Pining for Those Pins

As many will attest, collecting the tiny, colorful Olympic souvenirs can be addictive—and profitable
January 27, 1988

The hottest sports collectible of the 1980s is a tiny piece of enameled jewelry that costs 60 to 90 cents to produce and retails for about five bucks. It is the Olympic pin, and it owes a debt to the Byzantine Empire, the desert tortoise and a parking lot at the corner of 39th St. and Figueroa in Los Angeles.

Intrigued? Read on. You may want to become a pinhead yourself.

What is a pinhead? It's someone who has been taken with a desire to collect pins. Pinheads, as even the collectors call themselves, have been known to offer as much as $6,000 for a single Burmese Olympic pin. In 1984 a California pinhead bought stock in several corporations just to get more of their Olympic sponsorship pins. Pinheads bargain, beg, plead and occasionally turn into pin counterfeiters to sustain their habit. They are elderly women in Pomona and eight-year-olds in Nashville and corporate vice-presidents in New York who sport silly baseball caps crowded with constellations of pins. "Some of them, I think, are crazy," says Eddie Chein, whose Commerce, Calif.-based company, Ooh La La! Inc., produced an estimated 30 million pins as official pin licensee of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Pinheads first appeared in large numbers during those Summer Games, on the aforementioned parking lot, which happens to be across the street from the L.A. Coliseum. As many as 20,000 collectors a day—most with cash in their pockets and Olympic fever inflaming their senses—crowded into hectic and hot pin swapping and selling tents set up on the lot. The result was pin hysteria.

People tore apart $300 framed sets to sell pins individually at huge profits. A woman's purse was stolen, then found—with no cash missing, only pins. L.A. lawyer Gary Ruttenberg recalls being beset by pinheads while crossing Figueroa. "I sold $325 worth of pins and never stopped walking," he says. A collector offered Chein $50,000 cash for every pin in his booth. Gift Creations Inc. of North Hollywood, licensee of the boycotted 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, suddenly sold out its entire warehouse of Moscow pins. "One day we couldn't give them away, the next they were selling for $8 and $10," says Steve Klein, the company's executive vice-president, still shaking his head.

Rest assured, a similar fever will grip Calgary, site of the XV Winter Olympics. While some pinheads work the street corners and mountainsides, others will hunker down in either of the Games' two planned pin-swapping centers: one next to the athletes' village, the other downtown, just 50 yards from Olympic Plaza, where each night the Olympic medals will be awarded.

The downtown center, to be known as the Coca-Cola/Calgary International Plaza, will be a heated, 22,000-square-foot tent. Half of it will house a food festival and the other half will be dedicated to a carnival of pin swapping and selling. The trading area will be open 12 hours a day and will feature an audiovisual system that will carry pin-trading instructional films and all the latest in pin gossip.

"We'll even give pin 'stock-market' reports' Bulgarian bobsleds are now trading for 16 Swiss downhills,' that sort of thing," says Roy Fleming, who is a media-relations manager for Coca-Cola.

Outside, pins will become an unofficial form of currency. At L.A., athletes left pins as tips for their Olympic Village hairdressers. Drivers used them to buy their way into "full" parking lots. Reporters used them to bribe their way into off-limits areas.

Pins have actually been around the Olympics for decades. They evolved from coin-like metal identification badges worn by officials at Games in the early 1900s, to partially enameled pins given to competitors in the 1930s, to today's mass-produced, fully enameled pins. It's refreshing to find that most Olympic athletes still look upon the pins as tokens of friendship rather than high-priced collectibles. "I give most of mine away to kids," says bobsledder Matt Roy of Lake Placid, who nevertheless still has a collection of 200. "If an athlete from another country gives you one of his pins, you always try to give him one of yours—but only as an act of thanks. It isn't a competitive type of trading." Roy does claim one of the world's oddest pins: an Eastern European bobsled pin with a rugged-looking screw-thread fastener instead of a pin clasp.

It's numbing to consider that there are already more than a quarter of a billion pins of one type or another in circulation throughout the world. No one knows who has the largest collection, but Ruttenberg alone has donated about 3,000 different Olympic pins to the L.A. County Museum of Natural History. "My wife has 7,000 pins from the sport of curling," says Laurie Artiss of Regina, Saskatchewan, official pin licensee of the Calgary Games, "and she isn't even the biggest curling collector in Canada."

It has become a big business. Artiss outbid 67 other companies for the Calgary pin franchise, the most sought-after exclusive-rights contract of the Winter Games. He guaranteed the organizing committee a minimum return of $250,000 (Canadian) on pin sales, still peanuts compared to the $1.25 million promised to the U.S. Olympic Committee by its pin licensee for the Calgary and Seoul Summer Games, Ho Ho Art & Craft International of New York. Ho Ho is required to give the USOC 10% of every pin sale, thus making pin buying a patriotic act.

If you're a collector, this business stuff can be bad news: Even though Ho Ho and Artiss are producing completely different assortments of Calgary pins—thereby increasing the variety available—each is legally restricted in distributing them. Artiss can't sell his pins in the U.S., and Ho Ho can't sell its product in Canada.

That's unfortunate, because in most respects the pin phenomenon knows no boundaries. Write to Tehran and you'll get an Iranian Olympic pin delivered to your mailbox. Visit northern Canada and you'll find the Inuit asking how to join collectors' clubs. Drop a friendly note to a certain King Moshoeshoe II and an Olympic pin from his southern African nation of Lesotho may come your way. Pinheads can testify to all of this.

The '88 Olympics will bring a new wave of pins to collect. Artiss will produce as many as eight million pins in around 600 styles for the Calgary Games. Ho Ho Art & Craft will manufacture perhaps 40 million Olympic pins in 400 designs for the two Games. "It's a good thing pins are small," says Rowan Fay, a Marcy, N.Y., pastor and president of the 2,000-member International Pin Collectors" Club. "If these were antique cars, we'd need a pretty big barn."

Among the new faces to be found on Calgary pins will be Hidy and Howdy, the Games' polar bear mascots, and the OlympiKids, the Hanna-Barbera cartoon creations being marketed by the USOC. If tradition holds, however, those most in demand at the Winter Games will be ABC pins, team pins, press pins, International Olympic Committee pins and any other rare or unusual issues. A few examples from the past:

•Sam the Eagle, the 1984 L.A. mascot, holding a bottle of Coke. Only 400 pins were made before the L.A. Olympic Organizing Committee halted production on the grounds that Sam could not be shown endorsing a product. Value: up to $1,700.

•Arrowhead Mineral Water sponsor pin showing Sam holding a water glass. Same situation as with Sam holding the bottle of Coke. Approximately 1,500 were produced. Value: up to $250.

•Merrill Lynch Sarajevo pin with a white background and a blue snowflake and black bull on it. Use of black bull on white background violated Merrill Lynch's trademark guidelines. Only 1,000 produced. Value: $400.

•Sarajevo Coca-Cola pin with the LAOOC trademark stamped on the back by mistake. Value: $100.

•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 cloisonnè 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 cloisonnè sometime before the 10th century, and man has not improved on it much since then. "You cannot scratch a cloisonnè 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."

Taking that as the pinhead motto, let's review what might be called the Pin Commandments:

1) Thou shalt subscribe to THE BILL NELSON NEWSLETTER (P.O. Box 41630, Tucson, Ariz. 85717), THE PIN COLLECTORS NEWSLETTER (Box 227, Marcy, N.Y. 13403) and THE OLYMPIN NEWSLETTER (1386 Fifth St., Schenectady, N.Y. 12303).

2) Thou shalt write hundreds of letters to embassies, federations and corporate sponsors asking for free Olympic pins. "Be polite but very insistent," advises Frank Vias of New York, whose pin collection totals more than 350. "If it's a company, tell them you love their product."

3) Thou shalt plan thy vacations around major sporting events.

4) Thou shalt scour flea markets looking for discarded pins.

5) Thou shalt never buy, sell or commission knockoffs.

6) Thou shalt be completely honest, especially in dealing with other pin traders.

7) Except sometimes, such as when offered a dusty old ABC pin from the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck (value: $125) in exchange for two shiny new Seoul Olympic pins (value: $10).

8) Thou shalt respect and admire the pin-making nation of Taiwan.

9) Thou shalt trade rather than buy whenever possible.

10) Thou shalt treat pins with reasonable care, displaying them on caps, vests, parkas, flags, Christmas stockings, towels, ceiling tiles and bulletin boards, or in official pin frames. Thou shalt not toss them into shoe boxes or drawers.

There isn't much logic involved in becoming a pinhead. You devote yourself to collecting the logos of corporations you don't work for, teams you don't belong to and nations you've never visited. From a marketing perspective, however, pins may be the greatest creation the world has ever seen. "People pay to wear your ad," says Nelson. "What's better than that?"