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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.

Lighter collecting has taken off in the past five years. There are seven international lighter clubs, two of them based in the United States. The 800-member Texas-based On the Lighter Side (OTLS) holds its annual convention the second weekend of June in alternating cities, and the 250-strong Pocket Lighter Preservation Guild (PLPG) assembles each April in Chicago. Although club membership has grown in the past two years, some 10,000 collectors in the United States remain unaffiliated with either organization.

If perhaps less visible, lighter collectors are certainly not less passionate than other collectors. The Club Italia L'Accendino ("The Lighter") calls its highly regarded bimonthly newsletter, "Lighters Mania." Its British counterpart is "Blaze." All of the clubs sponsor local swap meets and provide an invaluable networking venue. "It's always hot news when someone in the lighter community finds a piece that no one's ever seen before," says Tolkin. "And this happens every two or three months."

These discoveries can be pricey. Tolkin recently paid $2,000 for one such Ronson, a 1909 double-striker table lighter called Gobbo, after Gobbo, the god of good luck. Most striker lighters wield one striker rod, but this one has two, which makes it unusual from a mechanical standpoint.

Both rarity and unusual mechanical design affect the value of a lighter. Rarity is a function of the number produced, and the number that have survived. It is not necessarily related to age; some rare pieces are not old. (They may have been custom-made or produced recently but in limited quantities.) Table lighters are rarer than pockets (and generally more valuable); approximately seven table models were produced for every thousand of the pocket variety.

Still, the market value of a lighter depends in part on its age. A specimen that is especially characteristic of a particular period, such as an Art Deco enamel, assumes a greater value. Another important consideration is the materials used to make a lighter, with precious metals or enamels commanding higher prices. A built-in secondary function (such as a lighter that doubles as a pocket knife or humidor) makes a piece more precious; timepieces and jewels are further price boosters.

Makers are also significant, with Dunhill and Cartier topping the list. Ronson (known in its early days as Art Metal Works) and Evans are the principal American brands, with Zippo in a category by itself. The Austrian IMCO, British Colibri, French Dupont and Van Cleef & Arpels, Swiss Thorens and La Nationale, and Italian Saffo hallmarks are all highly regarded. After World War II, numerous Japanese companies reproduced all sorts of gimcracks containing concealed lighters. Stamped "MIOJ" (Made in Occupied Japan) as required by law, lighter designs ranged from Wurlitzers to sewing machines to motor cars.

Alfred Dunhill Ltd. fancies its lighters the Rolls Royces of the trade. Alfred Dunhill, the London-based company's founder, established a dictum that stated "It must be beautiful, it must be the best of its kind, and it must last." British royals, Winston Churchill, maharajas and other foreign dignitaries are among the customers listed in shop registers past and present.

Two Dunhill lighters are even included in the Guinness Book of World Records. The world's longest lighter is Dunhill's Meter Rule, a late-1930s architectural piece in the form of a silver-plated box. The most expensive lighter fetched £37,500 (approximately $56,535) in 1986. A Dunhill model named the Lighthouse, it consisted of a two-foot-high, 18-karat gold beacon flickering atop a "rock island" crafted from a 112-pound amethyst.

In 1934, Dunhill created a single Dorothy Rose Basket lighter to spark interest in the company. It was a miniature platinum-and-gold basket containing a cluster of 60 rubies, cut in the shape of damask roses. Lifting the basket's handle exposed a lighter nestled inside. The basket has since disappeared and remains the object of an intense, but thus far futile, search.

Another highly sought Dunhill is a 1938 boar's tusk table lighter pictured in the company's catalogue for that year, thought to be a one-of-a-kind item or a very limited edition. No Tusk has been found to date, yet Dunhill collectors continue to look, convinced one may eventually turn up in India.

It is not known just how many of the Tusk and some other Dunhill models were produced, because World War II bombings of London destroyed many of Dunhill's records. What survived is stored in the company's London Archives Collection, including more than 1,200 lighters, advertisements, photographs and catalogues.

This kind of information is invaluable to devotees like Federico Mantero, an Italian silk producer with a collection of about 250 Dunhills. A confessed "gear geek" who also collects British hunting guns and Jaguars, he dissects each of his lighters and documents his findings in technical drawings. He hopes to publish them in a comprehensive Dunhill guidebook. "The most wonderful part of collecting is the very moment you discover something," Mantero says. "The intrigue for me is in the hunt: the research, the foraging and ultimately, the catch. As soon as I buy it and put it on the shelf, it begins to fascinate me less."

Most lighters do remain on the shelf, unused by owners who hanker after only those in the best condition. Because condition generally influences the value of any collectible, a piece found in its original package, unopened, is worth about 30 to 50 percent more. The sturdier the stuff it's made of, the better its chances for surviving intact and remaining in good condition; so lighters made of fragile materials, like glass, are more valuable since they have a lower survival rate. The Massachusetts-based Evans company made a series of lighters with fruit- and egg-shaped enameled cases, that fit into this category. Hand-painted or enameled in the Fabergé style, these strawberries, apples, pears, pineapples, acorns and eggs were produced between 1948 and 1959. A few bananas are rumored to have been made, but none have yet surfaced.

Provenance also counts. One New York collector owns lighters that belonged to Ethel Barrymore and Jose Ferrer. Another has a lighter inscribed by Joseph Kennedy, given on Christmas 1927. Sotheby's auctioned Marlene Dietrich's Dunhill. Some devotees create whole collections around this celebrity motif.

Hollywood was a big market for lighters in the glamour-struck 1940s and 1950s. In 1947, there were 147 lighter manufacturers in Los Angeles alone. In Hitchcock's 1951 film, Strangers On a Train, a Ronson Adonis lighter fills half the screen during its moment in the limelight. During the '50s and '60s, it was common practice for performers to give out lighters. They bore the signatures, and occasionally the images, of performers like Andy Williams, Bob Hope, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. (Frank Sinatra and Jonathan Winters are collectors themselves.) Local flea markets and antiques fairs in the Los Angeles area are oases for present-day collectors.

Most fine-tune their collections, with some themed around golf, naked women, commemorative events, electric lighters, specific brand names, nineteenth-century mercury-filament cap lighters, American corporate logos, or Zippo U.S. Navy lighters. Not surprisingly, Ugo Beretta, proprietor of the renowned Italian firearms company, specializes in pistol lighters.

Guns and lighters are a frequent match. Fundamental gear for soldiers and sailors in both world wars, lighters provided flames for illumination, rescue beacons, ignition of fires for cooking and warmth and not incidentally, lighting up. Due to frequent dampness, matches were often useless. This is one of the explanations for the proliferation of "trench-art" lighters. These were makeshift models said to have been crafted during the infamous trench warfare of World War I. Cartridge cases, bullets, helmets, coins and other front-line debris were assembled to create rudimentary mechanisms that were highly inventive in design. Trench-art is itself a category of collectibles.

During World War II, both Zippo and Ronson "went to war." Ronson contributed metal hinges used on a particular torpedo bomber, and Zippo sent lighters. The Zippo form has remained virtually unchanged (except for a quarter-inch height reduction) since it first appeared in 1932. The standard chrome cases were made memorable by soldiers who engraved words, recorded itineraries and attached badges and souvenirs to them, customizing their Zippos and providing tidbits of military history as well. The company capitalized on the glowing battlefield reports in postwar advertising campaigns. A 1961 ad picturing a battle-scarred lighter stated, "Ernie Pyle scratched his shortest war story on this Zippo lighter in 1945. It still works today."

Perhaps the present lighter craze is due in part to the disappearance from our daily lives of an object that was once a personal effect--not unlike a wristwatch--reflective of one's identity. Urban Cummings, the Ronson expert with a collection 10,000 strong, speculates, "Wick lighters are something from the past that last. They represent a time, before disposables, when values were different."

Nancy Wolfson writes about style and lives in New York City.

Collector's Guide

MUSEUMS

Alfred Dunhill Archive Collection
60/61 Burlington Arcade, London W1, England
By appointment only, with at least 48 hours notice. Contact:Howard Smith, Archive Controller
phone (44) 71-499-9566 fax (44) 71-499-6471 or (44) 71-522-8037

Lighter Museum of Holland
P.O. Box 27, 5670AA Neunen, The Netherlands
By appointment; contact: Mr. Ad van Weert, Curator
phone (31) 40-833-806
fax (31) 40-523-76

National Lighter Museum
107 South 2nd Street, Guthrie, OK 73044
Contact: Ted and Pat Ballard
phone/fax (405) 282-3025


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