With thousands of attractive, colourful, informative and potentially valuable cards available, fusilately has a lot to offer the dedicated collector.
Collecting phone cards, or 'fusilately', is one of the fastest-growing
hobbies to merge in recent years. There are millions of telephone card collectors world wide, with half a million in Germany alone. Telephone companies now issue prepayment cards in almost all countries of the world and thousands of new card designs appear each year, many for advertising or private promotional purposes.
The first phone cards appeared in Italy in the late 1970s. Issued in values of 2,000, 5,000 and 9,000 lire, these cards were printed in a vertical format and had one corner which had to be detached before use. These cards are rare and valuable now, particularly as all the fully used cards were retained by the pay phones and destroyed.
Most phone cards are made of plastic although some early examples were of laminated card. They are of a standard credit card size. The basic cards are manufactured by a relatively small number of companies and supplied to telephone companies who print their own designs.
There are three types of card technology. 'Optical' cards such as British Telecom (BT) cards are manufactured by Landis & Gyr in Switzerland; the payphone 'reads' information on the number of units from a visible horizontal strip. Some cards, including Mercury's in the UK operate using a magnetic strip within the card, and are manufactured by such companies as GPT and Autelco. The third type, an electronic phonecard popular in France and other countries, works by an embedded silicon chip and is made by German companies such as
Phone cards are standard in size, but they come in an amazing variety of designs. Usually the design is printed in horizontal format and often it includes an arrow to indicate the direction for insertion into the phone. The value is given in currency or in the number of 'units'. Production data often occurs on the back of the card.
In most countries, the card normally on sale is the 'definitive', produced in a range of values for use by the general public for everyday use in ordinary payphones.
Apart from definitives, cards are issued for a variety of other, secondary purposes. Some advertise the major retail outlet (eg the Post Office) that sells them. Others are issued to mark a special event. These are often very colourful and attractive and are generally issued for a limited period, making them highly collectable.
Many phone cards sold nationally carry advertising for big companies like
CocaCola. Private firms or individuals sometimes commission their own cards, perhaps to give away free with a product or as a novel form of business card. These types of cards are extremely collectable because they tend to be produced in quantities as low as 500, or sometimes less, and are not always available to the general public.
Some cards can be used only by a particular group at a specific location. Prisons, for example, have special cards for the use of the inmates to prevent ordinary cards being smuggled in and used as 'black market' currency. Hotels, ships and hospitals may also have their own cards not usable elsewhere.
Sometimes cards are sold to raise money for charity. In 1989, the British Virgin Islands issued a card after 'Hurricane Hugo', with one dollar donated to the relief fund for
every card sold. Phone cards may also incorporate competitions. For example, a set of BT cards to raise money for the RNIB depicted the eyes of mystery celebrities and buyers were invited to guess who they were.
Most phone card collectors specialize in a country or a type - for example, definitives. Others choose a theme such as sport. Enthusiasts can obtain cards through collectors' clubs and fairs or
swap shops and there are now a few dealers specializing in phone cards. Private promotional cards not on sale to the public are sometimes available through collectors' clubs or direct from the telephone company. The catalogues produced by phonecard expert Dr Steve Hiscocks are an excellent reference and a guide to prices. They cover all countries known to have issued cards, except Japan. But for the keen collector of Japanese cards a 12-volume catalogue exists!
Cards may be stored in special albums with transparent pockets to hold eight cards on a page. These cards may be displayed, but some early cards have been known to discolour with exposure to the light, so care is needed. The cards are fairly resilient but can be scratched or bent by clumsy handling. Special care should be taken with mint cards, particularly if they are in a sealed wrapper, which increases their value.
Phone cards are printed in sheets and sometimes minor flaws and variations go undetected before they are issued. Control numbers are sometimes missing or inverted. Occasionally small runs of cards with a spelling mistake or colour fault may slip through. All such cards can be very valuable.
Up until now the phone card scene has not been disturbed by serious forgery, but as phone cards increase in value it is well to be aware of the risk of offers of apparently rare cards in suspicious circumstances. As the risk increases, telephone companies may switch to less forgeable technologies such as optical or electronic cards rather than magnetic ones.
Various categories of card are recognized. 'Definitives' are everyday cards; advertising cards aim to sell products; closed location cards are for specific places.
Cards that are still sealed in the wallets in which they were issued are highly desirable for card collectors. Some special issues appeared in leather wallets.