At one time, when smoking cigarettes was much more popular than today, nearly every other person carried either matches or a cigarette lighter.
While there are a lot fewer smokers today than in years past, vintage cigarette lighters still are attracting attention, but now as collectibles.
Rich Weinstein, owner of the International Vintage Lighter Exchange in Hendersonville, N.C., (www.vintagelighters.com), says that cigarette lighters have been collected for more than 60 years, often because people simply liked them.
A very rare Ronson 1930s Kingcase with Watch, done in Tortoise Enamel and Dureum Plate.
“Smoking was so popular back then that it was a necessity to have lighters, whether they were carried in your pocket or placed on tables in your home,” Weinstein said. “What seemed to have sparked the interest in collecting came after the advent of butane lighters, which changed the look and functionality of fire-making devices. When something seems to be going out, people become nostalgic for the ones they remember and start searching for ‘vintage lighters.’”
Weinstein noted that with lighters, as with most mechanical devices, one can follow the changes over time that they went through, how the advances in technology affected them and “marvel at the ingenuity of the people who designed them.”
Yvonne Saldate-Auld, owner of the Atlanta Antique Gallery in Chamblee, Ga., (www.atlantaantiquegallery.com), considers reminiscence as playing a large part in collecting vintage lighters.
“Like many other collectibles, vintage lighters are popular because they remind people of a bygone age,” Saldate-Auld said. “In addition, people admire the craftsmanship of older lighters, and when the lighters are made in the shape of animals, airplanes and other objects, they have a broad crossover appeal with other collectors.”
Weinstein believes that Zippo lighters have attracted the most attention from collectors.
“There are thousands of Zippo collectors worldwide and Zippo has its own club that helps promote the collecting of their lighters,” he said. “Second in popularity is Ronson, a lighter with an extremely long history dating from the early 1900s through the 1980s. There are many collectors who specialize only in Ronson lighters.”
Weinstein said that one of the greatest achievements in Ronson collecting was the publication of a book written by one of the foremost Ronson collectors, Urban Cummings.
“His 1993 book, ‘Ronson — The World’s Greatest Lighter,’ spans Ronson from 1913 to 1966, and these were the most prolific years for Ronson,” Weinstein pointed out. “The book helped collectors all over the world understand and enjoy the history of Ronson.”
The third most popular lighter among collectors, Weinstein said, is made by Alfred Dunhill of London. Best known for their art in lighter manufacturing, Dunhill catered to the elite as well as the regular smoker.
For the elite, Dunhill produced thousands of lighters with artistically-crafted enameling by some of the great craftsmen of their time, many of which were adorned with watches and made of precious metals. For those interested in Dunhill, the book, “The Dunhill Petrol Lighter, A Unique Story” by Luciano Bottoni, has more than 500 color photos and plenty of information on Dunhill lighters.
Mathew McLoughlin, a cigarette lighter collector and dealer associated with Saldate-Auld’s Atlanta Antique Gallery, said that cigarette lighters can run the gamut from simple flint and spark wheel mechanisms to the piezo ignition system lighter.
“Lighters with advertising slogans are very sought after by collectors,” McLoughlin said. “Companies used cigarette lighters to promote other products and gave lighters away as promotional items. Collectors are always keen to acquire these lighters to complete their collections.”
Another popular style with collectors, he pointed out, is the novelty lighter. Such lighters come in many shapes, some whimsical, such as toys or animals, and some even emit flashing lights.
“It’s interesting to note that several states have banned the sale of new novelty lighters since they appeal to children and pose a potential hazard,” McLoughlin said. “This will likely make vintage novelty lighters more sought after.”
McLoughlin noted that after the Second World War ended, the sale of lighters was led by the Japanese lighter industry.
“Between 1945 and 1952, all lighters produced in Japan were marked ‘Made in Occupied Japan,’” he said. “Today, these lighters, like the trench art and early Zippos, are regarded as relics of an era in recent history and are highly prized by collectors.”
Weinstein of International Vintage Lighter Exchange believes that fine collectible cigarette lighters are becoming harder to find.
“Each time one is bought, it reduces the availability,” he said. “Since there is a finite amount of these, scarcity is inevitable. It’s much harder to find a great, old lighter these days than it was 20 or 30 years ago.”
However, he’s sold some rare and exotic lighters in recent times, including a Dunhill enameled lighter with attached cigarette case that sported an enameled scene of Napoleon and Josephine that went for more than $15,000.
Another of his more memorable lighters sold was an extremely rare Dunhill table lighter with attached cigarette box in sterling silver called the Dunhill Pagoda that sold for $6,500. Also, Weinstein sold a rare Ronson lighter hidden in a walking stick for $3,500.
“But remember,” he pointed out, “most lighters will sell in the $20 to $100 range, so this hobby is available to many.”