They are so realistic that they have fooled policemen who have smashed car windows to get at what they thought were abandoned babies. At airports, customs officers have been alarmed to see them going through X-ray machines. Grannies stop to coo over them.
They are “reborns”, handmade dolls that are made as lifelike as possible with realistic skin, hair and facial expressions.
The craft started in the US in the 1990s, became popular in Canada, Latin America, the UK and Europe and is now a hit in SA. It’s spawned a collectables craze.
It was announced recently that reborns made by Baltorina’s Unique Babies will now be sold in 24 Toys R Us stores and 24 Reggie’s stores nationwide.
“We were initially sceptical about stocking them, but our chief toy buyer, Vee Kistensamy, saw potential in this product, which has proved popular with our female clientele, mothers and daughters alike,” said Toys R Us SA and Reggie’s director Issy Zimmerman.
Baltorina’s Unique Babies started as a hobby for 44-year-old Rina Muller (Baltorina is her given first name), who lives in Melkbosstrand in Cape Town.
Surfing the internet one evening in 2004, she came across a reborn doll on a website and fell in love with it. She wanted it, but it was pricey. Including import costs, it was R4 500.
However, a friend told Muller to use her artistic skills and to create her own dolls. She didn’t know anyone in SA who made these dolls, so she decided to order a kit and moulds from the US to make them herself.
She’ll never forget the first doll she created. She took it to work at the Koeberg nuclear power station, where she worked as a personal assistant, and the security guard freaked out when she put it through the X-ray machine. “He thought I was crazy,” says Muller. “Only when he touched it was he convinced that it was a doll.”
In 2007, her unusual hobby was featured in YOU magazine. This changed her life. Her first order, 12 dolls, came from Toys R Us at Canal Walk. It sold out in the first week. She was amazed. Not long after, she was given an order for 48 dolls.
“I had to decide whether I was going to make dolls for a living or stay at my job in the power station.” She chose the dolls.
Muller began to supply five Toys R Us stores, two in KwaZulu-Natal, one in Cape Town and two in Gauteng. The handmade dolls flew off the shelves, which surprised her because they’re not cheap. They retail for about R800 to R1 900.
To train more people to help her, she travelled to Michigan in the US in 2008 to do a teacher’s course in doll-making, which included sculpting and reborning.
She now employs 40 people at a factory in Tableview – including her dad, husband and two daughters – making 1 600 dolls a month. “There are times that we work through the night,” Muller says, adding that the support of her family and colleague Bronwyn Beckett have been crucial.
To date, they have made 15 000 dolls.
There are those who think the babies are “creepy”, and the term “reborn” may have come about because they were originally made for mothers grieving over their dead babies.
“I do get requests from parents who come to me when they’ve lost a child. They give me a picture to make a lookalike doll for them,” Muller says.
She has made lookalikes for grandparents, “especially if they are going overseas and want to remember their grandkids”.
These replica dolls cost about R3 500 because they are custom-made.
Her dolls have also been used in therapy. She made a doll for a woman who taught classes on Down syndrome children. She made one for a woman giving classes at a clinic on how to care for premature babies. And she made dolls for a woman in Pretoria who worked with abused children.
Muller says she and her team work a great deal with sick children and use the baby dolls to raise funds for them.
One of her dolls was even featured in Winnie, a film based on the life of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, starring Jennifer Hudson. The movie company sent Muller a photo of Madikizela-Mandela as a baby and asked her to make a replica. Prodcers paid R2 500 for the doll.
Her clients include young and old.
The youngest is a nine-year-old girl from Alberton, who Muller says, is a serious collector. “She started when she was four and she has 108 of my dolls.”
The oldest customer is an 86-year-old woman, who owns 16 of her dolls.
Making a reborn is quite a process.
Muller says each of the dolls is sculpted in clay and then moulded from a soft vinyl in Germany.
Once she gets the dolls back, the reborning process starts. This involves hours of painting, by hand, to create a warm complexion and realistic skin tones.
Between each of the eight layers of paint, the dolls are baked at 130°C.
“You can use an oven, but we use heat guns,” says Muller.
“Then you start with the veins, the skin, the blushing, the skin colour and then the blushing again. You repeat it over and over. And then it’s on to the creases, the lips and the eyelids.”
Acrylic eyes in different colours are inserted in the doll’s eye sockets. Hair, made from mohair, is rooted in, strand by strand. In the beginning, one head would take Muller about eight hours.
“Now I can root the hair in half an hour. It takes a lot of practice. We also ensure that you can see the crown on the baby’s head. You can make a doll in a day, if you’re determined to do it in one sitting.”