Copper in the Arts

December 2008

Copper Holiday Ornaments: Reflecting the Warmth of the Season

By Donna Dvorak

Reindeer Copper reindeer ornament by Robyn Downey

Photograph courtesy of Robyn Downey

With its natural, shining beauty reflected off the seasonal lights, it's no wonder many of today's leading artists are turning to copper to add a touch of elegance this holiday.

Robyn Downey, known as The Copper Lady, has created Christmas ornaments since 1975. Her custom-made ornaments crafted of pure copper wire depict choral angels, sun, reindeer, buffalo and other whimsical characters that continue to delight her customers here and abroad. Every ornament bears her signature, and Downey takes great pride in each individual work of art.

"I used to do stained glass and was self-taught until I apprenticed with a copper artisan approximately 23 years ago," she says. "I live in Bisbee, a small mining town. When we first moved here it was almost a ghost town because the mine closed, so, like others, I had to create my own job---It was a natural progression to delve into copper. I learned by creating copper Christmas tree ornaments before moving on to larger pieces. But, my ornaments are my number one seller."

Downey has an actual brick and mortar shop on Main Street, but also a large customer base from her website. Her creations are mostly chosen by personal requests and commissions.

Angel Ornament Copper angel ornament by Doreen Korman

Photograph courtesy of Doreen Korman

"Because we live in the Southwest our cactus, Celtic Cross, pony and howling coyote are always in demand," she explains. "But, my traditional collection includes an angel, star, three different types of crosses, the sun, dragonfly, butterfly, bear, turtle, chili pepper, hummingbird and cowboy boot. My copper is purchased from a couple of companies in Southern California. I buy 50 pound coil copper for the ornaments, then mark out the pattern and cut it with an oxyacetylene torch so each one is individually hand-cut."

According to Downey, it takes a steady hand and each piece takes eight or ten processes. She first marks then cuts the copper, cleans it and scores it with her specialized tools.

"I even mix up the verdigris chemical solution without acid," she continues, explaining that the chemicals basically prematurely age the copper. "Or, I color it with the heat of my torch, so that's two different processes. The browns and rainbow colors are also developed with the torch and then I apply a clear spray paint. My hooks are also copper wire."

The Copper Shop, LLC also has a selection of copper clocks, wall vases, and twenty-four inch shields with Native American designs of copper feathers and leather hangers. Downy also creates copper birds, lampshades, hanging pendant lights, and hundreds of copper items, all great for gift giving.

Suncatcher Handworked copper wire ornament surrounding a bezel set piece of lavender translucent glass by Nicael Leistikow

Photograph courtesy of Nicael Leistikow

Doreen Korman, award winning artist and designer who owns "Dos Damas Designs" and previously won the Phoenix Art Museum Award, creates a plethora of ornaments and copper holiday wreaths.

"I created this wreath by taking a grape vine (wreath) and gluing each feather individually, by hand," she relates. "I put Statice (a natural plant that grows by the water) on it and apply small red berries to contrast the huge copper bow that I create separately to stream down. The red berry accent gives it a bit of a 'pop'. I use copper verdigris ornaments as contrast and glue them in, out and in between the wreath."

Korman has been using copper since 1989 and created her first verdigris faux for a Ralph Lauren shop when he (Ralph Lauren) was just opening retail shops.

"That spurred my interest in copper," she says. "I spotted a small strip of copper in a display box with a blue-green turquoise on it and began a quest to learn how to create real copper instead of the faux finish. I began designing and developing Christmas ornaments and sold them to various shops. I started out small but people adored them and I couldn't keep up with the orders! I was hand-cutting all of them at that time, now the only thing that I don't do myself is to lay the steel rule die. It's similar to fancy perfume boxes - each piece is cut with a steel rule die, which is a thin piece of steel jigged into a piece of wood, then the copper or cardboard is laid on top of that and a clicker press comes down to hit it hard. That's what cuts it out and forms an image."

According to Korman, after she gets the copper back she lays it out on two large tables and can do 400 ornaments at one time.

Dana Working Dana Milton pressing copper gift tags

Photograph courtesy of Dana Milton

"It's easier than doing one at a time," she explains, noting that her husband, Dan, helps with the verdigris process. "I nestle them on the tables very carefully, then use the verdigris from a roofing spray. I used to mix my own chemicals, but it became too volatile, so we use a garden sprayer to apply the verdigris chemical process on top. It's variable to hot and cold. You can't use this chemical inside; it has to be done outside. If it's done inside, great care has to be taken using gloves and ventilation. We use a celluloid sponge to pick up the excess chemicals and let it cure until it dries."

According to Korman, humidity plays an important factor in this process. If it's 120 degrees outside and she doesn't like the finish, she throws the ornament out. "I'm a stickler for perfection with my work," she says.

"From that point on we apply a clear spray to the ornaments that seals the finish," she continues. "If we don't apply the spray the process will continue. We're able to ship to Japan, Hawaii, and our ornaments are in approximately forty-two different museum gift shops in the USA, as well as many state park gift shops. Our latest ornament is a verdigris cross with copper tips with a cabochon in the center (an oval stone with a curve that isn't cut). I use red jasper that allowed me to stay 'natural' with my organic designs. I used to use real amethysts on my butterflies, but now I use a purple paua shell instead."

Word Press and Tags Dana Milton's copper letterpress and tools

Photograph courtesy of Dana Milton

Korman incorporates abalone shells on her dragonfly ornaments, real turquoise on her rabbits, genuine feathers on her kachinas, a hackle feather for embellishments on feather ornaments, and copper conch shells on other ornaments.

"I order them in large quantities, cut the copper brads off and flatten it out with a hammer," she explains. "Last year I introduced the American Eagle ornament and this year the cross. I've only 'retired' four ornaments as all of them are always in demand."

Located in Arcata, California, is artist, metalsmith and designer Nicael Leistikow. He creates magnificent tree ornaments in copper, brass and sterling silver as well as a series of mini masks for your tree that can also be used as decorations. The masks are made from hammered copper and brass sheets, heat-treated for color and patina.

"Most of my copper is scrap, but I also purchase it from jewelry companies across the USA like Rio Grande Copper, in New Mexico," explains Leistikow who sells most of her work through her Etsy site. "I create fabulous copper and glass ornaments that I call 'suncatchers'. I've always loved the way light hits glass and the different colors reflected by the sun in windows, and I wanted to incorporate it in my ornaments so it had more than one use. I began working on different copper designs, put them together and took them to local fairs to gauge what people thought. They were a sell out, so I began making more."

Leistikow is always experimenting, pairing her copper with different stones, textures and mediums.

"I've started incorporating leather into my copper but I don't want the leather to overtake the copper, so I'll keep the basic idea mainly in copper and brass," she reveals. "I also use ribbons to hang the copper ornaments, and I've made pendants using the same design. They're smaller with semi-precious stones instead of glass and make great gifts. My work is sold mainly in the USA however I've sold in Sweden, Australia and the United Kingdom."

To wrap up your perfect copper ornament or gift with a look that will add continuity, use a copper gift tag from "Windshine" located on the rustic shores of old New England in Connecticut. These beautiful gift tags can be personalized or ordered from their stock of already hammered out pieces - a great way to personalize your copper ornament.

"I began using copper years ago when I wanted to make frames for my charcoal drawings," says Dana Milton. "I wanted to devise a way to frame them with something other than having them behind glass, which essentially creates a mirror over the dark areas of black. I've always had an affinity for copper so I built frames from copper flashing, pinching the drawings in between. The copper sets the black and whites off nicely. From there I began creating copper pet tags because I wanted something hand-hewn and unique, and the gift tags evolved from the pet tags to access a wider variety of people. It was a great way to recycle some of the frames I had made and began attaching them to gifts for family and friends. I'm still using the copper from my original frames, but I also purchase copper at"

So, this season, warm your home with the glow of these holiday keepsakes, each as unique as the talented artists that created them.


Feeling inspired? Learn how to make your own copper Christmas Tree ornament.

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