Web biz sparkles with aluminum
Vintage Christmas Trees
By Brooke Adams
The Salt Lake Tribune
Artificial pines are so pedestrian. Live spruce, so traditional. As far as Charlie Essmeier is concerned, there is just one way to go at Christmas time - aluminum.
The Stansbury Park resident is bringing retro metal trees to the masses through his Web site, AluminumChristmasTrees.net. Buyers flock to the site from Labor Day through New Year's in search of a perfect pine that won't wilt, drop needles or tarnish.
And it looks cool, too.
"If you want something different that gets you out of the expense of buying a tree every year, this is a way," Essmeier said.
The aluminum tree arrived on the scene about the same time Essmeier did - 1959. A Chicago company apparently had begun making small trees when the Aluminum Specialty Co. of Manitowoc, Wis., searching for ways to sell more product, seized the idea.
The trees capitalized on the modern, space-age sensibility sweeping American homes. Between 1959 and 1969, the Wisconsin company sold several million aluminum trees.
Essmeier saw his first one at his grandparents' home when he was about 8.
"My grandparents were the world's least cool people, but here they were jumping on a popular trend," Essmeier said. "I didn't know anybody else who had one."
Fast forward to adulthood. For years, Essmeier ran a Web site, Sixtiesstuff.com, that specialized in collectibles from the '60s, '70s and '80s - vintage clocks, toys, knickknacks.
In 2001, while searching through an antique mall, he came upon an aluminum tree and was immediately rocketed back to his childhood.
"It was perfect for what I do," he said. Essmeier bought that tree and three others, posted them for sale on his Web site and immediately sold out.
"I thought, 'Wow, I'm on to something,' " he said.
The appeal is "nostalgia and the fact that they are just way different."
Ron Green, owner of the Green Ant vintage store in Salt Lake City, always offers a few aluminum trees at the holidays. "I would say they are more hip than trendy. They have such a cool look," he said. "It's pretty much the same crowd that buys modern furniture. They want the chrome, shiny."
By 2002, Essmeier had launched a site solely dedicated to aluminum Christmas trees and earlier this year he deep-sixed Sixtiesstuff.com to concentrate on the tree business.
"These things choose you. I started out thinking I was going to do something else and ended up selling Christmas trees," said Essmeier, a systems administrator who has been out of work for nearly two years.
Most of his stock now comes to him through word-of-mouth and spring cleaning bouts in basements and attics.
While about two dozen companies eventually made aluminum trees, Essmeier carries just three or four vintage brands with an eye on connoisseurs, including the Evergleam made by Aluminum Specialty, the Revlis and the Taper tree. While there has been a resurgence in companies making metal trees, Essmeier prefers to stick with classics.
The trees come in sizes ranging from 2 feet to 8 feet in height, while branch density ranges from 40 to more than 200.
"More is better," he said. Some trees were designed to rotate and even play music.
Prices range from $60 for a 2-foot silver tree to about $500 and more for taller or more rare trees.
Besides silver, the trees came in green, gold, red and the highly coveted blue and pink.
"Everybody asks about the pink tree, probably because it is mentioned in 'A Charlie Brown Christmas,' without realizing how astonishingly rare pink trees are," said Essmeier, who sells between 50 and 100 trees each year.
In the classic cartoon holiday special, the other kids tell Charlie to get a "nice shiny aluminum tree, maybe a pink one" for their Christmas play.
Essmeier said shiny ornaments are best for aluminum trees. His own 8-foot Taper is adorned with old CDs, which sway nicely in the slightest air current.
Light strings are, of course, a no-no since aluminum conducts electricity and turns the tree lethal. Instead, a spinning color wheel - also available at his site - gives the tree a holiday glow as it rotates from yellow to green, red and blue.
Essmeier's enterprise has attracted the notice of Money magazine, The New York Times and USA Today.
His customers come from across the country.
Just Wednesday morning he boxed up a tree for a customer in Wisconsin, which struck him as a little bit funny, given that's where it all started.
"There are probably more aluminum trees in Wisconsin than anywhere on Earth," he said.