The next time you sip coffee in a café, think twice before you discard the little plastic pot of cream that comes with it. As any operculophile will tell you, it may be worth a small fortune.
Some may think that operculophilia, as it is known in the French-speaking world, sounds like a strange perversion best practiced in the privacy of one's own home. But its growing band of practitioners happily meet in public to show off their collections.
For opercules, or kafeerahmdeckeli (KRD) as they are called in German, are the lids from those pots of creams, and thousands of people in Switzerland collect them. Every year, 150 new series are issued, each consisting of between 10 and 100 different images.
"Some of these series are really beautiful," says Ursula Zago, who owns the only specialist outlet in Geneva.
Cream pot fanatics
Around 80 fairs are held nationwide every month. Cream pot lid fanatics travel the length and breadth of the country to swap covers, or meet fellow collectors.
The subjects on the lids feature everything from Swiss flora and fauna to American car licence plates, from government ministers to dinosaurs, from aircraft tailfins to Tinguely sculptures. Many simply advertise a company or an upcoming event: one recent series was devoted to the Federal Wrestling Festival in Nyon.
"Of course, people think I'm mad," says Konrad Megert, who has been collecting the small plastic-coated aluminium covers for about seven years. Like many, he started simply because he thought they looked nice.
Megert, whose collection contains around 2,000 series, doesn't know how much it is worth, but he told swissinfo he reckons it could be as much as SFr 40,000: "But I don't do it for the money. It's simply the pleasure of collecting and of meeting people. What are my children going to do with my collection when I die?"
A lucrative business has sprung up around them, and forgeries are not unknown. Many new series are produced with collectors in mind and are never intended for cafés or restaurants.
"If you want to buy every new series, it can be very expensive," Megert explains.
Indeed so many series are issued every year that many operculophiles have decided to stop collecting new editions and concentrate their efforts and their money on tracking down older and rarer lids.
A costly hobby
"Like any hobby, there are some people who can get a little obsessed," Megert, who reckons he spends up to SFr 300 a month on cream pot lids, says.
"People of all ages and all social classes collect these lids," says Ursula Zago, told swissinfo. "But mostly it's elderly people. It gives them something interesting to do."
A ripped or damaged lid drastically reduced its value - and that of the entire series - so it is important to take care when taking it off the pot. Zago says there is a right way of doing it: "You remove the lid with a guilletine, ensuring that a small amount of the plastic is still attached."
"You must wash it, then place it in refined oil for 12 to 24 hours until it comes away from the plastic. Then you wash it again to remove the smell, flatten it with a special machine or a wine bottle, and then it's ready to put in your album," she explains. Such care and attention is important when one considers how much money these slivers of aluminium can fetch.
The most expensive series ever appeared in 1979. The five lids, which advertised the mass-market daily newspaper Blick, were the first to feature publicity. In those days, opercules were not collectors' items and so few examples remain. This series, in mint condition, would fetch in the region of SFr 6,000.
Switzerland is the country most affected by opercule fever, but the contagion is spreading, with the hobby catching on in places like Germany, Poland, Greece and Spain.
Megert has now widened his horizons - he collects cream pot lids from Las Vegas casinos and airlines. He is shortly to travel to Tokyo to acquire some distinctive Japanese covers.
"It's a work that never ends. I don't know if I'll ever stop. Maybe one day," Megert says.
"But if anyone abroad wants to send me any of these covers, I'll be happy to have them," he adds.
by Roy Probert