ting-ting-ting …

The remarkably understated tinkling of Christmas-candle-chimes triggers powerful memories of Christmas past if you had one of the candle-mobiles in your home when you were growing up. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch this.

“When we were children, the chimes were irresistible,” my friend Paul (an experienced product manager) told me: “The fascination of the open flame; the magical phenomena of angels slowly starting to move and then picking up speed until they struck the bells. Every Christmas, without knowing it, we were schooled in the laws of physics—Convection, aerodynamics, and centrifugal force converged in this elegant tiny tin invention.”

Yet while Paul and I—and hundreds of thousands of other Baby-Boomers and their children—lit the chimes at the end of last year, a trench-war was being waged around the commoditization of the very angels that tinkled in our Holiday living rooms.

Like the children who remember them from the ‘70s, the Christmas-candle-chimes industry matured and lost its innocence.

Now, with only a few players left and time on patents run out, prices and quality are plummeting—like Lucifer—a Morning Star burned out and falling to Earth.

No-one’s going public in the Christmas-candle-chimes industry this year.

Things have gotten so bad, as we’ll see, that one can imagine a Christmas Day not long from now when no new chimes tinkle.

In fact, the industry competition is extreme around quality and price, and not, for example, around today’s typical app-driven differentiation—no third bell, no improved angels, and no louder ting-ting’ing in this market.

One firm tried to differentiate its product by including a “Party-Chimes” kit at no additional charge—three horses and a clown which you could use instead of the angels for secular celebrations. The strategy was to catch the off-Christmas sales and bolt ahead of the competition in market share.

But judging from the lack of equine availability anywhere online today, the horses went the way of the Dodo.

Nay, Christmas-candle-chimes were perfected decades ago, and trademarked and patented—Angel Chimes™—the Kleenex® tissues of their industry, in pieces by various and sundry inventors spanning Europe and America as far back as the early twentieth century.

Their appeal to this day remains firmly rooted in archetypal elegance and steeped in legendary Scandinavian tradition.

For that reason, the Christmas-candle-chimes industry is all very doggy-dog, as they say.

For example, the most famous Swedish manufacturer—the original patent owner of Angel Chimes™—Andersson & Boberg (they sell the ones that come in the classic circa 1972 brown box featuring a blond Swedish girl in pig-tails lighting the Chimes with a wooden matchstick) quietly shuttered its operations at the end of last year (2009).

Historically, Andersson & Boberg made their original, highest-quality Chimes in Gefle, Sweden (on the Baltic Sea, across the way from the Gulf of Finland, Estonia, Latvia and all those wintry places).

But Globalization—Gefle’s personal Grinch—finally found the sleepy little northern town, and alit on Andersson & Boberg’s operations. The firm finally buckled under all that weight, and it made the tough decision to close forever because it could no longer compete on price with Chinese knock-offs, whose quality is “remarkably good…for the price,” according to a major U.S.-based online seller, Harlan Jacobsen.

Jacobsen’s been selling the Chimes (starting with the Swedish ones and adding quality Chinese offerings later, when the Swedish patents ran out) to Americans since the early ‘70s.

He sells the “Chinese Chimes” online for about $8 (including postage and handling). They’re more expensive if you actually go to a retail store and buy them off the shelf (for obvious reasons)—except if you luck out and get a set for $2 at Walgreens or some other big-box. But they’ll be knock-offs, you can be sure.

The Swedish product cost about $15.95 (including postage and handling) last year. “They were a very hard sell at roughly two-times the price as the very good Chinese substitute,” Jacobsen told me.

The Swedes—being Swedes—were unwilling to compromise quality, so they shut down their historic operations forever. They were simply unable to keep costs down given the relatively high value placed on labor in their country.

That’s where the story would have ended if the Swede’s were not competitive.

But it turns out they are, and Andersson & Boberg packed up and sold its equipment and Angel Chime trademark (the brand) to a firm in Turkey, which is setting up manufacturing operations it hopes will produce quality at least on par with the Chinese substitute product, in time for Yuletide 2010.

Since they couldn’t beat ‘em, Andersson & Boberg decided to join ‘em—‘em being the globally-distributed workforce that now influences our collective economies, trade policies, and immigration policies.

Jacobsen—a wholesale customer (not an end-consumer like Paul and I) from Sioux Falls, South Dakota—says he will carry the new Turkish-made Swedish product if, and only if, its quality is at least as good as—you guessed it—the Chinese version he stocks and sells to his bargain-hunting American customers.

Harlan Jacobsen notes there are at least three Chinese manufacturers and three corresponding levels of quality. “The bad ones,” Jacobsen reports, “are not worth the weight of the tin they’re made with.”

And he’s right. The cheap versions most likely do not incorporate the patented (and more expensive-to-manufacture) glass-bearing-pin (or similar technology) required in order to reduce the friction enough so the turbine spins freely and the angels can ting the bells smoothly and continuously year after year.

His best guess is the new Turkish product will run about $9.95—still a good 20% above the Chinese version Jacobsen carries.

So, not only was Andersson & Boberg competitive for a long time, they’ve gracefully exited the angel scene and aspire to breathe new life into their brand posthumously: They are betting the new Turkish operations can manufacture Angel Chimes™ at least as well as the Chinese (a tall order), and at a competitive price, while carrying their brand name forward into future Yuletide memories.

The Swedes even traveled to Istanbul to share all the manufacturing intelligence (aka, tricks of the trade) they’d garnered from decades of experience as the global leader of angel production and sales (this is known as “knowledge transfer” in organizational development- and learning-speak).

“Only people who had them growing up and brought them out every Christmas as a kid remember them fondly,” Jacobsen muses about the ritual of the chimes and their spell.

If the Swedes are right, our children may be able to buy Angel Chimes™—the one we all grew up with, whose box features the pretty Swedish blond girl—for decades to come.

On the other hand, if they are wrong, Andersson & Boberg will watch helplessly as their fallen angels succumb to cheaper, unoriginal, tawdry knock-offs made with pins that rust over time, grinding their angelic tinkling vision to an untimely halt.

One man’s misfortune might be another’s opportunity, though. Vintage Christmas-candle-chimes are likely to go through the roof either way. At the time of writing, for example, there were several sets on auction at eBay valued at more than four-times the going retail rate.

Happy New Year, 2010!

© John Dila & Paul Dyck 2009

You can purchase the Chinese and Turkish-Swedish (if they live up to expectations) Christmas-candle-chimes from Harlan Jacobsen online: http://angelchimes.com/