Erwin Perzy III looks like someone who knows how to revel in a spot of festive merrymaking. With a luxuriant beard, sparkling eyes and slightly rumpled appearance, the Viennese native is more reminiscent of a bumbling inventor than a hard-nosed businessman. It comes as little surprise, then, that his venerable company is devoted to celebrating the more whimsical side of life, especially in the run-up to Christmas.
Situated in the heart of Vienna’s 17th district, a suburban carriage house is the location for a special kind of business. There are no neon lights or signs outside to signify its existence. But it’s here, on Schumanngasse 87, that three generations of the Perzy family have overseen production of the world’s finest snow globes.
Erwin Perzy III’s grandfather, a mechanic, accidentally created the first snow globe in 1900 as he attempted to increase the efficiency of a newly invented electric light bulb.
“One day he was in my great-grandmother’s kitchen and came across some rice powder,” Perzy explains. “He decided to pour it into a glass globe and it floated very slowly to the bottom. The effect reminded him of falling snow, and the idea of the schneekugel — or ‘snow ball’ — was born.”
Erwin Perzy I’s first snow globe contained a miniature model of the Mariazell Basilica, a beautiful Viennese church located close to his home. Letting his imagination run riot, he began recreating a panoply of pint-sized scenes from the Austrian capital, finally embarking on full-time globe manufacture in 1905.
Nearly a century later, and 200,000 snow globes are made by Erwin Perzy III’s company every year. While there are now a mind-boggling array of varieties to choose from, each spherical work of art is still painted by hand. And unlike cheap imitations, the globes are always encapsulated by glass, not plastic.
“There’s only one way for us to stand out from the crowd,” says Perzy. “And that’s by working to the same high standards that my grandfather and father once did.”
That Vienna should be the home of the schneekugel is really rather apt. One of Europe’s most captivating cities, regardless of the season, this is a place where enjoyment of Christmas has long been elevated to an art form.
Each December, across the Austrian capital, markets are held in the shadow of wonderful Baroque architecture, concerts performed in some of the world’s greatest musical venues, and venerable cafes serve up some of the finest coffee and steaming gluhwein on the Continent. And in nearly every illuminated shop window, Perzy’s snow globes are trapped in perpetual storms.
The globe maker himself is most excited when children come to visit his factory — which also doubles as a museum — in the period before Christmas.
“Of all our products, the snowman and Santa Claus varieties are still the most popular with kids,” he says. “Watching them trudge through the snow clutching a newly bought schneekugel takes me back to the wonder I experienced holding a globe for the first time.
“In these days of high technology, our balls of snow are not sophisticated or really very important,” continues Perzy. “But nevertheless they enchant people. For me, they are simple things that embody the magic of Christmas.”