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Keeping 'em Lit

Nancy Wolfson
From the Print Edition:
Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

It can stop a bullet, clip a cigar, open a door, tell you the time, sign a check and, by the way, light a Cohiba. "It," of course, is the lighter.

Lighters double as walking sticks, pens, clocks, tape measures, flasks, compasses and picture frames. "The most unusual ones are those you look at and say, 'This couldn't possibly be a lighter!'" says Richard Weinstein, a New York dealer and lighter-repair expert of 20 years.

"A lighter is the epitome of a great idea, designed brilliantly and executed with the highest level of precision engineering," says Richard Ball, a London-based dealer and the founder of the 220-member nonprofit Lighter Club of Great Britain.

Lighter designs are often based on the shapes of airplanes, cameras, cars and pistols, or they feature celebrities and icons. Charlie Chaplin, FDR, Popeye and the Statue of Liberty are but a few of the characters gracing the cases of some of these portfires.

The earliest lighters were tinder pistols, invented in the mid-seventeenth century, shortly after the first flintlock firearms were made. Resourceful gunsmiths began recycling broken pistols, using the barrel to store tinder rather than gunpowder. The trigger released a mechanism that struck a piece of iron and directed the sparks onto the tinder, which would ignite. Table tinder pistols were often combined with candlesticks, clocks and inkwells, while pocket models were designed to be carried like a weapon.

In 1823, German chemist Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner created a table lighter that used hydrogen gas to produce a flame. But Döbereiner's lamps, though convenient, were apt to explode. The solution arrived about 60 years later with the fusee, an early version of the wick lighter. A steel wheel struck a flint, producing sparks that ignited the fusee (a piece of cord submerged in fuel).

There is a certain irony in the fact that lighter collecting is a rather recent pursuit. Although fire is one of man's oldest discoveries, lighters as we know them are basically a twentieth-century invention. In 1903, Austrian chemist Carl Auer von Welsbach combined iron and cerium to create "Auer metal," which essentially became the small flint still used in lighters today. Welsbach's invention made lighters more efficient, safer and ultimately more popular--one flick of a finger produced a spark.

"Twentieth-century petrol lighters can be divided among the manual, semiautomatic and automatic models," Dutch lighter expert Ad van Weert writes in his book, The Legend of the Lighter (Abbeville Press, New York, 1995, $45). Manuals are striker lighters in which a flint is attached to part of the instrument. The body contains a steel rod enclosing a wick soaked in petrol. By striking the steel rod on the flint, a series of sparks ignites the wick. On semiautomatic models, the cover automatically rises when the turnwheel is triggered (or, in some models, lifting the cover activates the flint wheel). In either case, the cover has to be closed manually to extinguish the flame. The automatic, or "one-motion," lighter requires the use of just one hand and one finger. Ronson founder Louis V. Aronson achieved this in 1926 when he invented his Banjo model. His "Push, it's lit; release, it's out" slogan said it all.

Soon thereafter, nearly everyone had a lighter, and large numbers of these early models have survived. Zippo, the most popular brand among collectors, has produced some 300 million lighters since the company's inception in 1932. Every Zippo is guaranteed for life; and they're all collectible. Many lighter buffs own more than a thousand--those who are still counting, that is. Ten-year veteran Larry Tolkin owns more than 2,000 lighters, including one of the world's most extensive Ronson collections. National Lighter Museum founder Ted Ballard's collection of 20,000 lighters was initiated in the 1930s with a gift from his grandfather.

"We're trailblazers," says Barry Hoffman, a Boston real-estate developer and Honorary Consul General of Pakistan who's amassed more than 800 lighters in four years. "You can still find some very rare, highly collectible pieces at local flea markets. There are still a lot left to discover." To many, the novelty is part of the appeal. The market is somewhat less competitive and is easier to break into than that of more traditional collectibles. Since there are still some relatively low-priced items, a new enthusiast can have a go at it without getting too badly burned.

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