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O.C. Firm Sees Hot Market for Olympic Emblems

June 25, 1996|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — William Wu can attest to the lure of a stylish Olympic lapel pin.

The Irvine businessman recently exchanged a hard-to-find pin for a table in a crowded Atlanta restaurant, and he tells of pin collectors who have traded the decorative souvenirs for meals and airline seat upgrades.

"It's amazing what you can get for one lousy pin," said Wu, president of Aminco International Inc., an Irvine-based pin manufacturer.

There will be pins aplenty next month when a growing army of pin collectors marches on Atlanta to wheel and deal. Aminco and a handful of competitors are shipping an estimated 50 million pins--more than were manufactured for the last three Olympic Games combined.

Olympic officials now view pins as another licensing tool that can help generate funds to cover spiraling costs of staging the games, and corporate sponsors consider pins as stylish marketing tools.

But the increasingly commercial nature of what once was a little-known hobby is prompting grumbling among longtime collectors who complain that prices for the rarest and most desirable pins will soar to Olympian heights, while huge production runs dilute the value of other pins.

Counterfeit pins also can wreak havoc on the market, and collectors ruefully acknowledge that there are no guarantees that a given pin will keep its value. Collectors still remember the 1984 Olympic Games, when a pin featuring Sam the Eagle, the Olympic mascot, clutching a soft drink rose to $300 before plummeting in price after several cheap imitations hit the market.

But Wu remains undaunted. He and at least two other pin manufacturers have each paid seven-figure licensing fees for the right to produce pins bearing Olympic symbols. The companies have also struck deals to produce pins for major corporate sponsors that have the rights to use Olympic logos.

Collectors predict that 5,000 or more pin designs will surface before the Olympic flame is extinguished. The 296-page official pin guide includes hundreds of Olympic pins depicting events ranging from archery to yachting. There are scores of national pins that run the alphabetical gamut from Algeria to Uzbekistan. Not to mention thousands of corporate pins--from Coca-Cola, with more than 200 different pin designs, to Xerox, which is offering nearly 90 proprietary designs.

"I'm a bit overwhelmed with it all," acknowledged Orange retiree Russell Davis, who has amassed more than 3,000 pins since a friend presented him with a colorful pin during the 1984 Los Angeles Games. "You can easily get lost unless you stick to a narrow area of interest."

Olympic pins first appeared a century ago, when athletes and organizers of the games began wearing them as a form of identification and as symbols of national pride, but interest in pin collecting only started to smolder in the United States at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Don Bigsby, founder of Olympin, an 800-member pin collecting group based in Schenectady, N.Y., collected 39 pins from athletes during the 1980 Games. "I was on top of the world," said Bigsby, whose collection since has grown to include more than 5,000 pins, 18 Olympic torches and a roomful of related Olympic memorabilia.

The pin craze exploded during the 1984 Los Angeles Games when organizers began licensing the Games' logos to pin manufacturers, and the ranks of collectors began to swell.

Coca-Cola Co. was one of the early corporate sponsors to realize the marketing potential of pins. In the late 1980s, the soft drink company established a subsidiary to sell pins. This summer, more than 500,000 collectors are expected to flow through two Coca-Cola trading centers near the Olympic village.

Pins used to be relatively simple. Most featured the host city's name, the date and an Olympic logo. But Aminco and a handful of competitors have turned pins into a minor art form, collectors say. The Irvine company has an eight-person art department that uses computers to craft new designs.

"It's no longer enough to just have a pin," Wu said. "We now have to have pins on pins, puzzle pins, pins with moving parts."

Pins now feature clocks and thermometers. One new design includes a slot that spectators can use to hold their sunglasses. Manufacturers are also rushing to introduce popular but expensive puzzle pins, which incorporate as many as a dozen separate pins to spell out a phrase or create a picture.

The new designs seem to be a hit, at least among some collectors. One well-heeled shopper recently offered $6,500 for a massive pin display designed for an Atlanta department store display window. Some fanatics are offering $300 or more for hard-to-find pins--such as a committee pin that the Atlanta Games committee issued in the early 1990s.

Aminco and other manufacturers hope to cash in further with glitzy boxed editions of pins that retail for as much as $1,000.

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