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Steward of Christmas past

LIFESTYLE | Swiss ornament dealer’s love of vintage ornaments earns him local acclaim

Photo by Jenny Lind Schmitt

Steward of Christmas past
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In a barn hayloft softly lit with twinkle lights and arrayed with baskets and boxes of every size, Didier Oeuvray invites a visitor into a glimmering Christmas collection. Inside a glass-fronted ­cupboard, carefully arranged, are Christmas ornaments made by art nouveau craftsmen in Nancy, France, in the 1920s. Oeuvray pulls out a box containing a tiny glass stork made to clip onto a tree, with white glass feathers and a long orange glass beak.

“Magnificent,” he says simply.

The stork is one of thousands of vintage Christmas ornaments and balls that Oeuvray has collected over the years. They are arranged neatly in white cardboard boxes and displayed on every surface—on the seats of period couches, in wardrobes, and piled high in an antique sleigh. Their metallic surfaces catch the light, twinkling and shining. The room is organized by color: Red balls are displayed on one side of the room, green ones line up on a green sofa, and white ones grace a white bookcase.

Oeuvray credits Christmas ornaments for leading him to his current profession. Years ago he wanted a ­festive atmosphere without the tree, so on a whim, he brought out some of his family’s heirloom glass ornaments. Struck by their beauty, he began buying all the vintage ornaments he could find. When word got out, people started bringing him old ornaments they didn’t want. By 2012 he’d collected hundreds and decided to open his barn for a Christmas open house, inviting the neighbors in his village of Coeuve, Switzerland, to see his collection. Hundreds of visitors came from his village, then from the surrounding villages, and news spread about his distinctive hobby.

Then, at age 45, after working for the Swiss railway for nearly 30 years, Oeuvray had a massive stroke that left him unable to walk or swallow. Months of rehab enabled him to return to work, but his brush with death made him realize there were still other things he wanted to do with his life. The success of his Christmas ornament show prompted the idea of making a profession out of what he loved most—collecting and caring for the historic objects others throw away.

Oeuvray doesn’t know exactly how many ornaments he has. He doesn’t care. He’s more interested in their creation and the history behind them. Legend tells that one year, after a bad harvest, a poor German glassmaker who had no fruit and nuts to hang on his Christmas tree made glass ones instead. The idea caught on, and an industry was born.

For the oldest ornaments, made in Germany in 1880, artisans used mercury inside the glass balls to make them appear silvery. During World War I, when metals were scarce, ornament makers glued crushed fish scales to the balls to make them glimmer and shine. Concave ornaments were a serendipitous invention: When one ball was squished by accident and cooled that way, the artisans realized its odd shape created more surface to catch the light.

In 2014, when the owner of a local antique and vintage shop told him she was selling her business, Oeuvray gathered his life savings and took the plunge. Now, every Christmas season, Oeuvray takes some of his ornaments to his shop to sell to customers seeking vintage decorations, unique gifts, or simply reminders of Christmases past.

But his favorite pieces, like the white stork, stay here in his barn—to share the joy of Christmas with others for free.

Jenny Lind Schmitt

Jenny is WORLD’s global desk chief and European reporter. She is a World Journalism Institute and Smith College graduate. She is the author of the novel Mountains of Manhattan and resides in Porrentruy, Switzerland, with her family.



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