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Pining for Those Pins
Craig Neff
January 27, 1988
As many will attest, collecting the tiny, colorful Olympic souvenirs can be addictive—and profitable
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January 27, 1988

Pining For Those Pins

As many will attest, collecting the tiny, colorful Olympic souvenirs can be addictive—and profitable

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•ABC Engineering mouse pin from '84 Games. Unauthorized by ABC, the pin was put out by company employees. Because of an enameling error, the mouse is wearing pants on some pins and is without them on others. No-pants pin is slightly more valuable. Value: up to $200.

It should be noted that these prices are rough estimates. A pin is worth what you can get for it—and that can change overnight. The market fell to pieces after the L.A. Games, when a flood of counterfeit pins arrived from overseas. "We were approached many times to take an official Olympic pin and reproduce it," recalls Klein, whose company has contracts with plants in Taiwan. "Some people wanted strange variations. One guy wanted us to make Misha [Moscow's 1980 bear mascot] as a punk, with a Mohawk haircut and a leather jacket. We said no." Some exotic knockoffs did appear, including one showing Sam with a drink in hand and his hat cocked, next to the words THE PARTY'S OVER.

Nearly all pins are handmade in Taiwan, where labor is cheap and craftsmen plentiful. Some pins are coated with enamel paint and clear acrylics, but the best are those fashioned with cloisonné enamel—a powdered, colored glass that is mixed with water, brushed into tiny reservoirs on the pin face and fired in a furnace. The Byzantines pioneered the use of cloisonné sometime before the 10th century, and man has not improved on it much since then. "You cannot scratch a cloisonné pin because it is so hard," says Chein.

Enameling techniques, of course, are of minor concern to most pin traders. "The best part of pin collecting for me is meeting people from all over the world who don't even speak your language and being able to communicate with them," says David Komansky, the president of Merrill Lynch Realty in Stamford, Conn. "Among pin traders there is an immediate bond." Komansky, who has roughly 1,000 different pins, claims he had his first "conversation" in Russian while standing on a ski slope at the Sarajevo Winter Games next to a Soviet army officer. The Soviet badly wanted to trade for a Merrill Lynch pin Komansky was wearing, but Komansky kept saying nyet as the officer pointed to one pin after another on his uniform. "Finally I pointed to the Red Star on his cap," says Komansky. "It took him about three seconds to decide that was O.K."

The Soviets have long been the world's most avid collectors of pins, which they call znachki. Any visitor to Moscow will find plastic and cheap metal znachki for sale in every department store and news kiosk for prices ranging from 10 kopecks (about 18 cents) to a ruble ($1.80). The pins commemorate everything from Communist Party congresses to anniversaries of collective farms.

Znachki are so ubiquitous that in 1974 the Communist Party newspaper Pravda even complained that pin production in the U.S.S.R. was "growing catastrophically" and using up too much of the nation's scarce raw materials. That attack, however, may have been prompted less by fears of a metal shortage than by the discovery of several politically embarrassing znachki, including a dog-club pin that resembled a Soviet military decoration.

Perhaps the leading source for pin trivia is professor emeritus of marketing Bill Nelson of Tucson and the University of Arizona, who publishes three pin-collectors' newsletters. Nelson, 47, was forced to retire from teaching ten years ago because of heart and lung problems, yet he and his wife, Julie, have built a mail-order pin distributorship that would wow the folks at Wharton. They ship out every order the day they receive it—insured, guaranteed, with a personal letter enclosed.

"I've never had so much fun in my life," says Nelson, an inexhaustible devotee of gadgetry, history, marketing theory and just about anything else you can think of. In a given lunch hour, one might find Nelson crouched under a shrub in his backyard, looking for one of the 12 desert tortoises he and Julie care for. The tortoises are a threatened species, and the Nelsons hope to raise enough money through their pin business to fund a desert preserve for them. "They're the whole reason for the pin business," says Bill.

Nelson describes his customers as "a very American group. We get a lot of checks with flags and Biblical quotations and John Wayne sayings on them." Many of the people send Nelson Christmas gifts for the invaluable tips and addresses he publishes. Some include photos of themselves covered head-to-toe in pins. "One guy sent us a picture of himself delivering milk, which I haven't quite figured out," says Nelson. "Somebody else sends a little wheel of fortune that you spin. It has things on it like SEND ME A FREE PIN Or YOU CAN GET A FREE DATE WITH ME."

In his newsletters, Nelson may, say, offer $5 off an order of three $25 M & M-Mars pins from the L.A. Olympics if a reader can tell him which original color M & M—besides red, which is being produced again as of this year—is no longer made. "This hobby is supposed to be enjoyable," he says. "People shouldn't look at it as an investment or something. That's what ruined baseball cards. Let's just have fun."

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