Worldly, exquisitely crafted, highly coveted — yes, let’s sing the praises of fake fruit. Designers and collectors scour antiques shops and eBay for specimens that can turn any home into a garden of delights. To get the juices flowing, feast your eyes on these arrangements. The pieces may be artificial, but the styles — from rustic to refined — and the indigenous materials are authentically gorgeous.
These fruits didn’t grow on trees, but they are carved from the tropical varieties found in Mexico and Africa. “You’ll find a lot of unusual edibles rendered in wood that aren’t native to North America, like star fruit and kiwifruit,” says collecting expert Fritz Karch. While these pieces are not painted, he adds, “the artist may pick the wood for its beautiful graining, or stain it.”
Starting in the 19th century, Italian artisans took leftover chips of marble from quarries, sculpted them into stunning objects and painted them. “Some look realistic; others are more folksy,” Karch says. “It depends on the skill of the carver and painter.” Most are actual-size, but you’ll also see oversize pieces, meant to be used as bookends — for instance, two halves of a huge pear. The most special finds are clusters of small fruit, such as strawberries or grapes (for the latter, individual balls of marble are wired together onto a real — and quite fragile — stem). Luckily for collectors, artisans still make these today.
Chinese artists have been carving jade, agate and chalcedony into sublime produce since the early days of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Many pieces have allegorical meanings: Apples can symbolize peace, and pears can stand for longevity. These “edibles” aren’t painted, stained or dyed. “The artists find geology that’s the color they’re trying to mimic, making sure they are botanically correct as well,” explains Karch, who collects these himself.
From the ‘40s to the ‘70s, fruit-making kits were all the rage for American makers. They came complete with Styrofoam bases, plastic beads or sequins, and pins for attaching them. “Some people took artistic license in trying to make them realistic — a banana with green spots to look half-ripe, for example,” says Karch. “But others are just kitsch.” No matter the material, the rarest finds are slices, half-eaten pieces and bunches of berries or grapes. When displaying these, “more is more,” says Karch. His preference: heaping them in an large glass vessel.
These Mexican treasures are made like their Italian cousins, but using leftover pieces of alabaster instead of marble. Another difference: Their appearance veers more toward magical realism than exact replicas. “They tend to be cartoony and kind of pop,” says Karch. “What’s great is you get all these tropical fruits you don’t find in Italy: mangoes, papayas, little bananas.”
Much of the alabaster fruit in this country made its way here as tourist keepsakes (they can still be found in Mexico), but in the ‘50s, options were also available in U.S. housewares shops. “They were big as centerpieces in your dining room or kitchen, or on a coffee table,” says Karch. “It was the fantasy of having a pile of scrumptious fruit off-season.”
Unlike most faux fruit, these showstoppers are signed by the creator — the house of Barbini, in Murano, Italy. Each of the islands’ renowned glassworks is famous for its own technique, and Barbini’s trademark is trapping a bubble, often colored, in the center. A centuries-old tradition, Murano glass gained recognition in the U.S. after World War II, with actual-size works rising in popularity as souvenir paperweights, and outsize options like these serving as bookends.
The produce is still beloved today, for its beauty and for sentimental reasons. Along with figs and, as Karch says, “every kind of fruit that’s local in the Mediterranean,” artisans produce grapes as symbols of luck, and individual cherries, which can be given as sweet favors to wedding guests.
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