Unless you count the occasional Connecticut shade cigar (my physician doesn’t), I do not smoke. I am drawn to the paraphernalia though. After your first, it’s difficult not to covet other vintage hotel ashtrays, though how many quirky soap dishes are necessary? An interesting table-top match-strike at least can be used to light candles. Cigarette cases can be exquisite, but they seem affected when used to carry business cards. Repurposing often has that effect.
In contrast, a finely made lighter is a beautiful object to admire and use. I own two excellent examples that I carry regularly. They are the same model—the iconic Rollagas by Dunhill—separated by forty years. I like to put them side by side and study each carefully, quietly noting the small aesthetic differences. I have recently decided there is more to learn here than immediately meets the eye. Studying in reverse order of date of manufacture—the late 2000s and the late 1960s—is particularly revealing.
The more recent of these two lighters is finished in a brilliant palladium. Unlike white gold or silver, which retains some warmth, palladium has a pure white cast. Some may suggest the effect is cold; to me it is in keeping with the aesthetic of more formal occasions when, at least for men, color should be limited, if not avoided altogether. This is the lighter I carry when in formalwear, or short of that, when an occasion is equal parts formal and celebratory and my suit is too.
The surface pattern—what Dunhill rather charmingly describes as barleycorn—covers the entirety. In what must be the engineering equivalent of bespoke pattern matching, the flip-top and body are aligned so precisely that the texture appears uninterrupted. The corners of the lighter are mitered and the sum effect is brick-like, as if the finished object was hewn from a solid ingot of palladium. The lighter is heavy for its size; I wonder sometimes if this was a contemporary design choice—a physical reminder that something luxurious inhabits your pocket.
The other (and first) Rollagas was a gift to my mother. For years it languished in some forgotten drawer until, to my astonishment, I discovered it one Christmas Eve. It was caked with candle wax and lint, and the striking mechanism was jammed. I had it carefully reconditioned; it returned gleaming and gorgeously patinated. The gold-plating is worn but not shabby; the mechanics are still responsive but comfortably broken-in; the same barleycorn surface, smoothed with age, feels frictionless, like the polished underbelly of a reptile.
Obvious design differences abound. The flip-top cap is untextured, with blunted corners that glide effortlessly in and out of the pocket. In place of sharply mitered edges, a worn frame subtly delineates the textured planes. Along with exposed hinges and a rear-mounted flame wheel, this design broadcasts the mechanics more honestly. The result isn’t clumsy though; perhaps some combination of patina and color is responsible, but this one seems smaller and lighter in the hand. It is certainly a subtler expression, better suited to ordinary occasions.
Of course operating either requires the same series of elegant little gestures. Once fished from a pocket (a lower waistcoat one is ideal) a flick of the thumb pops the cap with piston-activated efficiency. The thumb then instinctively finds the roller, the deep grooves encouraging that familiar lateral flick. The flame ignites its mark, and then, as if fed-up by all the grandeur, the index finger takes over, coldly snapping closed the cap with a satisfying, metallic clap. The point is made especially well when asked for a light; the performance is over in seconds, but the memory burns far longer.