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Keeping 'em Lit

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

(continued from page 2)

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.

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