Collecting vintage lighters

Somewhat ironically perhaps, the decline in smoking is firing up new interest in lighters as artfully crafted collectables, says Ming Liu

c1935 Alfred Dunhill shagreen “Giant” clock/table lighter, £18,000 from Pullman Gallery
c1935 Alfred Dunhill shagreen “Giant” clock/table lighter, £18,000 from Pullman Gallery

It’s almost hard to imagine these days: a fashionable soirée with a cigarette in the hand of virtually every well-dressed guest. But in the early 20th century, not only was smoking en vogue, so too were its accoutrements, says Kristian Spofforth, head of Sotheby’s jewellery department in London. Somewhat ironically, the decline in smoking is firing up the market for vintage lighters. “As there are fewer and fewer smokers, lighters will become rarer and rarer,” says Spofforth. “It’s certainly a collector’s market.”

c1930 Cartier art deco gold and diamond lighter, $22,000 from Siegelson
c1930 Cartier art deco gold and diamond lighter, $22,000 from Siegelson

The art deco period was a golden era for lighters, with Cartier leading the charge. In 1928, under the chic eye of its head designer Jeanne “La Panthère” Toussaint, the French house produced a brochure entitled Luxurious Smoke, showcasing a number of gem-studded lighters. Two exceptional c1930s Cartier models can be found today at New York dealer Siegelson: one is a pocket version ($22,000), a bold column of gold topped with a band of 52 diamonds; the other ($18,000) is a larger table lighter, designed to be displayed at home, in a geometric combination of glass, rose gold and black enamel. Particularly sought after from the pioneer of bejewelled watches are its clock-set table lighters; in 2013 an art-deco gold and enamel model was listed on eBay for 50 cents – 45 bids later it sold for $18,988, a record for a lighter on the site. 

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Another proponent of watch-faced designs is Dunhill, whose c1935 mélange of a mechanical timepiece and a shagreen-wrapped table lighter (£18,000), in the “giant” size of 10cm high, is available at London’s Pullman Gallery. Indeed, Dunhill lighters are top brass for many collectors, including Milan-based Danilo Arlenghi, founder of a multiservice events company, who at one point owned 7,000 lighters, 6,000 of them by Dunhill. “All the kings, queens and aristocrats in the 1930s used a Dunhill,” says the aficionado, whose first piece was given to him as a teenager by his mother – a gold design from 1956. 

From left: c1935 Alfred Dunhill enamel Namiki lighter, £9,500 from Pullman Gallery. c1950 Ben Shillingford for Alfred Dunhill Aquarium lighter, £6,000 from Nicholas Wells Antiques
From left: c1935 Alfred Dunhill enamel Namiki lighter, £9,500 from Pullman Gallery. c1950 Ben Shillingford for Alfred Dunhill Aquarium lighter, £6,000 from Nicholas Wells Antiques

The Pullman Gallery is the go-to for Dunhill lighters. Its owner, Simon Khachadourian, is particularly fond of the 1930s Namiki table designs (£9,500-£15,000) using the ancient Japanese technique of e-maki. “They have a strong story, plus they’re all signed,” he says. His comprehensive Dunhill offering includes its smallest ever pocket lighter, the Baby Sylph (£4,500) from c1936 and just 25mm high; a “virtually unheard of” trio of green shagreen-wrapped pieces (£16,500), ranging in size from “giant extra” to “half giant”; and a “super-rare” c1922 pocket design (£29,500) for Rolls-Royce depicting a car radiator. 

c1970s Patek Philippe white-gold lighter, sold for $22,500 at Christie’s
c1970s Patek Philippe white-gold lighter, sold for $22,500 at Christie’s | Image: Christie’s Images Ltd

For dealer Nicholas Wells, however, it’s Dunhill’s Aquarium table lighters from the 1950s that are the crème de la crème. Winston Churchill allegedly owned one of these Perspex-wrapped pieces, each carved in a reverse intaglio – by dental tools, no less – and then handpainted for a tactile 3D effect. For around a decade, they were produced by the same artisan, Ben Shillingford; when he retired, production ceased, as his workmanship could not be equalled – making his creations especially rare today. In vivid blues and greens, the fish scenes – of which Wells currently has three striking examples (from £3,900) – usually sell for £4,000-£6,500, while sporting and avian scenes can easily fetch upwards of £11,000. “But it’s the one-off private commissions that are the most valuable,” says Wells, highlighting one made for speed racer Donald Campbell and depicting his famous Bluebird hydroplane, which was sold by the Pullman Gallery last year for over £30,000. 

c1960s Van Cleef & Arpels gold lighter, £6,436 from 1stdibs
c1960s Van Cleef & Arpels gold lighter, £6,436 from 1stdibs

More feminine designs returned to the fore in the 1960s and ’70s. The best come from Bulgari, as seen in the yellow gold, crocodile-motif pocket lighter that, together with two compacts, achieved a total of SFr32,500 (about £26,119) at Christie’s in 2015. The pocket lighters of this period feel glamorous yet still chunky, thanks to tactile patterns, often in yellow gold, such as a chic woven-effect c1960s Van Cleef & Arpels design (£6,436) that can be found on 1stdibs. Another name to look out for is Patek Philippe, whose c1970s zigzag-motif lighter fetched $22,500 against a $4,000-$6,000 estimate at Christie’s earlier this year. 

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Pocket lighters from specialist brands can be a good starting point for would-be collectors, with charming pieces readily available at reasonable prices, such as those by ST Dupont. Hattons Antiques has several from the French luxury house, including a c2000 eyecatching gold and red lacquer inlay style (£295) and a c1990 gold-plated model (£225) with a distinctive line pattern. Another name to know is Ronson, which Jack Bond, president of the Lighter Club of Great Britain, calls the “lighter for the common man”, as they were omnipresent at tobacconists before the brand closed down in the 1970s. Nowadays, Ronsons can be picked up on eBay for as little as £100, and Bond, a forensic e-disclosure consultant by day, focuses on them in his mint 650-piece 1890s-1960s collection. “Club members collect by passion,” he says. “Some go for strictly gold lighters; others look for interesting mechanisms.” But for both Bond and Arlenghi, keeping their finds in pristine condition means not actually using them. Vintage lighters may be hot, just not smokingly so.

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