Making a splash

Taking a deep dive into the history of an exceptional handcrafted Dunhill Aquarium

Featured in our next Antiques & Interiors auction is an exceptional handcrafted lighter, known as a Dunhill Aquarium table lighter; which is a rare and exciting highlight in the sale.  



The earliest lighters evolved from repurposed flintlock pistols, utilizing gunpowder for ignition as a clever adaptation of existing firearms. 

In 1816, a German Chemist called Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner created a lighter that became known as 'Döbereiner’s lamp’. The chemistry was complex, the lighter comprised of sulphuric acid, platinum and the highly explosive gas, hydrogen. Surprisingly, the invention was widely accepted as a household object and was used to light fires in homes in England and Germany. 

A more recognisable development, the modern lighter was produced in 1903, which used ferrocerium, a man-made material that produces the hot sparks when scraped. These allowed ignition with only one hand, a rather 'handy' feature. 



In 1893 Alfred Dunhill had inherited his father’s saddlery company.  Initially he ventured into automobiles but alongside ‘Dunhill Motorities’, he established a store specializing in custom tobacco blends. This decision aligned with his passion for pipes and tobacco. By 1924, Dunhill had expanded by producing his own smoking accessories. Dunhill’s lighters, with their patented design and a touch of playfulness, set them apart from other models. 


Without doubt, the most successful of Dunhill’s lighters was the ‘Dunhill Aquariums’.
These were popular because they could be an engaging table-top accessory, while remaining a portable size for pocket storage.
The ornate, expertly crafted designs within were meticulously painted by hand.  



They were made from lucite, a synthetic acrylic resin which gave the lighters a transparency, enabling the viewer to look within the aquarium.  

The design of oceanic scenes with all sorts of fish, rocks and seaweed were handcrafted using drills and tools in a reverse intaglio technique. Every specimen is unique. Other designs can be found, including scenes displaying birds, butterflies, ships.

Each lighter can be regarded as a work of art, whilst remaining a functional, albeit luxury object. They were produced by the craftsman Ben Shillingford between the 1950s and 60s.  




When Shillingford retired, Dunhill could not find a replacement craftsman with the same level of skill or imagination and consequently, the production of Aquarium lighters ended despite their popularity.

The total number of lighters produced by Shillingford remains a murky figure.
Their scarcity, and the fact that as objects, they symbolize a time in history when items were created with the utmost level of craftsmanship, make them highly desirable collectors items.

This delightful Dunhill Aquarium lighter will be lot 170 in our Antiques & Interiors auction on the Thursday 14th March.  


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