Fake zippo's

In 1982 Japanese businessmen came in Vietnam to spend a good time with hot girls. A Chinese merchant with extensive connections in the Saigon Government was able to get "concessions" and controlled much of the actual lighter business. He has discovered the attractive appeal of the Zippo to the tourist looking for the exotic. The more the sentence engraved into the lighter was bawdy, more they bought it. Americans left thousand of new plain Zippos when they withdrew and this merchant recuperated them through his familiar network. The old templates and pantograph machines were used to engrave old/new Zippos.

Since, I have received this information from a passionate witness by the Vietnam zippo history. I give it to you as he wrote it.

Engraving done for these tourists

In the early in 90's, the tourism to Vietnam increased when diplomatic relations relaxed between the USA and Vietnam. The veterans were the first looking for Vietnam Zippos, part of their memory but mainly their youth. The market turned into a business for young Vietnamese dealers of Saigon and soon fake Zippos came to the market. After the collapse lighters and quite a few items were stashed. The gold and jewellery was used as exchange to "get out" and over the past few years they have surfaced as negotiable items.

Three categories of fake zippos were engraved in Vietnam.

1) Real zippos with fabrication marks after 1975 Vietnam engraved.
2) Real zippos with correct date marks (before 1975) with Vietnam engraving added at a later date.
3) And then completely counterfeit zippos with engraved zippo mark on the bottom and on the insert.

To detect the zippos from the first category check the zippo date according to the dating card supplied by the zippo firm. For the years between 1966 and 1975 (Vietnam war ended in April 1975) the codes are: four vertical bars each side of the italicized zippo logo for 1966. Then the bars were removed alternatively first on the right and then on the left. So for 1967 four bars on the left and three on the right, three each side for 1968 and so one until 1973 last year with vertical bar coding. Lighters from 1973 have one bar on the left and nothing on the right. In 1974, the code marks turn to slashes; four slashes on each side of the italicized zippo logo and in 1975 only three slashes on the right part. Confused? Read this chapter carefully, and compare with the zippo chart.

Code mark on a 68's lighter

Examination of the insert.

Another way to detect the counterfeit is to examine the text on the insert. Only one face must be inscribed in horizontal position. In the three lines at the top of the insert: FOR BEST RESULTS USE ZIPPO FLINTS AND FLUID and at the bottom: ZIPPO MFG, CO. BRADFORD. PA. ZIPPO ® MADE IN U.S.A. also in three lines.

All zippos made from November 1932 could be engraved in Vietnam. American soldiers have adopted them since the Second World War and from this period soldiers have engraved their names, battle sites and feelings onto their lighters.

Most lighters from Korea war have the 2032695 patent number stamped on the bottom. The lighter is made of steel with chrome plated instead of brass with chrome plated.

1952 zippo lighter (Korea war)

From 1955 to August 1967, PAT. 2517191 was etched under the italicized zippo logo and at the lower part of the inscription in the insert. As the new press machine was introduced, the indent of the bottom became deeper in 1969 and the typeface of "Z" in the zippo logo was changed. The trademark '®' was moved to the 'O' of the ZIPPO, the wick eyelet is different and the cam spring is larger.

New copies engraved bottom (code 1966). Pressed bottom (code 1967). Note the type face of "Z" like the 1969 code.

1969 code, the fake is on the left. Note the position of the trademark '®' under the "O".

67 ZIPPO Code

Both zippo codes below are fake example that you could find nowadays. The fabrication date is 1967, before August for the one with the patent number and after August for the other. The bottom is deeper embossed than the genuine 67 zippo. This will append in 69 when zippo modify the press machine. On the first, the top part of the "Z" start under the "R" of BRADFORD and the coma is between the "Z" and the "I" of zippo.

On the second, the ® is below the "O" of zippo like 1969 zippo code. The italized word zippo
is centred (lower position). It was impossible because zippo have ground the patent number off the old dies and then used the old dies to code the bottom until mid 1969.

Above a genuine 1967 zippo code for comparison.

Zippo used a new machine press in 1969 which caused the "canned" bottom of the lighter to be more dented in. Also zippo changed the "Z" logo and gave the letter "Z" a tail hanging down on the right side. The ® is now above the "O" of zippo . The "Z" start above the "R" of Bradford and the logo is centred.

Genuine zippos and new engravings

When American soldiers withdraw from Vietnam in March 1973, they left a considerable quantity of materials, tanks, planes, patrol boats and of course a lot of mint in box Zippos. On the Khe San base, Vietnamese dug up a Caterpillar buried under the landing track.

All the new Zippos left have been recuperated, engraved and sold in the markets of Da-Nang, Hue or in the Chinese market of Cholon at Saigon. It is very difficult to detect this kind of counterfeit; only the type of engraving and the new shiny filling to the engraving can help to detect them. None of the engravers of the wartime had added filling to their engraving excepted those in mint or close to mint condition purchased on the way home in Saigon or Tan Son Nhut airport. Filling would have succumbed to the wartime fluid.
The best way to refill a lighter was to plug it into fuel tank, jeep, plane, boat or truck hanging from a wire. After this treatment, the filling would have been eaten off.

The thorough examination of the form in the lettering can help you to detect the engraving added after the war period. So thinking adding value to the lighter, Vietnamese have added engraving on all parts of the lighter. The used font is different on the body from that on the lid or the engraving doesn't penetrate deeply into the brass.

The easiest fake engravings to detect are those about well-known events. The famous "IF I HAD BEEN AT KENT STATE THERE WOULD HAVE BEEN ONE HELL OF A BODY COUNT". May 4 1970, National Guard kills four students at Kent State antiwar protests. Real Zippo with 67 or 68 engraved on the lid have this sentence concerning facts that would happen two or three years later.

67-68 engraved on the reverse lid

Another means consist to verify the relation between the date, the place and insignia engraved onto the Zippos. Silver Bayonet operation had implied the 1st Cavalry Division in the Pleiku province from October until November 1965. This operation is known as the Ia Drang Valley Battle. The movie we were soldiers relate it. The insignia of the 3rd Brigade GARRY OWEN and the place Ia Drang must be found only on a Zippo with date code above 1966.

An engraved lighter with LLDB in front and "BORN IN AMERICA TO DIE IN VIETNAM" on the reverse is a fake. LLDB (Luc Luong Dac Biet) were Special Forces of the South Vietnam army. Americans called them Lousy Little Dirty Bastards; nobody from them was born in USA to die in Vietnam.

The word VIETNAM on a lighter from Khe Shan, Da Nang, or Kontum can't be the same. Vietnamese engravers could not communicate with the others except maybe at Saigon. It was impossible for them to circulate form province to province. Cities were under the control of the army but the roads were under the control of the Viet Cong.

Engraved texts could help you to detect fake Zippos. The famous I HAVE SPENT MY TIME IN HELL was well known and there is no confusion about it but it is the most copied. The variants are:" I am sure to go to heaven"; "I know I am going to heaven" and "I will go to heaven".
The Vietnam map engraved in Nha Trang in 1972 or Hue in 1968 can't look like the one engraved in Saigon in 1966.

The same font used for three diferent places

After the fall of Saigon, the North Viet Nam system changed the old Chinese name of many cities. Nowadays, Pleiku is turned to Plaiku, Quinhon to Quy Nhon, Dak To to Dac To Ban Me Thuot to Buon Ma Thuot and so. A lighter with a new city name is a forgery.

Fake PBR

Nowadays Zippos with Brown River acid etched are presented daily on the web. Prized and rare, those lighters have inspired the forgers and since many years these lighters came to the market. Zippo had perfected the "etch and paint" process in 1957 for cars advertising. It allowed more detailed designs than was possible using the pantograph. The process used by Zippo is based on the artwork, a large drawing realized on the drawing board. A reverse image of the artwork is screened onto the case with acid-resistant paint. The lighter is then dipped into an acid bath that etches the unprotected areas. The resulting recesses are then filled, one by one, with color.

The drawings used to produce the films are the property of Zippo MFG. So the forgers have to remake the whole process. I have discussed with some sellers about fake PBR and the answers were funny. They said: It was special orders sent to local craftsmen by the PX/BX and then refused because the etching was not sharp enough to add the paint. They were kidding.

I have contacted some vets working at the PX and they answered: "While canned beer and soft drinks are hardly perishable, hot and dusty base area makes them number one on the PX's best-seller list. On one re-supply day, the exchange received more than $5,000 worth of refreshments. Within twelve hours after it had been unloaded, the stock of drinks had been delivered to the brigade's units. "Our goal is to give the man in the foxhole anything he wants at anytime day or night". Imagine 50 Zippo lighters, retail price $1.75, is nothing according to $3,000 shipment of chewing gum. No time to ask for special order but sometimes units would send directly to Zippo an order of 50 or 100 lighters with a special unit or branch design".

Although Konwal and Penguin PBR engraved lighters exist. They are not etched but pantograph engraved and the patch on the reverse is glued in lieu of etched. The PBR boat design is different than the Zippo artwork.

I have seen many PBR Zippos with on the observe face River Division 554 and on the reverse River Section 511. The River Section 511 was located at Can Tho near the Bassac river (Mekong Delta) and the Division 554 at Da Nang.

Ray, a crewmember of the 523 PBR, The Delta Gypies, told me that:

They are shooting bull your way about special order. During my two tours, I never encountered a special order sent to local. Lighters were dispursed to the PX in small numbers and were sold out quick. I did purchase three Zippos when I was in country. The PX were located on the LST that where anchored in the large rivers, where you could get the lighters then take them to a local artist to do the engraving. Every one could get one or more Zippos at this time.

Very rare "Brown Water Navy" (used by Mekong patrol) from 1967. The left is a copy

Costal Division Eleven The left is a fake (Notice NUMBER instead of NUMBAH)

River Section 511, the left is a copy. Notice the banner is larger as the boat on the real.

Counterfeit Zippos.

The lighters from this category are very easy to detect because the zippo logo on the bottom and on the insert is engraved instead of stamped. Nevertheless there is a particular category with stamped date code but the zippo logo looks like 1969 factory stamp with the trademark ® larger and rougher.

Look closely for abrasive marks (using a loupe). To enhance their aged look, genuine zippos have been distressed. The older it looks, the more money it fetches in the market. Do not confuse fine age marks with sandpaper marks.

Themes engraved on the lighters can help you to detect the counterfeits. So, no Mickey companions were engraved on genuine wartime zippo lighters. Only Charles Shultz cartoons, Snoopy on his doghouse and Charlie Brown were engraved. The Peanuts appeared in the newspapers Stars & Stripes and The Times of Viet Nam.

Remember the first method to detect the counterfeits is to check the fabrication date codes at the bottom of the lighter. The forgers know all about GI's zippo history because they have held them to make copies. The engravings and poetries engraved on counterfeit lighters are correct. The places, the dates, military emblems and even soldier's name are correct.

Chinese lighters actually for sale in Saigon.

How to detect counterfeits

If the engraving is filled with new shiny black or brown ink beware! Remember none engraver had filled the lighter that he had just engraved excepted those, new in box, sent to the family as a gift. The wet and humid climate would eat up the filling.

Here how would look a Vietnam engraving. The brass is tarnished and the colour must be dark brown. A new engraving is shiny yellow or filled with black china ink.

If there are some scratches on the lighter, the scratches should affect the engraving (look closely with a x 10 loupe).

The market tendency is for old aged look lighter. To give this particular look the forgers distress the lighter with sandpaper. If the entire surfaces are distressed beware, the lighter is should be a new engraved one. You should examine the zippo and the engraving itself rather than the distressing.

Another method to have this particular look is to burn the lighter with a blowlamp. In this case there is a concentration of the copper at the surface. In the metallurgical process to have chrome plated on the brass, it is necessary to plate the brass with copper before chroming process.

Genuine zippos were found fully burnt in the trash of ancient military bases but in this case the rayon balls and the felt pad of the insert were also burnt. The insert had to be exchanged so beware of this kind of lighters.

Burnt Zippo to enhance his value.

The date engraved on the lid according to the unit insignia is a good method of detecting counterfeit in this category. Recently, someone asked for an advice about a Chu Lai 65-66 196th Inf Bde Zippo.  The 196th was originally rushed to Vietnam in Tay Ninh province (26 August 66), in April 67 the brigade moved to Chu Lai until October 67 and Tam Ky, Phong Dien and Hoi An before to return to Chu Lai from July 68 to March 71. In April 71 the brigade was relocated to Da Nang until its departure 29 June 1972. The major part of its tour was Chu Lai, so the Vietnamese have this location in their minds. Naturally, they associate the 196th with Chu Lai. This was in 65-66 nobody knows the next location of the 196th. The correct place should be Tay Ninh on the lid of this lighter. This lighter was recently engraved and the owner was angry about me. He doesn’t accept my conclusions.

So any way, an other lighter with the 198th Bde attracted my interest. The date 72-73 and the place Quang Tri were fantasists. The 198th was located at Chu Lai and mainly it leaves Vietnam in November 1971. I had a look at the composition of the brigade to be sure of not omitting any battalion or units but every unit leaves Vietnam between May and November 1971. In 72-73 Quang Tri garrison was the 3rd ARVN Inf Div. Since I had to give an advice about many lighters and every time that I have a doubt, the lighter was recently engraved.

 25th Inf Khe Sanh 65-66 (arrived 28 march 1966, the 3rd bde arrived December 65 at Pleiku)

1st Marines 64-65 Vinh Long (Mekong delta)

9th Inf Div Tay Ninh 67-68 (the 25th Div at this time)

4th Inf Div 64-65 Pleiku (arrived 26 September 1966)

173rd Air Borne Dak To 72-73 (departed 25 August1971)

101st Air Borne Vinh Long 68-69 (Only the 7th Bat 1st Cav was at Vinh Long at this time)

5th Bat 46th Inf Cu Chi 69-70 (in 69-70 at Chu Lai with the 23rd Inf Div AMERICAL)

82nd Airborne Khe Sanh 64-65 (arrived 18 February 1968 at Chu Lai)

Vietnamese Workshop today

When I was in Vietnam for my second tour, a couple of years ago, I bought a copy with the screaming eagle of the 101st. I bought it from a catalogue showing all kinds of design. I chose to engrave my own zippo with a Vietnam map and on the back "WHEN I DIE I KNOW I AM GOING.......". The cost for this job was only 2 US dollars.

My dailly zippo, the stamped code is E ZIPPO 01

I bought 5 zippos with the correct date and correct insert matching them for 15 US dollars each. I had to stay 10 days in Saigon and every night after traveling, I met the seller drinking tea and talking about everything. I shared with her my interest for old zippos and I gave her a book about zippos. She was kind enough to permit me to visit a little shop where young Vietnameses engraved copies for tourists.
I saw a lot of plain zippos from the war area in new condition with the original packaging. I saw a lot of old zippos with old engraving and the Vietnameses were added on the lid "VIET NAM "and the date matching the date code of the lighter. I asked her if I could buy real zippos from wartime, she answered

"Bob, all are from the war time, only the engraving is new . A real one with old engraving costs about 60 US dollars and no tourist wants to pay for that excepted American vets. They are looking for the one they have paid for at the tea room or lost in a bar when drunk enough to sleep on the table or lost in the field during fighting."

Zippo from Miss Beauty private collection

She took her Honda and rode me to her house. I met all of her family and had a discussion with her mother about France. She presented me her own collection. There were few Barcroft table lighters with PBR factory etched and a lot of zippos with Indochina map in a circle with the name of USS ship plus South Vietnam and the date. I bought two Snoopy's with no shiny filling into the engraving , and no VIET NAM on the lid.

Her shop is located Dong Khoi street 1st. District. Dong Khoi street is the new name for Catinat street during the French period and Tu Do street from 1964 to 1975. The street starts from the cathedral to Saigon river. My hotel was at the corner of her shop.