Tokens & Icons was founded on authenticity in 1991 when Ward Wallau was approved for a license with the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA, now known as the MTA). This occurred eleven years after he first approached them in 1980 when they filled in the "Y" of the quarter-sized "Y-cut" subway token. Recently out of hotel school, the high rents in New York City prompted him to utilize his entrepreneurial know-how to earn some spending money. While Ward understood that businesses need to find ways to save money, Ward wanted to prove to the NYCTA that by filling in the "Y," they were dispensing of something truly unique and beloved to the city and its riders. After collecting a hundred of the "Y-cut" tokens, Ward, though not a cuff link aficionado, thought they might be a logical way to reincorporate the tokens into New York's daily life and celebrate them as an icon of the city's rich transit history.
With his first fifty pairs of authentic New York Subway Cuff Links, he received positive feedback and thus began his decade-plus endeavor to secure a license. The length of time was due in part to the fact that the NYCTA never had participated in a licensing agreement before this opportunity and thus had nothing from which to model one. During the eleven years, Ward had intermittent contact with the NYCTA while working at an accessories company and later his wife's dress business. Many friends and colleagues suggested he simply replicate the tokens, a concept which could not have been further from his vision. When Ward finally secured permissions from the NYCTA and the authentic tokens, he and Bulova Watch were the charter licenses. Bulova chose to replicate the tokens, yet Tokens & Coins (the original name of Tokens & Icons) was able to embark with the long sought after "authentic" token.
Tokens & Icons’ license with the New York Transit Authority spawned the first gift, the New York Subway Token Cuff Links, and the first collection, the Transit Token Collection, which has since grown to include licensed products featuring the authentic transit tokens of Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. In celebrating the history of local transportation development, these architectural tokens also evoke personal memories for every subway rider and city lover. As Tokens & Icons has grown to also include sports – another institution celebrating local pride and creating unforgettable experiences – the Tokens Collection remains a lead style within the Lifestyle category.
The addition of Scrabble contributed greatly to the overall growth of Tokens & Icons and further solidified the company as a dependable licensee committed to authentic artifacts. Uncommon Goods and many other core Tokens & Icons customers offered the Scrabble Cuff Links, Pendants and Key Rings to their customers and the collection ran eight years. While Tokens & Icons did not renew its license with Hasbro (the regulatory lead testing requirements costs $7K per year even though all products were made from sterling silver), Scrabble will always remain significant to Tokens & Icons’ history.
Milan joined Tokens & Icons in 2005 and, after only a few weeks, stated to Ward, “My mind doesn’t work like yours!” However, it wasn’t long before Milan started churning out his own ideas for authentic artifacts. One of his most visual contributions occurred in 2008, when he discovered the retired fuselage of a Boeing 707 Pan American airplane in the Arizona desert.
The trip was initially designed to bring back a few airplane pieces for product ideas. Ward, due to a last minute cancellation, did not accompany Milan but was so taken by the photos that he shortly thereafter acquired a 44’ section featuring the whole iconic Pan American wording. This piece of fuselage has become the icon of Tokens & Icons' Berkeley, CA office. The video below shows the fuselage, modified for mounting, making its way up Bancroft Way to the office.
Tokens & Icons was able to secure a license with Pan Am and this is one of the few instances in which the artifact is not sourced directly from the licensor. The plane’s “N” number (N880PA) adequately satisfied Pan Am, not to mention its 25th Anniversary decal. Tokens & Icons sold all of the aircraft’s remaining windows as industrial art, and continues to craft the fuselage into cuff links and now bottle openers and desk art.
As a standard practice with all existing artifacts, the Pan Am fuselage’s surface is never coated. While a surface may be cleaned, all paint is authentic to its condition upon removal.
After seven years of pursuit, Tokens & Icons partnered with the New York Times in 2010 to celebrate their iconic crossword puzzle. The master himself, Will Shortz, wrote a custom 25-square puzzle, which is printed on authentic New York Times print and set into sterling silver cuff links. For this product, Tokens & Icons did not incorporate an existing artifact once used by a collective mass – as in the case with BallPark Stadium seats or tokens. Instead, the authentic author brought to life a wearable version of a nostalgic activity usually enjoyed alone over a cup of coffee or during a commute.
In a constant effort to develop and produce authentic items that will be personally meaningful to the gift-receiver, Tokens & Icons does not shy away from rich, interesting artifacts even when they cannot be licensed. For example, interesting watch movements from early twentieth-century watches, historic American coins such as Buffalo Nickels – probably the most revered US Coins ever made – and date nails once used to indicate dates of installations and repairs in railroad ties and telephone poles, are all authentic artifacts for which there is no one to seek a license. In these cases, Tokens & Icons thoroughly researches the history and current interest in these artifacts, and works closely with the most reputable collectors and aficionados to ensure accurate story and maintain authenticity.