Minor collecting and copoclephile

Keyrings '90s

We continue our survey of “vintage” texts on minor collecting by presenting a text directly connected to our new issue dedicated to key rings. The following was extracted from the famous essay “Minor Collecting” written by Massimo Alberini and published by Garzanti in 1984. The extract reflects on both the dynamics of collecting and the value of collected items. Collections come and go, often being temporary and connected to ever-changing fashions. Here below is an example of such collection. Enjoy!

Once upon a time the Italians managed to waste a lot of money by investing in miniassegni (minichecks). Between 1964 and 1966 the French followed their lead and, quite mistakenly, believed in the potential of an even stranger and less reliable object: advertising key rings. It is hard to explain the spread of this collective madness, which exhorted everyone to begin buying hundreds of keyrings and that were then supposed to be situated in special glass showcases 80 cm large and 60 cm tall, supplied with 144 small hooks for hanging each individual key ring. But that’s exactly what happened. It’s highly possible some small homes in the suburbs have just such a cabinet, a testimony of a father’s or grandfather’s delusion.

As it always happens with collecting, this “passion” was given a name, grandiose and mysterious, copoclephilia. The name consists of the initial co for collecting, po for porta (Latin), cle for keys (clés in French) and Greek philia, meaning love or passion for something. The term disappeared together with the exaggerated enthusiasm for the objects.

The origin of such interest was in part justified, especially for the French. Keys have always been a symbol of possession and authority. It was customary for the lady of the house to have a bundle of keys –  to closets, pantries, utility rooms, dowry trunks (even the fridges used to have locks) – hanging from her waist. She was the only one with access to places containing the family’s belongings. And when a mother-in-law passed those keys to a daughter-in-law, it represented a moment of majestic investiture. The moment when a father gave his 18-year-old son the keys to the house and by doing so permitted him to leave the house in the evening had equal significance. This tradition ceased to exist (can you imagine the grimaces on the faces of modern kids when, ready for their snacks in between meals, they find the fridge locked?), but it has been substituted by a new one. A salesperson in a car showroom that passes the keys (ignition, car door, antitheft) of the new “car” to the owner, a realtor that passes along the keys to the second home, delivery of the key to a safe-deposit box. And herein lay the necessity to distinguish one key from another, whether they were put in a pocket or hung behind a door; need that was satisfied by key rings, at times taking a form of a simple plastic tab.

The world of advertising realized right away that those symbols could easily be transform into small heralding objects conveying “messages”. Key rings became advertisements. It is no coincidence that it was the major car brand to be the first to start using pendants and plates as advertisements. For collectors the Citroen key ring that appeared in 1921 is one of the rarest and most wanted pieces. It is considered to be an antique industrial object.

Soon public relations specialists joined the advertisers. A convention folder, a clear symbol of an event’s importance (the more stuff it contains, the more authoritative the event is) used to contain and still contains various brochures, programs, notepads, postcards, two or three ballpoint pens, matches in a little bag but also a key ring created especially for the occasion. Everyone ends up throwing away the “paper”, but there is always space for a key ring in one’s suitcase.

This is definitely one of the reasons why copoclephilia was born in the first place. Classification is facilitated through the fact that specialized factories happened to produce very few models. The most common key ring is made of a ring with a little lever and a chain or a pendant. It could be anything, starting with a brand of the factory produced in metal and enamel (big companies would use silver and even gold during the years when one sterling corresponded to 7000 lira) to various creative (imagined) objects. Even actual coins could be used, as we see from the example of the “Ufficio Moderno” magazine that used real ten cents “coins” portraying Umberto I. Another type of key ring was a metal ring or a spiral with a medallion welded on top. Another model consisted of a pendant with a hole and a small chain ending in a small bar to be inserted inside the hole. Such key rings were given out on board of the Raffaello. The painter’s palette was reproduced on the pendant.

Driven by the necessity to distinguish themselves from the competitors, the “creators” were designing, especially for the key rings with a ring and a chain, the most unusual and bizarre pendants. And it is exactly those pendants that drove the French to collect. The ones left out were ready to spend a lot in order to obtain a rare piece. For their Arabic clients Air France created a key ring with a tiny Koran containing very few lines that could be read with the help of a lens. Postillon wines designed a microscopic catalogue with a list of specialties, while other wine and liquor producers created miniatures of wine bottles (without any liquid inside). Tons of tiny versions of various objects were created: cars, calculators, TVs, or simply scissors (functioning) and razors (not functioning); there were also compasses, pencil sharpeners, lenses, thermometers and a tiny gun that shot loudly with mini-blanks, an object that won the hearts of great-grandfathers that would use them as a pendant for their watch chains.

The ugliest key rings, the ones made of plastic, offered endless possibilities: one could put anything inside the transparent locket. Even taxi drivers and shopkeepers were giving their clients the pendants containing their addresses and telephone numbers. Upon sending 55 Francs to the Papilo company in Grisolles close to Toulouse, one received enough material to set up fifty customized key rings, almost all of them containing a photograph. The wedding of commentator Michel Péricard and Catherine Cochet, a tennis champion’s daughter, took place in May 1966 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. After the ceremony the bride gave her veil to the members of the collector’s club, who cut the veil in small pieces and placed those into hundreds of keyrings that were immediately distributed among relatives and other guests.

According to an approximate but reliable assessment, there were around two million collectors, both “independents” and members of various clubs, in January 1966. There were a great many of them, according to ”OBI-Journal de porte clés”, a monthly magazine whose few issues were published in 200 000 copies. The magazine presented the reports of club life, articles and, interestingly enough, advertisements on the topic. The France-USSR Association encouraged people to subscribe to the cultural-political magazines by giving key rings with Gagarin, the first Soviet astronaut. The benefactors of the Asniéres retirement home asked for contributions in exchange for the Pyramid of Cheops key rings. Faithful to the moto “if you come visit, you will buy something”, the Hotel de Ville Bazar was organizing exchange markets. Sensational news came from Casablanca (Northern Africa was infected as well): a lunatic exchanged his car, a Fiat 600, for a thousand key rings.

A similar wave of enthusiasm never arrived in Italy. Although the ground was prepared for it (one of the major European industries, belonging to Terraccini, was situated in Milan), the trend never took hold. Soldiers and sailors were among the very few customers. They used to buy key rings of their regiments or their boats in military outlets. Even in France the moment of craziness was followed by a loss of faith in the soundness of investing in key rings. Copoclephilia began to be seen as a moment of collective infatuation (euphoria) that had left behind a sour taste. The “OBI” magazine used to proclaim: Buy now: you will own a treasure in 1979. A prediction that was (as never before) proved wrong by reality (and by common sense).