Saturday, June 28, 2008

If I ever take up philately, I'll know where to start.

From isolated kingdom, stamps with an edge

By GABE OPPENHEIM, Washington Post
First published: Saturday, June 28, 2008

WASHINGTON -- The essence of Bhutan is its absolute isolation. A constitutional monarchy in the clouds, it's tucked between the lush Himalayas like a child in his parents' bed. But Bhutan, where many live a two-day trip from the nearest road, has led the world in a basic form of cultural exchange.

The country that didn't get Internet or TV until 1999 and still uses running couriers to deliver mail has produced a record string of the world's most unusual stamps.

Since 1962: The first 3-D stamp. The first scented stamp (rose). The first textured brush stroke stamp. The first bas-relief stamp. The first on metal (it rusted). The first on silk. The first on extruded plastic. The first on a playable record. And now, according to its maker, the first stamp on a CD-ROM (though North Korea might have released one earlier).

"They probably have more firsts in the philatelic world than any country," says Frances Todd Stewart, whose company sells Bhutan's CD-ROM stamp.

The story of a unique Bhutanese philatelic tradition is also one of classic American hucksterism. Stewart's father, Burt Kerr Todd, was a Pittsburgh steel scion who talked his way into Oxford's law program after serving in the Army in World War II. At school, he became friends with a Bhutanese princess who claimed to be the first of her countrymen to cross an ocean. Todd hosted her in America in 1950 and was invited to Bhutan a year later.

In 1962, as Bhutan first used the light bulb, King Wangchuck searched for a new source of revenue. Todd told them to sell stamps.

The breakthrough came in 1967 and involved NASA. After four years of development, a Japanese company Todd contracted was able to splice multiple images, taken from different angles, to create the world's first 3-D stamps, which were also among the first with self-adhesive backing. They depicted astronauts and lunar modules.

Purist collectors didn't like the gimmick, but the stamps sold, and more followed -- including 33 1/3-rpm record stamps that played traditional folk songs and a history of Bhutan.

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