"What the heck is a ball-joint doll?"
A ball joint doll is exactly what it sounds like: a doll that has ball joints where humans have joints; (knees, elbow, waist, ect). This makes them very flexible and able to pose in very lifelike ways. Other dolls, even ones with flexible wire skeletons are not as articulated as a ball joint doll. Because of their unique design, ball joint dolls (or BJDs) can sit and stand unaided, and hold a variety of very human poses. Unlike a porcelain doll or Barbie, BJDs do not need a stand, but they are available.
Ball joint dolls are also unique in another very significant way: they are designed to be fully customizable! With other dolls, you can only change their clothes or shoes. With a BJD, you can change everything about it, from the shape of the face to the color of the eyes. You can change the hands so that they can hold things, form a fist or present the peace sign. Everything about them can be changed: the length of the legs or the entire body can be swapped out. You arent limited to one hair style or color either. A BJD is usually shipped bald so that you can choose it's wig and because of the way that they are designed, you can continue to change it's hair everyday, or leave it the same for as long as you'd like. Their faces are just as interesting, with the ability to swap heads between dolls, or change their makeup. There is no pre-set limit to anything about a BJD, only your imagination. You can even change one doll into many different dolls, simply by changing the head, wig, eyes, makeup or the entire body. The very best thing about a BJD is that it can look exactly how its owner wants it to, not what some doll designer far away thinks a doll should look like. A ball joint doll can truly be a one of a kind because you can change so many things about it. Imagine being the only person in the whole world with a doll like yours!
'What sizes do they come in?'
Ball joint dolls come in a huge variety of sizes that range from just under four inches (9.8cm) to just about 41 inches (105cm). The only exception is PaperMoon dolls, which are life size and much, much rarer than any other BJDs. Ball joint dolls are usually seperated into three categories: 'Tiny', 'Mini', and Larger BJDs.
The smallest ball joint dolls are called 'Tiny' and include all dolls under the height of 35cm (just under 14 inches). You can buy a boy or a girl. These are the least expensive category, with the drawback that most of these dolls are babyish in appearance, although there are a few that are just very miniaturized versions of larger dolls. On the upside though, many 'Tiny' BJDs can fit in your pocket or purse with no problem and their accessories tend to be cheaper than they are for bigger dolls.
The middle range of BJDs is called 'Mini' and includes dolls from 35cm to 45cm, (just about 14in to 18in). These dolls are often older in appearance than a 'Tiny' and are in the middle as far as cost as well. They are a good compromise between size and price. You can buy a mini in either sex and there are even androgynous dolls, that have no gender at all. Most BJDs in this category are in the middle as far as their physical maturity; they aren't babies, but neither do they look like full grown adults either.
The largest dolls are 45cm and up. These dolls are by far the most mature in appearance as well as being the most expensive. Currently the tallest doll (at 105cm or about 41in) is the Trinity line; they are made available by Dollmore. Taller BJDs also come in both sexes. The larger dolls are made to represent teens and adults so for the most part they look more grown up in appearance than the smaller dolls.
Of course, there are a few exceptions to the price or age of dolls in a certain category, but it would make things too complicated to put them all here. These are just general guidelines as to what age a doll of a particular size might be.
No one category of dolls is better than another overall, but a larger or smaller doll might be better for a particular owner. For example, you may not have much room for a doll in your home, so a 'Tiny' BJD might be best. Or perhaps you would like a doll big enough to cuddle with, so a larger doll might be best for you. All categories have their up and down sides and it is best to pick your doll based on what you want it for. Many BJD owners have bought a particular size doll and found it too big or small to fit their needs and so they sold them for a more appropriate one.
"What do you do with these dolls?"
The majority of BJD owners play with them as you would any other doll; dress them up, make up stories about them and in general enjoy the expanded flexibility their joints provide. Many owners get very attached to them and treat them like their "children". They name them, make or buy clothes for them, buy other BJDs to be their "friends" and even sleep with them in their beds. Some owners carry their BJD with them all the time, even taking them on vacation! BJDs can be wonderful companions because they are so lifelike, and even seem to have a 'personality'.
However, ball joint dolls arent just toys; they are the best pal for someone with a creative streak. They can be used as art models, able to hold poses much longer than a human model and with infinite patience. They can be used to draft clothing patterns by simply blowing up the pattern which saves valuable materials by using much smaller amounts of materials for prototypes. They can be used as models for photography and in some cases are nearly indistinguishable from a human model. It is very common for owners of ball joint dolls to have many pictures of their doll because by design, they lend themselves so well to photographic projects. In this way, many owners can tell stories or live out fantasies in a virtually harmless way such as dressing them up as vampires, angels and elves.
Since ball joint dolls are anatomically correct without being obscene, they can even be used as educational props without the need to resort to graphic films or photos. They are realistic enough for small children to connect to as a human form, but they are also obviously dolls so there isn't any mistake to be made in the minds of young ones. Their genitalia is not so detailed as to be obvious under clothing nor to be obscene without it. This is another reason BJD owners prefer them to other dolls: they are detailed enough to be accurate in their depiction of people without having sexual overtones. In other words, they are more realistic than any other doll on the market.
Ball joint dolls can also be used as mannequins to display jewelry, clothing or other hand-crafted items. After all, why not use something beautiful to display something beautiful that you have made? These dolls can also be used to illustrate the use of other items, such as miniaturized furniture and other BJD props. It is even conceivable to use them to illustrate proposed marketing campaigns and the like without going to the expense of hiring a model and building a human-sized set.
BJDs can also be displayed and fit in well with most of collectors' other dolls. Some people collect BJDs not as toys, but just for the purpose of displaying them. It is okay to do this but these dolls are really made to be played with and many manufacturers encourage owners to bond with their dolls. Some ball joint doll makers will refuse to sell to people who have sold their BJDs to others because they want people to treasure their dolls instead of buying and selling them. They are dolls and are meant to be loved.
They are truly works of art, and some people enjoy displaying them just as they would a painting or sculpture. The attention to detail and the realism are amazing. They look very neat perched on a mantel or bookshelf and will always attract the attention of other people in the room. Among other things, BJDs can be quite the conversation starter!
Again, the use of a ball jointed doll is only limited by your imagination. Whether you use them to play with, as companions, as artwork or as a display piece, or even as your very own Mini-Me, they are very satisfying to own.
'These dolls sound really expensive. How much do they cost?'
In general, most BJDs run from $300 to about $700 for a basic doll, with the average being $400-$600. Some companies are cheaper than others and some use higher quality materials than others. This doll will probably be bald and naked. It will probably not have eyes or makeup. Different companies include different things with your purchase. Some even send your doll out with wig, eye, makeup and underwear; however, most do not. It is up to the owner to make the doll look the way that they want it to. It is possible to buy a "complete" doll who comes with makeup, wig, eyes and clothes, though it is usually more expensive. This is called a "full set" doll. Alternatively, the head and body can be bought separately with the head costing between $100-$200 and the body costing $200-$500. It is not cheaper to buy the head and body separately, especially if you figure in the shipping charges.
The cost of a ball joint doll is determined by several factors: How big it is, the quality of the materials, who makes it and whether it comes with clothing or other accessories. There is also another factor that can affect the price: whether it is a limited edition or special giveaway at a BJD convention or store. Obviously limited/special editions are going to cost more and be harder to get. Most limited or special editions are "full set" dolls. These can cost up to several thousand dollars.
It must also be mentioned here that the initial lower price of a basic doll are offset by the cost of buying a wig, eyes, clothes and paying for makeup. Also, whether you buy a basic set or a full set, there are other expenses. While there are people content to let their doll wear the same thing all the time, the very nature of the BJD is to acquire new items to utilize the versatility of the doll. Unless you are one of those people who are content with one wig, one pair of eyes, one outfit, a single pair of shoes and one set of makeup, you should know that this can get to be a very expensive hobby. Think about it, would you want to wear the same underwear, outfit or shoes everyday?
'Is it made of plastic, like a Barbie? Why does it cost so much?'
No. Ball joint dolls are made of polyurethane resin, not plastic. It is more fragile and heavier than plastic. A BJD is much more like a flexible porcelain doll than a plastic Barbie. Resin is also more esthetically pleasing to handle than plastic. It is hard and cool like porcelain, but warms to the touch much quicker causing it to feel "real" in your hands. Owners describe it as smooth but grainy, rather like an egg or piece of chalk. This kind of surface can't be done with plastic, nor would you be able to modify a plastic doll like you can a resin one. BJDs are made by hand, not by machines in a factory. Resin is much harder to work with than plastic and requires a human touch to cast properly. In comparison to the prices 10 years ago when the only way to get a ball joint doll was to hire a shopping service to go to Japan and buy one, english speaking BJD fans have it much cheaper now.
There are many factors in the cost of a ball joint doll to consider, aside from the fact that it is a unique, handmade piece of art. The first step is the design and sculpting of how the doll will look when it is done. This is done with clay or other mediums by an artist. This sculpture is then taken to a factory where a mold will be made of it. Resin and it's dust are toxic, so the factory must pay laborers more to work with it as well as take more precautions because of its' poisonous components. Although it is referred to as a master sculpt, it is actually in quite a few parts, just as the dolls are made of many parts. Each part of this sculpture must have a separate mold made from it. Molds are made with a high grade silicone that can cost up to $1000 to complete the molds for all the parts of one large doll. A master mold can only be used a certain number of times to cast a doll, so these silicone molds must be remade every so often.
Next is the resin, which is generally imported from other countries; the most acclaimed (and expensive) of which is french resin. Two different chemicals are mixed together to form the liquid version of polyurethane resin which hardens over the space of a few hours. Not only is the entire procedure elaborate, but the process of casting resin is also very weather sensitive so it can only be done in relatively dry, moderate air. Once mixed, resin must be poured into the molds as soon as possible because it cannot be reused after it has hardened. The air must be removed from the resin while it is still liquid; this is done by the use of an agitator or pressure chamber. A single air bubble in the resin is enough to ruin an entire piece that must then be recast. This waste also adds to the cost of producing the dolls.
After the resin sets, each piece is then carefully removed from the mold and lightly sanded to remove any resin chunks that should not be there. Sometimes a second, better mold is made from these sanded parts. After all the pieces have gone through the process of molding, setting, removal and sanding, it is then strung together with the other parts of the doll; this last step is the easiest and least labor-intensive part of all. However a few select dolls DO come unstrung. Many owners string and restring their own dolls regularly, so this is not a big deal.
All of the factors included in the complicated process of casting resin influence the price as well as the normal fees that any production business would have to pay like rental for offices, stores and factory space, advertising, shipping and everything else that goes along with it. Most of these dolls are sold via websites for english speakers, so there is also the costs involved with designing, maintaining and translating these websites.
The very best part about the price is that BJDs retain most of their value, even after being played with and carried around everywhere, barring major damage of course. The resin lends itself well to customization and good results from these modifications can even increase their value on the market. After all, there can only be so many people who decide they want to modify a doll in a specific way. If you have the only one, then it will most likely go for more than you originally paid. Older, discontinued models are often worth more than original retail because they are hard to find. Lastly, you have to keep in mind that they are a specialty item hand made by artisans. They are a solid investment, a creative outlet and a wonderful companion all in one. Most BJD owners say they are worth every penny.
'How do they make them bend like that?'
BJDs have ball joints, or circular pieces at the knees, elbows, shoulders and such that allow the body to move. Ball Joint Dolls can hold poses because they have elastic strings that run through each limb and into the neck or head of the doll. The tension on these strings allows the doll to stand, sit and hold a variety of other positions without the need for a stand or other prop to keep them in place, unlike other dolls. 'S' shaped hooks connect the elastic to the hands, feet and top of the doll. Some BJDs are string all the way into the head, while the elastic in others ends in the neck piece. The circular pieces, or 'ball-joints' have slots in them to allow the string to move inside the joint. If they did not have these slots, the doll could not sit or bend, even with the elastic stringing.
For more in depth photos, check out this great gallery from Undel2321.
'Where do they come from?'
Dolls have been made all over the world as far back as we can remember and as technology advanced, so did dolls. Early dolls were made from cloth, and then leather and wood. In the late 1800s- early 1900's, we begin to see the evolution of what we know as modern ball joint dolls. As the transition occurred from leather bodies to more sturdy materials, moving joints began to be added. There are examples of this in Japan and areas of Europe such as Germany and France at this time. Over time wood was replaced with porcelain. Modern BJDs are now made from resin instead of porcelain. It is not clear how they translated into the Asian dolls that we know of today. It is thought that perhaps these early French and German dolls *may* have been influenced by older Asian dolls called Ichimatsu. Those European dolls may have then re-inspired Asian artists. There is a lot of interesting facts and debate about this subject here.
Ball Joint Dolls made of resin are originally from Japan. They originated with a company called Volks. They already made figures relating to popular anime characters, so their first dolls had very stylized and unrealistic face sculpts that resembled their anime roots. Their first resin BJD was made in 1998 and was made for the president of the company's wife. That very first doll is in the Volks Museum today. The first Volks BJD made commercially available was the Nana (Four Sisters) head on the SD10 body on February 28th of 1999. They soon expanded to offer other molds as well. The popularity of Super Dollfies was not huge until a couple of years later mainly because they were not advertised and were only available in Japan or through shopping services. If you would like to know more about the history and evolution of Volks dolls, they produced a book called, "Another Yourself" which tells quite alot.
For a while, Volks was the only company that made these dolls. They call their BJDs "dollfie" which is short for 'doll figure'. The next company to come onto the market (and stay!) was Custom House. Others, such as Rasendou operated briefly in this period, but are now defunct. The first BJDs known to belong to American owners were bought in late 2001. In 2003, BJDs exploded into South Korea; more companies sprang up there that made Ball Joint Dolls. Some were obvious copies of the original Volks Dollfie, and cheap imitations at best. Soon, there were more companies making their own original BJDs and now there are many, many companies. Unfortunately, there are still companies that copy others' designs and try to profit using other people's work and cheaper materials. This is not looked upon well in the doll hobby community.
Ball Joint Dolls are becoming so popular that the originating company, Volks, has even opened a store in the USA! The popularity is spreading so quickly that there are even solo artists producing their own BJDs for sale in America and Australia. You can also currently buy dolls produced by individuals or companies in Japan, South Korea and China. Because the dolls originated in Asia, and are a result of the culture in that part of the world and to some extent physically resemble Japanese or Korean people, BJDs are also referred to as ABJDs or Asian Ball Joint Dolls; a term that is quickly becoming inaccurate as more companies pop up all the time and not all of them are asian or make asian-looking dolls. I prefer to refer to them as RBJDs or Resin Ball Joint Dolls.
Many times in the doll hobby, you will hear people refer to all BJDs as Dollfies or Super Dollfies, but they are not! Each company has its own name for the dolls. For example, a BJD from the Cerberus Project line is a "Delf" and the Soom company sells "Gems". The term Dollfie is also incorrectly used to refer to the size of a BJD. SD size or Super Dollfie size is about 22", but MSD size or Mini Super Dollfie size is about 18". This is a reference to the original product lines that Volks put out, but it is not accurate in reference to dolls from any other company.