Meet the Maker: Tsubota Pearl Lighters

Meet the Maker: Tsubota Pearl Lighters
When Tetra launched in 2015, one of the first brands we knew we had to have in our stable was the family-owned Japanese lighter company Tsubota Pearl, whose unconventional designs and commitment to craftsmanship we deeply admired. At the time, we were one of only a few U.S. stores to carry their line — hard to believe, considering how many have followed our lead since! — which helped us forge a special relationship with them, and convinced us that we wanted to collaborate with them on a special edition someday. That day is finally here: We just launched our new Portal Lighters ($45), which feature a color-blocked Tetra design screen-printed onto a Tsubota Pearl Hard Edge, and to mark the occasion, we decided to get to know our collaborators just a little bit better.

Tsubota Pearl was started in Japan in 1952 by Hiroshi Tsubota, who passed away in 2004 and left his son Eiichi Tsubota at the helm. Eiichi spoke with us about his father's beginnings, how the company's lighters are made, and what inspires his own design process, from the Bauhaus to contemporary art. (Pictured above: A Tsubota Pearl catalog from the 1990s featuring its original Hard Edge lighter lineup.)

Can you tell us more about how your father founded Tsubota Pearl and why he decided to go into the lighter business?

My father was born in 1920 in Nagano prefecture, about 124 miles from Tokyo. He moved to Tokyo at age 15 to begin work at a company dealing in jewelry and smoking accessories called Tanita, where he gained valuable engineering and other experience. His role was to interface with artisans and develop products with them, as well as handle sales covering Tokyo and Osaka. He left the company in 1944, when he was conscripted.

In 1946, after trying times upon returning, he found work in R&D and sales at another smoking accessories company at the urging of a friend. In 1947, he married the daughter of a lighter and cigarette-case factory owner, with whom he had two children, including me. Always looking for a platform for originality and imagination, he went independent in 1952. Naturally, based off his prior experience, he thought to produce lighters and cigarette cases. In 1962, the company was incorporated, changing its name to Tsubota Pearl.

Hiroshi Tsubota (above) and his son Eiichi Tsubota (below)

What makes Tsubota Pearl different from other lighters, like Zippo for example? Was there always a focus on design and craftsmanship?

Beginning in the 1970s, with the introduction of new technologies and the ability to drive down costs, many manufacturers began mass-producing lighters with moulded plastic fuel tanks inside zinc alloy die-cast cases. Disposable lighters and Piezo electric lighters also gained popularity around this time. Tsubota Pearl went counter to this trend, continuing to make flint lighters and remaining embedded in traditional manufacturing methods carried down from predecessors in the field. We use metal fuel tanks, and various pressed and machined components. Using these methods for manufacturing and assembling requires precision, and is carried out by skilled artisans and not mass produced by machine. While other manufacturers were transitioning to manufacturing methods conducive to mass production, the reason we stuck to far more time-consuming traditional methods was our desire to provide non-disposable lighters that our customers can enjoy and reply upon for a long time.

On the topic of Zippo, we love their heritage and what they do: preserving traditional craftsmanship, which is not easy. How the Hard Edge differs in particular might be its construction. The model is structured by individual parts (lighter cap, outer case, tank) designed to be connected by a hinge. This makes for a ‘seamless’ construction with no glue or soldering. Another characteristic is the thickness of its case. Measuring 2mm, this improves the case’s seal, improving fuel economy as well as creating flexibility for designs. The engraved Latitudes model is one such example. Design and craftsmanship: Founder Hiroshi was fond of drawing, and had a strong distaste for doing what others were doing, so did all his own designing. Also importantly, because of his experience in jewelry, he was always working on genderless designs, which were received well by women even back when lighters were considered masculine items. His dedication to originality and resistance to preconceptions forms the basis of Tsubota Pearl’s development philosophy today.

We'd love to hear more about the design process. Who is your design team? How often do they come up with new lighter ideas? Are there any design principals or ideals they incorporate that are somehow specifically Japanese, or do they feel more connected to an international design style or movement?

There is no dedicated design team at Tsubota Pearl. The lighter mechanics have been designed by my father or me. Colors, finishes, and small details are determined through dialogue within the company. In terms of research and development, we often incorporate feedback from both end-users and our business partners. We consistently strive to make products that are simple, functional, yet unique. To this end, we sometimes contradict trends in the industry as we develop product from a purposefully different point of departure. The Hard Edge is one such example I worked on.

On the other hand, we are very interested in other fields, like fashion and home goods. This is because of how stimulating we find perspectives from outside our own field. We also value the importance of seeing our product from a user’s perspective — whether or not it's something that we ourselves would want to have, and use. In addition to other industries, I'm also interested in art and design movements around the world, which I observe and take in. I really admire design underpinned by function, like the Bauhaus, for example. I also like to see contemporary art on my days off, so that influences my work also.

We wouldn’t say that we particularly make an effort to design from a Japanese sensibility, but it becomes important to maximize the skills of artisans in the best possible way when implementing those designs. When this is done, with artisans using finishing techniques that are distinctly Japanese — like lacquering (seen on the Tortoise and Green Tortoise) — the result may somehow feel “Japanese.” We do not follow a set schedule for releasing new products. We always have a number of ideas simultaneously in the works. They all take time to perfect, and are released only when we feel we have an enduring product.
The Portal Lighter features Tetra's own design screen-printed onto a Tsubota Pearl Hard Edge lighter 

Please choose one of the designs that Tetra carries that has the best story behind it, and tell us the story of what inspired that design.

We think the story behind the Hard Edge may be the most interesting. In the 1990s, when I was trying to come up with a new design for a lighter, I had the realization that almost all the lighters on the market had rounded corners — those were made to be ergonomic and easy on the hand. So then I thought, how about intentionally making the corners angled, to make a lighter that hurts a little when it’s held? I felt that the majority of lighters on the market had complicated shapes, and were increasingly ornamental. They also tended to be heavy. I knew I wanted to do something different from this trend and more minimal.

I thought of a simple box-shaped lighter, with an outer case made of lightweight plastic. Combining a Zippo-style tank, and a shell made of heat- and shock-resistant polycarbonate, the completed lighter comprised only straight lines and flat surfaces, having the appearance of a truncated square bar. It would not be recognizable as a lighter at first glance. 1998 saw the introduction of the model on the market, in a primary color palette of red, blue, yellow, green, black, and transparent. The Hard Edge is now available in an array of colors and finishes, and is one of our most recognizable models.

What is your approach to color? Since a lot of the lighters are so colorful?

Lighters like the Hard Edge and Queue solely consisting of flat surfaces get colorful treatments. We feel that flat surfaces are ideal for experiments in color. We regularly test new colors and reassess our lineups to respond to contemporary sensibilities.

How and where are Tsubota Pearl lighters made? Are they complicated to make? Does the factory have any artisans or longtime experts in the craftsmanship of lighters? For example you work with a hand-lacquering artisan on the Tortoise lighters.

All lighters by Tsubota Pearl are made in Japan. Many of the parts are machined in old, specialized factories employing traditional processes like machine-turning and pressing. These are straightforward processes, however they're conducted by hand, requiring high levels of skill and experience. There are a few members of Tsubota Pearl who have worked in lighter manufacturing for over 60 years. They're now passing on their skills to the next generation.

I also have direct involvement not only in the engineering but also the manufacturing side of production. Being face-to-face with the lighters from blueprint to finished product, I'm able to tweak completed items to improve quality and usability.

The Marble pattern finish is done by hand using stencils, one by one on each lighter. During lacquering, the stencils are floated off the surface to create the appropriate blurring. Depending on the size of the lighter, the stencils have to be changed, and the cap and the body must be painted in a way so that the pattern is continuous across the two. Once the marble pattern has been lacquered, it's sprayed with a clear coating, and polished by hand to add a shine before completion. This process has historical precedence in Japanese lighter manufacturing between 1960 and 1980, when it was popular to lacquer metallic lighters in a faux ‘tortoise’ pattern. At Tsubota Pearl we took this method originally reserved for solid metal surfaces and applied it to transparent material on the Hard Edge. The blending of the Hard Edge’s modern design and this heritage detailing was received well by our customers, and has been in production since 2006.


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