I’ve thrown together a quick FAQ for those of you who are unfamiliar with ball-jointed dolls and are curious!
What are BJDs?
Ball-jointed dolls are just what they say on the tin: dolls with ball joints. Most people call them BJDs, or ABJDs- the A is for Asian, as BJDs as we know them are an Asian creation. They began as kits from a Japanese model company called Volks, and while they’re no longer the only company on the market, they’ve had a lasting impact on the hobby.
BJDs can be made of a variety of materials, but they are most commonly made of polyurethane resin. (Which, despite some very vocal people in the hobby, is a kind of plastic.) They’re hand cast, not injection molded, the molds wear down over time and have to be remade, and the resin in liquid form puts off toxic fumes- all of these facts contribute to the high cost of BJDs, which some people balk at for a “plastic doll”. Early dolls, including Volks, were highly stylized, and they’re still sometimes known as ‘creepy anime dolls’, but in past years numerous companies have come out with highly realistic sculpts that don’t resemble anime art at all. Bodies are often detailed and anatomically correct, unlike children’s dolls or Barbies.
What’s the point?
The point of these dolls, from the very beginning, was owner customization. Unlike Barbies or American Girl dolls, BJDs don’t have rooted hair or molded plastic hair, allowing wigs to be changed at will; their heads open, allowing eyes to be changed and positioned. Their faces can be painted over and over with pastels or paint, allowing each doll to be completely unique.
Different people collect them for different reasons. Photography practice is a very common one- so are sewing, painting, and sculpting. Some people just like the look of them. I myself don’t have a lot of skill in the customizing area- I can’t paint, I’m a poor sewer, I can’t make wigs or eyes, etcetera- but I still enjoy commissioning the talents of other people to see my creative ideas in front of me. They make me smile, they give me an outlet to create when I’m frustrated with my other creative endeavors. They are possibly a weird art form, but to me they are art nonetheless.
How much do they cost?
More than a lot of people think they should. Which, really, is not a high bar, given that Western culture is all about low, low prices! Who cares if the person making your goods earns a living wage, or if your items have to be replaced in six months and end up in a landfill forever? And who pays for art anyway? (Sorry, it’s a peeve of mine.) BJDs are the culmination of a lot of work. Each different sculpt (which is what each different looking face is called) has to be created by an artist, turned into molds, cast, and sanded (to remove sharp seams from the mold edges). The faces are painted by hand, whether that’s a company artist or a commissioned one. Clothing at a small scale is very difficult to sew. Etcetera.
The smallest dolls I own are PukiPukis from Fairyland, a company out of South Korea- they stand at just over 4 inches tall, and are so carefully balanced that they can do handstands. A basic Puki- that is, without clothes, a wig, or a painted face- is $160. Large dolls are often in the $400-600 range, and limited dolls can go for over $1k. And everything beyond resin- eyes, wigs, clothes, shoes, accessories, face and body painting, modifications- can add up very, very quickly. It is, without a doubt, an expensive hobby, and BJDs are absolutely luxury goods. But all hobbies can be expensive- video games, cars, designer bags and shoes, smoking, vacations, quilting, knitting, whatever. So whether or not they’re “worth” the money just depends on whether you like them or not!
What are recasts?
Recasts are bootleg BJDs. They originate primarily in China. Recasters buy a legitimate doll made by a particular company, disassemble it, and make molds from the doll. They then use those molds to cast new dolls and sell them, often for much, much less than the legitimate doll. Recasts are theft, plain and simple, but whether they’re okay or not is hotly debated in the BJD community. (Obviously, I am anti-recast.) Recasts can be hard for new hobbyists to spot, which is why I recommend against buying dolls on eBay for beginners. Aside from being theft that takes money out of the pockets of hard working artists, recasts have other issues- their quality control is often poor, as the molds break down after repeated use, they are often full of resin dust, which is toxic to inhale, and there’s no way of knowing what kind of resin they’re using, how it will break down over time, or whether the stable resin itself is toxic. Recasting companies are also more likely to have their workers in unsafe working conditions.
Where do I learn more, or get one for myself?
If you want to look at them, BJDs are pretty easy to find on deviantART, flickr, and tumblr (though there is a fuckload of drama on the tumblr tag, no surprise). If you’re interested in maybe getting one of your own, I recommend getting an account on Den of Angels (which is invite only, but I still have some invites so just shout). DOA is the largest English-speaking BJD forum online, but it also has some strict rules about what they allow and what they don’t, and discussion threads are very prone to drama. The Marketplace is huge, though, once you gain access, and the Wiki has links to tons of different BJD companies and information about different sculpts and sizes. I don’t recommend purchasing a BJD on eBay until you know a company and sculpt well enough to spot recasts. And be prepared for a long wait, if you order a doll from a company or dealer- dolls are made on demand, and can take months to arrive!
How do I figure out which company or doll is which?
If you look at enough photos, eventually you’ll start to recognize different sculpts and get a sense for different companies’ aesthetics, but in most cases, people will list the company name and sculpt somewhere in their information or photo description. It’s usually a set of two or three names, along with the doll’s individual name. Sometimes company names are left off if they’re widely known. An example would be my doll Kenzi, who is a Fairyland Pukifee Ante. Fairyland is the name of the company (a very popular company). Pukifee is one of their different sizes, which is 15.5cm or just over 6 inches tall. Ante is the name of the individual sculpt. Since Fairyland is so popular, and their lines are well known, I could just list the doll as a Pukifee Ante, or a PKF Ante, the standard abbreviation in the community. It does take a while to learn them, and there are plenty I’ve never bothered to learn because I’m not interested in the company or size or sculpt.
Basic: Called a basic doll or basic set, the opposite of a fullset; it’s a doll that comes with just eyes- no clothes, faceup, or accessories. Basics are often, but not always, available for sale for long periods of time.
Faceup: The face painting; it’s derived from the term make-up, but also encompasses eyebrows, freckles, contouring and shading, etc.
Fullset: The opposite of basic; a doll that comes from the manufacturer with a wig, faceup, a specific outfit and accessories. Fullsets are often limited editions, either for a certain number of dolls or a limited ordering period.
LE: Limited edition; this can apply to a set number made, or a limited ordering period. Many companies also release special sculpts that are only available during events, if you spend a certain amount of money. They are, obviously, harder to come by and more expensive on the secondhand market.
MSD: Originally a size in Volks BJDs, meaning Mini Super Dolfie, MSD is now a catch-all for dolls in the 30-40cm range.
SD: Originally a size in Volks BJDs, meaning Super Dolfie, SD is now a catch-all for dolls that are 50cm or taller. Very large dolls, 70cm and above, are sometimes called SSD or Super SD.
Tinies: Tinies is a size term for dolls that are smaller than 25cm or so. See also MSD and SD.
Floating Head: A head without a body. Because dolls are expensive, it’s not unusual to buy a head one likes first, and then save up for a body; additionally, companies often offer special heads during events, which bodies would need to be purchased separately for.
Hybrid: A doll with a head from one company and a body from another. Hybriding also happens with fantasy parts, like faun legs, centaur bodies, etcetera.
Sculpt: Each unique doll face from a company has a name, which is called a sculpt. Some companies put out multiple variations on a particular sculpt- dreaming (partially closed eyes), winking (one closed eye), sleeping (fully closed eyes), elf (elf ears), and vampire (vampire fangs) are all relatively common.
Skin: Many, but not all, doll companies offer their dolls in a few different resin colors. (The names of these resin colors are problematic.) Many companies have their own names for their individual shades, but they fall into a few basic categories: NS or Natural Skin, which is your average white person skin tone; WS or White Skin, which can be creamy, ivory, or paper white; TS or Tan Skin, which has the most variation, anywhere from “suntanned” to dark browns. Tan Skin is often limited; it is harder to work with in doll form because it marbleizes more (especially in certain levels of humidity), and shows sanding more.
Yellowing: Polyurethane resin naturally changes color over time; this change is accelerated by exposure to sunlight. This color change is referred to as yellowing (or mellowing) but different colored resins change differently and don’t always appear more yellow than a new doll.
Box Opening: Box openings are a series of photos or a video of a person opening a doll. These are often eagerly anticipated when the doll is a new release from a company, as company photos and owner photos are frequently very different. They’re also useful in seeing how a legitimate doll is packed from a company.
Meet-up: Groups of BJD collectors from an area, or at a special event like an anime convention, bring their dolls to a get-together. These can be a great way to see dolls up close before buying your first doll, to get an idea of how large and heavy they really are. I’m not big on the social aspect of the hobby, so they aren’t really my thing, but they’re very, very popular.
Photostories: Some owners do photoshoots with their dolls, and then compile them to tell a story, sort of a live action graphic novel. I prefer regular photos myself, but again they are pretty popular in the hobby.