What began as a holiday crafting project has become a thriving business.
When Bob Byers and his brother Jeff were children growing up in Chalfont, Penn. in the late 1960s, each autumn their parent’s home resembled Santa Claus’ workshop.
Their mother Joyce, a graduate in fashion design from Drexel University in Philadelphia, began a hobby that eventually turned into a highly successful company that manufactures Christmas Carol figurines.
Joyce would transform their dining room into a growing production facility of finely-crafted Christmas Carol figures to inexpensively decorate the house each holiday season.
After a few years, Joyce Byers decided the hobby that she loved was beginning to seem a bit more like work than an enjoyable construction of holiday decorations to share with family and friends.
“Every year she said she wasn’t going to do it again because it was too much work and crazy,” said son Bob.
But her love of Christmas’s past and the cherubic faces of the season could not break her of the habit. By the time 1978 rolled around, Joyce’s hobby had turned into a full-blown small-time manufacturing business.
Today, Byers’ Choice Ltd. is America’s largest seller of American-made Christmas Carolers and other holiday figurines. The company operates out of a 100,000 square-foot manufacturing facility in Bucks County, Penn. Also, on site is a 10,000 square-foot museum and visitor’s center.
It officially became a business in 1978 when Joyce hired her first employee to help her with the ever-demanding workload. In 2018, Byers’ Choice Ltd. employs 75 artisans to help create the highly sought-after decorations that are still each individually designed by the 76-year-old company founder and lover of all things Christmas.
“Both of us [Bob and his brother Jeff, currently vice president of sales and marketing] swore up and down that we would not join the company business under any circumstances,” said Byers, who at the age of 53 is now the company president. But after graduating college – Bob from the University of Pennsylvania and Jeff from Drexel – the company was growing exponentially, and they realized they couldn’t ignore the company’s expanding popularity and need for further management guidance.
It all started when Joyce made three or four figurines to display around the house during the Christmas season. Relatives were so complimentary she decided they would make great, inexpensive gifts for family members the following year.
The figurines continued to be requested by additional family members and eventually the decorations made it into a consignment store on Philadelphia’s Main Line, which could not keep the Carolers in stock.
“They just kept selling and selling them,” said Byers. “They were so successful they became part of the Women’s Exchange which were consignment stores around the country that sold crafts and things made by women to help families earn a little extra money when things were tight.”
The Byers boys’ father, Bob Sr. had a downturn in his business of buying and renovating houses in the 1970s and was looking for a way to put food on the table when he realized the family might have a hidden gem in the figurines.
“My dad has quite an entrepreneurial streak in him,” said Bob Jr. “He said, ‘You know, these Carolers seem to sell.’ So, he threw a bunch of them into the back of the car and started showing them to regular gift stores and it kind of took off from there.
“We had double-digit growth well into the 90s to the point where at one time we had about 200 artisans making Carolers for my mom and shipping them around the country.
“Father was the sales person and kind of added the administration and business sense to what my mom’s craft was. We actually jokingly call the Carolers my mother’s hobby that got out of control. But my dad’s the one that helped make it into a business. He retired about 20 years ago.”
In addition to being sold in approximately 2,000 individual specialty stores throughout the world, Byers Choice Ltd. figurines are available at high-end American departments stores Dillard’s, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. About 20 percent of sales are sold direct to consumer online with 80 percent purchased through retail outlets where customers can get a close look and see how each figurine is unique and slightly different from the others in the collection.
Through the handmade process of the artisans, no two Carolers are exactly alike.
Each Caroler begins with a coat hanger which is cut and bent to form a wire frame. Plaster is hand poured on a table with the coat hanger placed in the plaster before it dries.
Joyce sculpts every original head from which plaster molds are poured. Clay is then pressed into the plaster molds. As the clay is removed from the mold, it gets slightly distorted and an artisan “cleans up” the head ensuring that each one is unique.
After the plaster hardens, it is painted with a specific color of green and the body is then sculpted with tissue paper. After the clay dries, the head receives a coat of flesh-colored paint, and then additional features are added using an impressionist technique so that no two faces are exactly alike.
Finally, it is the dressers of the figurines that add life and personality to each Caroler.
“The trick with the dresser is to take a head where each one looks a little different, take a body where each one also looks a little different and the clothes which may be a little bigger or smaller and figure out how they all fit together and give the Caroler a personality at the same time,” said Byers. “The gifts of the dresser are kind of taking these different pieces and bringing it to life.”
And, of course, the figures are representative of Carol singers dating back hundreds of years.
“Almost all of our figures have the O-mouth trademark signature as if they are singing,” said Byers.
Each Caroler is 13 inches in height and cost anywhere from $65 to $80 dollars. There are customers that own hundreds of the figurines.
“It can be dangerous. If somebody likes them, it can become a little bit addictive,” added Byers. “We actually know a couple of people who have purchased thousands of Carolers.”
Christmas was the inspiration for the Carolers and remained the focus of Joyce’s designs for most of the company’s 40-year history. Sales depend on Christmas themes, but Byers’ Choice Ltd. has expanded its line of figurines to include significant American history.
“Many people decorate at different times of the year, and if they really like our Carolers, many times they’ll have different groupings that they will swap out depending on the time of year,” said Byers. “After Christmas we sell snowmen that fall into a winter scene or we have some skaters, skiers and winter sports type of characters. Then we have Valentine’s Day.
“But for years my mother would not design any real people. And then a number of years ago she was convinced to do Benjamin Franklin who turned out to be quite popular. And then we started a relationship with Colonial Williamsburg and Mount Vernon where we did George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and a number of the other founding fathers.”
And just a few weeks ago, Byers’ Choice Ltd. introduced a figurine that could be called the father of its American manufacturing business – Alexander Hamilton.
“Hamilton and his wife Eliza have been very, very popular,” said Byers. “He really championed American manufacturing before anyone else that I know of. He started the different industries to support the military in case we needed it and not to mention everything on the finance side to make it possible to manufacture in America. A lot of what goes on in commerce today really traces back to the things Alexander Hamilton did in the 1780s and 1790s.”
But Joyce Byers’ heart is still where it all began with the traditional Christmas Carolers she created to buck the trend of a changing world that brought silver and blue colors to the holiday season in the late 1960s.
“To my mom, Christmas is about people getting together, family, friends, very traditional colors like reds and greens,” said son Bob. “There was nothing that epitomized that more than people coming together and singing. Going from house to house singing Christmas Carols.”
It certainly is a gift from “Joyce to the World.”
There are between 150 to 250 Carolers available at any given time including current styles, exclusive pieces and retired figures at www.byerschoice.com.
Byers' Choice Ltd. is just one of nearly 100 Made in America companies featured in AAM's 2018 Holiday Gift Guide, which will be unveiled on Nov. 19, just in time for the holiday shopping season!