Making Marbles

American Artisans, People
on January 2, 2013
Moon Marble
Diane Guthrie The molten mass eventually reaches 2,150 degrees.

Wielding a fiery torch, Bruce Breslow fuses short strips of white glass to the tip of a glass rod and, defying gravity, spins the creation through a blue flame until the molten mass reaches 2,150 degrees. Once satisfied with its shape, he twirls the liquid glass into a graphite mold to form a perfect sphere.

“This is going to be my canvas,” explains Breslow, 60, before swirling in a strip of green glass, then red, to add a splash of color.

Using shears to snip the hot glass and create a design, he again brandishes his blazing torch. “Meteor coming in!” announces Breslow, thrusting the orb through the length of the flame.

Another marble is born at Moon Marble Co. in Bonner Springs, Kan. (pop. 7,314), the only store in the nation where shoppers can buy mass-produced toy marbles as well as handcrafted ones, and even watch them being made.

“The hardest thing is that what you see when you’re working isn’t what it’s going to end up looking like,” says Breslow, who creates the spherical works of art in front of store visitors, while also imparting historical tidbits.

Breslow describes, for instance, how immigrants brought marbles to America as ballast in their ships. To defend against pirates, crews sometimes used marbles as cannon shot.

His techniques honor history as well. “I try to work as people worked years ago,” Breslow says. “I think it’s important to remember how things were done.”

Among his admirers is Dominic Bucci, 11, of Bellevue, Neb. “I had no idea!” the youngster says after watching Breslow make a marble. “I thought they all came out of a giant oven.”

Marbles are at the center of Breslow’s novelty shop, which also features nostalgic toys such as tops, tiddlywinks, tea sets and Chinese checkers. In a play area, youngsters can learn to play marbles the old-fashioned way, knuckling down on the floor and using forefinger and thumb to flick the glass balls toward a target.

Breslow opened his shop in 1984 as a woodworking business and began using scraps to craft old-fashioned toys. When one game required marbles, local merchants only offered generic cats-eye marbles made in Taiwan.

“I wanted bumblebees, puries, all kinds of marbles!” recalls Breslow, who played marbles as a child growing up in Atlantic City, N.J.

In 1994, he ordered every type and color of marble available from a West Virginia manufacturer. The delivery of 85,000 marbles sparked the evolution of Bruce’s Woodworks to Moon Marble Co., as Breslow filled rows of bins with all sizes and colors of the glass spheres.

Customers began asking how marbles are made, and Breslow decided the best response is to show them. He pored over books, called artisans and traveled across the nation to visit old-time craftsmen. No one spilled all the marbles, but each shared a piece of the puzzle. By 1996, Breslow was spinning marbles himself, learning the process by trial and error.

“I had never worked with glass before,” Breslow recalls. “Every day was exciting.”

Today, Breslow is a respected marble artist, historian, advocate and entrepreneur.

“He is an all-around Renaissance kind of marble guy,” says Mark Matthews, 58, of Archbold, Ohio, an internationally recognized glass artist specializing in contemporary spherical shapes.

Breslow creates between 400 and 600 marbles annually using glass from around the world, selling his creations for between $20 and $300 each. His specialties include tie-dyes that bleed colors, snippy designs made with scissors, and “pull” designs in which colors are pulled into a flare. Handmade marbles from other artists also are displayed.

The business reflects Breslow’s childhood dreams. “I always thought I’d be making things,” he says. “That’s my gift.”