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Going orna-mental

By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
Published December 22, 2006


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Some people call Clara Scroggins the Queen of Christmas.

That's because her two-story home on a quiet cul-de-sac in Tampa Palms is a tribute to the holiday she has held dear since her childhood in rural Arkansas.

Shimmering constellations of ornaments made by famous silversmiths, fashion designers and art-glass designers cover her Christmas trees and wreaths, and fill vases, collector's chests, centerpieces and window niches.

Scroggins owns and curates the world's largest privately owned Christmas ornament collection.

One-million pieces and counting.

"It's somewhere over a million," says Clara, who is considered an international expert on ornament collecting and plans to someday leave her famous trove to a museum, "not in an attic."

So vast is her collection that it requires its own climate-controlled, secured storage unit.

She has been lauded in Ripley's Believe it or Not and feted everywhere from HGTV to the New York Times, major television networks and talk shows.

Her collection is the primary focus of a book published this fall, Celebrating Christmas Ornaments, by Nina Chertoff and Susan Kahn.

"When I started collecting, people didn't really collect contemporary ornaments," says Scroggins, whose collection includes incredibly rare ornaments designed for presidents, museums and luxury department stores.

Her collection began with a small, elegant silver cross she bought 34 years ago after her first husband died suddenly of a brain aneurism. Grief stricken and unable to eat or sleep, she was coerced by a friend to take a shopping trip. She spotted the cross in a jeweler's window. Noticing that it was a second-edition, she launched a nationwide search for the first-edition version, which she eventually tracked to a store in Oklahoma City, Okla.

Over the years, as she became more knowledgeable, the collection burgeoned.

She lectures widely on the subject and has written several notable books herself on ornament collecting, including two for Hallmark, which employs her as a consultant.

At Hallmark, she started the world's first - and largest - club for ornament collectors and selects the annual "Clara's Collector's Choice" ornaments.

Her own collection includes ornaments by many famous names including Waterford, Lalique, Versace, Hallmark, Lenox, Reed & Barton, Christopher Radko, Baccarat, Swarovski, artist Thomas Blackwell, jewelry designer Jay Strongwater and Tiffany & Co. The famed silversmith J. Reed and Sons created a miniature White House and a saxophone honoring president Bill Clinton. The ornaments are extremely rare - only three of each were produced - and Clara owns one of each.

Scroggins, one of nine children from a deeply religious family, grew up in a small town in Arkansas where her father ran an ice house. From an early age, she loved Christmas and everything about it.

Scroggins always decorates her own home and displays her ornaments with a theme in mind. A silver tree, bedecked in sterling ornaments and red ribbon, stands on a staircase landing. Instead of tree-toppers, she typically opts for large bows that she ties herself. Four trees, ranging from 5 feet to 141/2-feet, are loaded with ornaments but visually balanced.

Her dining room tree twinkles with hundreds of tiny colored lights. She decorates two miniature trees and eight wreaths, all laden with ornaments and decorated by theme, including one decorated entirely with whimsical candy and gingerbread ornaments.

Ornaments are displayed in creative ways throughout her home: Cupcake ornaments twinkle on a cake plate, fruit ornaments fill a trifle bowl and Kate Spade balls are meant to be admired in their original boxes. Still more ornaments tumble from a cornucopia centerpiece on the dining room table.

She shops with equal zeal at luxury department stores and dollar stores.

For Christmas lovers with limited budgets, don't worry about not having the best of everything.

"You could decorate an entire beautiful tree from the dollar store," Scroggins says.

She suggests storing ornaments in the original boxes and placing them in strong, protective storage containers. Silver ornaments should be kept in containers specifically designed for silver, she says. With enough tree treasures to fill their own wing at the Smithsonian, why does she keep collecting?

Ornaments, she says, commemorate the time in which the collector lives, the history of world events as well as that of an individual family. A bejeweled "Support our Troops" ribbon-style ornament from Target tells just as much of a story as a talking ornament from Hallmark with a recorded personal message.

"You can almost read your family history on a Christmas tree," says Scroggins, a great-grandmother of one with another on the way next month.

Although she is best known for her amazing collection of ornaments, she says her goal in life is really about giving back to others. She frequently opens her doors for holiday tours to interested groups and hopes that her beautiful and extensive ornament collection continues to bring joy to the world long after she's gone.

"Christmas is really about the birth of Christ, the greatest birth ever for mankind," she says. "Ornaments are really about that. They bring families together and help them remember each other and the reason we celebrate."

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at ebettendorf@hotmail.com.

[Last modified December 21, 2006, 07:46:33]


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