The Lighter Side of Counterfeiting Puts Zippo in a Fix - WSJ.com
The Lighter Side of Counterfeiting Puts Zippo in a Fix
By BARRY NEWMAN
BRADFORD, Pa.—"Always works—or we fix it" has, with minor tinkering, been a Zippo lighter slogan since 1937. "It is a profound statement of quality," says Greg Booth, Zippo Manufacturing Co.'s chief executive. It also means Zippo has to fix a lot of lighters.
The manufacturer of Zippo lighters offers a lifetime repair guarantee, but the company won't fix fakes. Here are some ways to tell the real thing from the counterfeits.
The task falls to three "clinics"—two abroad and one here in Zippo's hometown—that fix more than 100,000 lighters a year. Quite a few Zippos get mangled when they slip out of pockets into the mechanism of recliners. One was ingested (but not digested) by a pig. Usually, a new screw or spring will put it back in working order.
Fulfilling the forever guarantee would pose little challenge, in fact, if a huge number of Zippos didn't happen to be rippos.
Factories in China, the company figures, make 12 million fake Zippos a year. In Bradford, at its only plant, Zippo makes 12 million real ones. Rippos, as Zippo fans actually do call them, used to be junk. They sold for about $2; Zippo's average is $20. But like a lot of other things in China, rippo workmanship keeps improving. Now a high-class rippo goes for $10. If China can replicate hard disks, it can certainly fake an object with 22 parts based on a 1936 patent.
It's getting to the point where Zippo itself has to look twice to tell the difference between counterfeits and its own product.
"What's concerning is the quality," Mr. Booth says. "Ten years ago, fakes were a cinch to spot. They're getting better because our consumers want genuine Zippos. They aren't so easy to hoodwink."
Other products offer unlimited free repair. Briggs & Riley luggage is one. But Briggs & Riley, an 18-year-old private company in Hauppauge, Long Island, doesn't have a counterfeit problem. Other products are beset with counterfeits—Louis Vuitton luggage, for instance. But Vuitton doesn't offer unlimited free repair.
A counterfeit on the left, real Zippo on the right
When a counterfeit plague and free repair merge in a single product, the result is a repair shop merged with a crime lab. Zippo isn't about to fix rippos. Somebody has to decide which is which.
That somebody, one morning, was Connie Woods, a 22-year veteran. Wearing latex gloves, she was opening envelopes, spilling broken lighters onto her workbench. Zippo's clinic is in the company museum. Its half-dozen workers fix lighters behind a big window so visitors can watch.
A lighter slipped out of an envelope post marked Poland. A note in English said only that it needed repair. "Afghanistan" was engraved on the case. The lettering wasn't Zippo's design, but anyone can engrave a case.
"It can take a minute to decipher some counterfeits, which is scary," said Ms. Woods. She held the lighter in her palm, judging its weight. She removed its insert—the working parts—testing for the famous "trombone fit." Ms. Woods said, "I have suspicions."
The logo on the case looked fine. The insert drew out smoothly, and it was accurately etched: "For best results, use Zippo flints and fuel." What was wrong? "There's things, and that's all I'm going to tell," said Ms. Woods, with a slight, knowing smile.
That lighter would be returned, with regrets but no details. Zippo isn't eager to let buyers know how they've been had. Yet for fans who see the Zippo as a monument to American design, like Ray-Bans and the Slinky, the Internet swarms with rippo-phobia.
A comment begins, "Watch out for the fake John Deere Zippo lighters going around…appear to look exactly like a real Zippo…" Frets another: "Looks like the forgers are getting better at it. Any comments, guys?" And amid the chat-room anxieties, Zippo enthusiasts post checklists for surefire Zippo authentication.
A few examples: The 12 letters "A" through "L" stand for the months on a Zippo date stamp; other letters flag a fake. True chimneys have 16 holes. Zippo rivets are steel, not brass; the flint eyelet is brass, not steel. Strike wheels are cut in a houndstooth pattern, and the edge of the flint-screw's head must be knurled.
Publicizing such giveaways, of course, lets counterfeiters in on them, too. In the ensuing game, Zippo tickles its designs and the fakers tickle theirs. Zippo patented a new rib for its insert not long ago, and cut new teeth on its strike wheel. "We make an improvement," says Mr. Booth. "They catch up."
Now, Zippo's president whispers, "we're putting something in among the parts that we know they can't find."
But if the fakers do find out, the Zippo still has an ace under the lid: its click. Or, to be precise, its "Ping! Kah-chunk!"
Several fakes purchased on Canal Street in New York City mimic the kah-chunk well enough but miss on the ping. Getting both of them perfectly pitched for Zippo is what Debbie Ickes does for a living.
In the factory, she was at her desk, picking up lighters as they came off the production line. She flipped one open and closed it a few times, listening to the click. With a pair of pliers, she fussed with a tab under the lid, flipped it again and listened.
"I'm sort of tuning it," said Ms. Ickes. How does she know when she hits the Zippo click? Ms. Ickes said, "I just know."
If an imperfect ping betrays a rippo on Canal Street, though, it doesn't simplify the forensics back in the repair clinic. That's because a Zippo's Achilles' heel is its hinge.
"The hinge is the major repair activity," Ms. Woods was saying as she opened a new envelope. A lighter with a 1973 stamp slid out, and with it a note: "Please repair this lighter because my father has just passed. He has left it to me and it means a lot to me."
"People have this nervous habit," said Ms. Woods. "They play with their lighters." She picked this one up. The lid wobbled. She pulled out the insert and looked at it. Then she decided: "We'll reattach the lid, put in a new insert and send it back."
How did Ms. Woods know the Zippo wasn't a rippo? She allowed it wasn't the click. "Can't check the click on a broken hinge—the click's not there," was all she'd say.
It must have been something else.