Find family ties at fair

COSTA MESA — When customers walk into Russel and Diana Oberlies' booth at the Orange County Fair, the couple's goal isn't just to make a sale.

The Oberlies try to pull people back to a time when ladies prized fair skin and men were identified by the coats of arms emblazoned on their cloaks.

They want to give their products meaning and historical context — not just reference material for future tattoos.

"When a customer comes in, you have to jerk them out of the fair," said Russel, 64. "You have to take that person and put them in that time. Otherwise, it's just a tattoo."

The Oberlies look up and sell images of the family crest associated with a person's last name at their booth, Heraldry by Oberlies, in the Crafters Village.

Their most basic product — a small print of the symbol — is often bought by customers wanting new body art.

But their most popular item is a larger matted print that includes the coat's meaning, history, country and region of origin and other spellings of a surname.

They also sell framed prints, elaborate embroidery, flags, mouse pads and vinyl banners, each with a coat of arms.

The pair have been working at county fairs for half of the 40 years they've been married. However, they did not start with the family crests.

The business started in a mall selling photo mugs and moved to fairs in 1991. They soon added prints of first names, which included the names' meanings and associated personality traits.

Last names were a natural progression. By 1995, they were in the coat of arms business, she said.

"It's the hardest way to make an easy living," Russel said. "By the end of the day, we get too tired to talk, but we still like it."

Diana, 61, said looking into last names

"has a lot more heart to it. We just love this."

The two use a database to look up last names, but then cross references them with books they keep in their booth. They spend their free time researching online and reading books dating to the 16th century on CD-ROM.

"You have to go back that far to get accurate stuff on coat of arms," Diana said. "It's addicting."

Diana said getting into the business has turned them both into history buffs, and it has been an ongoing process learning more about it.

For the two, it's exciting to learn the stories behind the family crests.

Each one is unique and was once used to identify the original bearer, similar to a Social Security number today, Diana said.

The two pass along as much knowledge as they can with their customers.

"When the customers walk away," she said, "we want them to learn as much as they can, so they can walk away knowing a little bit about that name."

Heraldry by Oberlies

Where: Crafters Village in the Orange County Fair, 88 Fair Drive

Prices: Range from $34 to $399


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