Creating Haute Couture Christmas trees

It is Christmas 365 days of the year at the Basel shop

When Christmas rolls around each year, Swiss designer Johann Wanner is in greater demand among the jet set than Giorgio Armani or Calvin Klein.

This content was published on December 21, 2005 minutes

His extravagantly decorated Christmas trees adorn the yachts and chalets of the rich and famous, royal households, and in the past even the White House and St Peter's Square in Rome.

"I'm like a fashion designer, but instead of creating lines for women, I dress Christmas trees," Wanner says (see video).

The trees are "dressed" with handmade ornaments designed by Wanner and his staff. The 66-year-old designer meets his team each spring to create new collections for the Christmas to come.

"A line can have a theatrical theme," he explains during a tour of his shop in Basel's old town. "So all the ornaments are based on things you would find in a theatre."

Clients can range from wealthy German families wanting a tree they can keep year round, to production companies looking for the right prop for a Christmas scene in a film set in 19th century Vienna.

He refuses to divulge the names of his clients but his Christmas ornaments and trees have, according to rumour, found their way into Buckingham Palace and Michael Jackson's Neverland ranch.

Wanner has been known to hang sausages on the branches to grant the Christmas wishes of butchers and has created "spaghetti trees" for lovers of Italian culture.

Tall order

Many of his trees beautify the lobbies of luxury hotels and swanky department stores, but his tallest order was from the Vatican.

He says the challenge was not decorating the 25m-high tree destined for St Peter's Square but loading it onto a truck to get it there.

He recalls that if it had not been fastened down, the oversized fir would have worked like a giant pipe cleaner as it passed through the many alpine tunnels on its journey to Rome.

Switzerland's version of Father Christmas got into the business by chance about 40 years ago.

A customer discovered a few rare Christmas baubles he was selling in his antiques shop and proceeded to send him a few large boxes of ornaments he had stored in his cellar but no longer wanted.

The decorations sold like hot cakes and Wanner soon found himself on the search for glassmakers skilled in the art of crafting baubles as they were once made.


The demand he created contributed to a revival of the cottage glassmaking industries in parts of eastern Europe.

As his reputation grew, Wanner discovered he had a talent for designing his own ornaments and decorating entire trees.

His silver Rolls Royce with the "X-MAS" licence plates is an outward sign of just how good Christmas has been to him over the years.

To stay on top, he employs people he calls "scouts" to detect fashion trends, and has moved production to developing countries such as China and Vietnam.

Christmas is a year round business for Wanner but he takes December 24 off so that he can stay at home– appropriately – to decorate his own tree.

"I have a collection of ornaments and the oldest one I made when I was in kindergarten. It's a snail on a cork, painted red with white dots," he explains.

"Decorating your own tree should take a lot of time. If you are doing it right, it is something to celebrate.

"Before I begin, I uncork a bottle of wine and sometimes light a cigar. The ornaments talk to me when I unwrap them – telling me stories I had nearly forgotten.

"I always had a nice, warm feeling about Christmas when I was a child and I'm lucky that I still do, even at my age."

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

Key facts

It is believed the evergreen tree represented the renewal of life in ancient pagan rituals.
The modern Christmas tree custom has been traced back to 16th century Germany.
The earliest reference is from 1570 and describes a fir tree in Bremen decorated with apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers.
There are also 16th century records from Basel - Wanner's hometown - where apprentices carried around a tree decorated with apples and cheese.

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In brief

The 66-year-old Johann Wanner is reputed to be the world's leading maker of handmade Christmas tree ornaments, and for custom-decorated trees.

He has decorated trees for the White House and Vatican, and is rumoured to count royalty and Hollywood stars among his customers.

Wanner's main shop is in the old town of Basel, where he also lives.

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