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Keeping 'em Lit

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

(continued from page 1)

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.

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