for less. A 1987 model resells for $38 to $60. A new '96 horse goes for $10.95, its initial retail price.
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:BUSINESS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 26, 1996
Words:713
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