The king of luxury Christmas ornaments has returned

by Roxanne Roberts of The Washington Post

The Ornament King
Christopher Radko is back in the ornament business — although you probably didn’t realize he ever left.

Dubbed the “Czar of the Christmas Present” by the New York Times, Radko became a household name in the 1990s for his exquisite, handblown glass ornaments — a throwback to the vintage pieces created in Europe a century earlier. His pieces took traditional themes and gave them an elegant twist: Heavy glass, rich colors, detailed characters, glamorous embellishments and modern touches that stood out from mass-produced spheres and kitsch. They were expensive ($50 and more) and sold at 3,000 upscale department stores and boutiques. Celebrities (Oprah Winfrey, Elton John, Barbra Streisand) raved about them; he decorated the Red and Green rooms for the White House holidays in 1996. In the billion-dollar Christmas industry, Radko was a shimmering, undisputed star.

It was too much, too fast. He sold the business and his brand name in 2005, in a deal that included a noncompete clause that lasted until 2021. Now, at age 63, he’s back with a new, small company called Heartfully Yours™, adding another a new chapter to the convoluted Radko legacy.

“I was thinking, ‘Well, what am I going to do the rest of my life?’” he said last week. “People tell me all the time, ‘Christopher, you have no idea. Your ornaments mean so much to my family, to my mother, to my grandmother. People tell me what a heartfelt connection they had with the ornaments, and I care a lot about making a difference.”

The new company looks a lot like the old company: Beautiful glass and hand-painted ornaments that have the Radko touch but not the Radko name. That belongs to holiday decor company Rauch, which has sold a line of Radko ornaments for the past 18 years. Which is not to be confused with the robust collector’s market, where Radko designs can go for hundreds of dollars — eBay alone has more than 33,000 listings.

The question, then and now, is whether anyone needs a $50 ornament. The rational answer is unequivocally no, but Christmas has never been about common sense or restraint. It’s about sentiment and nostalgia, generosity and glitter, a touch of magic in a mundane world. A cherished ornament — from the Popsicle stick frame made in kindergarten to the gold-plated showstopper — becomes part of the ongoing holiday tradition, carefully stored away and then rediscovered every year as it is unpacked and hung on the tree.

Radko’s origin story started with all the ornaments collected by his family over the years, including many by his grandmother. “She was born in 1900, so she could point to each ornament: ‘This is when I was 5 years old, this is when your mom was born in 1927.’ The whole tree was like a family diary.”

He bought what turned out to be a faulty tree stand, causing the tree to fall over, breaking the ornaments and his grandmother’s heart. During a trip to Poland, the recent college graduate tried to assuage his guilt by bringing back a few handmade replacement pieces.

That quickly ballooned into an improbable success story, with Radko creating the whimsical designs, and craftsmen in Poland, Germany and Italy bringing them to life. The native New Yorker founded his company in 1985 and found an enthusiastic audience among the city’s shops and celebrities. Soon Radko ornaments were all the rage; Tipper Gore, as huge fan, asked him to decorate the veep’s residence.

By the 2000s, the company was a $65 million business and Radko was traveling eight months a year. An entrepreneur more than a numbers guy, the exhausted and stressed Radko found himself clashing with his own executives. In 2005, he sold his brand and walked away, eventually settling into the small town of Garrison, N.Y.

He led tours to European holiday markets and then became a lavender farmer, which was the most relaxing profession he could think of. But the Christmas itch was still there. By 2021, when the noncompete clause expired, he decided he wanted back in. For the past two years, Radko and Rauch has been in court battling over whether he can use his name in any capacity when it comes to Christmas decor. A judge temporarily ruled that he can be identified as the artist, but the new ornaments cannot bear the Radko name. (Radko’s attorney says both sides are very close to a settlement; Rauch did not respond to requests for comment.)

In an effort to keep life more manageable, Radko’s new line is limited editions of 50 to 200 ornaments produced in Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic and Italy. The designs range from $60 to $120 each; and he’s only selling online and at a few small boutiques. He estimates he will sell a maximum of 100,000 ornaments per year, a tiny fraction of all the ornaments adorning the 50 million American trees erected this season.

Radko would not reveal his sales since Heartfully Yours launched last year, but said he sold more than $1 million in ornaments at his first trade show in January 2022. And he’s already got a new generation of celebrities: Kylie Jenner and Adele are fans of his work, Radko said.

Ann Free has about 600 Radko ornaments — she’s lost count, but has been a serious collector for decades, spending hours and hundreds on eBay sourcing rare offerings. This year she’s moving from Washington to Nashville and not putting up her tree, but she bought some of Radko’s new line to give to friends. In the gift note, she wrote: “Now you can become part of the magnificent obsession.”

She loves his colors, his humor, the throwback to old European ornaments, with detailed faces, gold wire and other vintage touches. An otherwise pragmatic and no-frills person, her collection triggers a flood of Christmas memories. “Your childhood comes out,” she said.

St. Nick’s Christmas and Collectibles in Littleton, Colo., carries a number of vintage and retired Radko designs purchased from a collector (they sell from $40 to $200), the current Radko brand ornaments produced by Rauch and the Heartfully Yours line.

“A lot of people buy all of it,” said owner Sue Sealy, who has run the family business for 47 years. “I’m happy he’s back because he’s so creative and talented.” What sets Radko apart, she said, is the craftsmanship, the playfulness and a special fine glitter typically found on old European ornaments: “Now, the glitter is awesome,” she said.

Her customers range from longtime collectors to younger buyers, and surprisingly none are balking at the prices.

It’s all relative, Radko said. “For $60 or $70, you can probably get a really good bottle of wine if you’re going to someone’s house as a gift. But they’re just not going to remember who gave it. They’ll just have the hangover the next day, and who needs that? But with the ornament, they’ll think of you every single year for decades to come.”

His Christmas wish? A future where he’s long gone but his work is still remembered: “When people are living on Mars or wherever, they’ll take out their holiday ornaments and they’ll say, ‘My great-grandmother back on Earth bought this ornament by this guy named Christopher Radko.’”

Thomas Glenn Holidays Collection 2021

It’s mid-January and that means it is once again time for holiday designers to debut collections for 2021. Yes, Christmas is still a recent memory but designers must work a year in advance to be ready to supply holiday styles for for the 2021 season. We debuted this video last night on our Celebrate365 Facebook page. It’s a wonderful way to see the Thomas Glenn showroom in Atlanta as well as get a quick glimpse of what is in store for us in the coming year.

Benita & Brenna will be visiting the Thomas Glenn showroom to get some better photos of the ornaments. But we also need your help! We had a narrow window in which to make decisions and place orders that won’t even be delivered until the fall months. It is a daunting task to predict what collectors might want. You can help.

If there are any that you would like to see a bit better, just comment below. That will help us make decisions this week. And, if you are are on Facebook but haven’t visited and “liked” the Celebrate365 store page, you are missing out on the most up-to-date information. It’s worth a visit!

And, now … presenting: Thomas Glenn Holidays 2021!

Celebrate365 Annual Gathering

Sunday afternoon we caught MARTA back to the home of Margaret & Mark Feit, who not only graciously let me stay the weekend with them but also extended their warm generosity to host Connie’s Celebrate365 Gathering.

Mark and Benita were busy in the kitchen all day while Connie and I were at Market. Everything was prepped, organized and ready to go when we got back. I stationed myself in the kitchen to help where ever I was needed. I did try to grab a few pictures before everyone started arriving and then a few while everyone had settled in to eat. Both times, I forgot to take pictures in the same room. I hope Mark forgives me for not getting pictures of his sports display.

When Connie has a few “spare” minutes, I’ll have her help me label these pictures.

Even though I didn’t get to spend time with each and everyone there, I still had a wonderful time.

This has been the third of three guest posts by Leslie Kirk. Thanks Connie for everything.

Sunday – Another Day With Connie

On Sunday, we road MARTA in to AmericasMart Atlanta. It was a tad bit chilly outside waiting for the train but it was a lot better than trying to deal with icy roads and trying to find parking. Benita stayed back with our hosts Mark & Margaret Feit to help prepare for the annual Celebrate365 reception that would be held in their beautiful home later that evening.

Our first stop was in the West Wing Gourmet temporaries. Connie looked for a cup of coffee and I found sipping chocolate. Wow, is that stuff rich! Next stop was the High Design temporaries, Connie was gathering ideas and also stopped off at Glory B Hats. She found out that they were doing another give away, so we headed off to get our free hats.

With hats on head, we were off to JingleNog – Connie had work to do there.

Connie had to finish up at Thomas Glenn, so off we went. I left her to finish up her work there to grab a cup of coffee. While waiting in line for my coffee I was inundated with questions about the hat I was wearing. Since I had become a walking display for Glory B Hats, I figured I should at least be able to give people a bit more info about them, so I headed off to their display to see if I could grab a few business cards to hand out.

After we finished up at Thomas Glenn, we grabbed a bite to eat in the Press Room, then headed off to the Eric Cortina showroom. I could not take my eyes off the Christmas Candy ornament – a clear glass apothecary jar filled with blown glass candy – amazing!

Next stop – Klassics By Kurtis where we got a peek at the tribute piece to the “Gloved One” – a glove covered in silver sequins and a “Big Boy” ornament that sparked a conversation into the history of the “Big Boy” restaurants.

Off to Inge-Glas, where we got the complete tour of the showroom. Look at those chocolates – good enough to eat! Continuing on to see the amazing artisanship and detail, but I don’t want to spoil anything that Connie will be writing about her visit to their showroom.

It was time for us to gather up our belonging and head to the MARTA station because their was still a party to throw that evening.

This has been the second of three guest posts by Leslie Kirk.

A Day With Connie

While driving over to Atlanta Saturday morning to meet up with Connie and her sister Benita of Willow Springs … a family farm at AmerciasMart Atlanta an idea came to me. We all enjoy the beautiful publication Celebrate365 that Connie creates for us, so I thought a behind the scenes look at what goes on would be fun to share.

The day started off with me arriving in Atlanta around 10am, trying to find a “reasonably” priced place to park near the AmericasMart -Atlanta $25 a day to park in the garage was a bit too steep in my book. I did find a place a few blocks away. Walking in the bitter cold back to the Gift Mart had me rethinking the value of the parking deck. After meeting up with Connie & Benita, Connie took me to get my badge “that must be displayed at all times”.

Elaine Roesle graciously let us store our coats and excess “baggage” in her showroom closet. When Elaine was not busy talking with buyers, you could watch the great care that is taken with each individual piece in action. I was also introduced to Luca Terruzzi of Soffieria De Carlini Italian Ornaments.

Benita and I wandered off to attend the keynote address by Erik Qualman, author of Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business. The session was a very informative reminder as to why we need to be using blogs, Facebook and Twitter. After that we met back up with Connie on the 20th Floor. Then we headed to the Press Room for credentialed media types like ourselves and had a nice lunch.

We stopped off for a few minutes to chat with Debbee Thibault and she showed off some of her beautiful work to us. We then headed over to see the JingleNog and Thomas Glenn displays. Connie had quite a bit of work to do at the Thomas Glenn booth. Since  photographing and measuring every ornament would be time consuming, I wandered off to see other parts of the Gift Mart.

More treats were in store for us this evening as we made our way back to the 20th Floor to attend Halloween Carnevil – a whimsical little Halloween party that included a meet & greet with the artists along with a signing event.

What a wonderful surprise it was for me to see old friends again – Glenn Lewis and Debi Thomas of Traditions. This year I had the pleasure of meeting Debi’s mother. The last time I saw Glenn or Debi was in 2001.

We left the Gift Mart around 8pm, wrapping up glitter jam packed day. This is only one of eight days that Connie will spend gathering information for all of us to ahhhh and ohhhh over.

This has been the first of three guest posts by Leslie Kirk.