When serial Oscar nominee Leonardo DiCaprio finally broke his Academy Award drought last week he inadvertently triggered a small surge in sales of spinning tops. The reason, explains Will Cutler, a product designer from Burton upon Trent, is somewhat complicated.
Movie buffs will remember that DiCaprio’s character in the 2010 science-fiction film Inception was a thief who infiltrated the subconscious of his victims. In a world where dreams and real life are difficult to distinguish, Dominic Cobb relied on a small top – his totem – to check if he was awake (the spinning top slows and topples) or dreaming (it spins for ever).
So, when DiCaprio picked up his Best Actor Oscar for The Revenant, the internet celebrated with a meme showing the actor using his top to check if he was dreaming or if he had actually got his hands on a gold statue. And that, according to Mr Cutler, the designer of the Vorso MK1 top, was enough to cause “an upturn in business”.
“I’m serious man,” said the 26-year-old designer. “I’m worried we won’t have enough stock.”
In truth, the curious renaissance of the spinning top was under way before DiCaprio won his first Oscar. A cursory search of crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo – places where the latest tech gadgets tend to dominate – reveals a plethora of tops, a rudimentary toy that has existed since antiquity.
Today’s tops tend to be small, metal objects with hyperbolic names. They include the TTi-180, the UltraTop XXX, the BilletSpin, the Kraken and the ForeverSpin, a product that reportedly raised $1.5m (£1m) on Kickstarter. Some of the new generation of tops glow in the dark, others can be stacked like building blocks; most promise extravagant spin times. A few boast more metaphysical qualities: the UltraTop, for example, is billed as “a great way to relax, escape from the hustle and bustle and meditate”.
Oscars 2016 winners
Oscars 2016 winners
1/24 Leonardo DiCaprio
Oscar for Best Actor: "The Revenant"
2/24 Brie Larson
Oscar for Best Actress: "Room"
2016 Getty Images
3/24 Mark Rylance
Oscar for Best Supporting Actor: "Bridge of Spies"
4/24 Alicia Vikander
Oscar for Best Supporting Actress: "The Danish Girl"
5/24 Alejandro González Iñárritu
Oscar for Best Director: "The Revenant"
6/24 Emmanuel Lubezki
Oscar for Best Cinematography: "The Renevant"
7/24 Mark Mangini (L) and David White
Oscar for Best Sound Editing: "Mad Max: Fury Road"
8/24 Margaret Sixel
Oscar for Best Editing: "Mad Max: Fury Road"
9/24 Lesley Vanderwalt (R), Elka Wardega (C) and Damian Martin
Oscar for Best Makeup and Hairstyling: "Mad Max: Fury Road"
10/24 Colin Gibson and Lisa Thompson
Oscar for Best Production Design: "Mad Max: Fury Road"
11/24 Jenny Beavan
Oscar for Best Costume Design: "Mad Max: Fury Road"
12/24 Tom McCarthy (L) and Josh Singer
Oscar for Best Original Screenplay: "Spotlight"
13/24 Adam McKay (L) and Charles Randolph
Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay: "The Big Short"
14/24 (L-R) Steve Golin, Blye Pagon Faust, Nicole Rocklin, and Michael Sugar
Oscar for Best Picture: "Spotlight"
15/24 Jimmy Napes (L) and Sam Smith
Oscar for Best Original Song: 'Writing's On The Wall' - "Spectre"
16/24 Ennio Morricone
Oscar for Best Original Score: "The Hateful Eight"
17/24 Laszlo Nemes
Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film: "Son of Saul"
18/24 Shawn Christopher Ogilvy (L) and Benjamin Cleary
Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film: "Stutterer"
19/24 James Gay-Rees (L) and Asif Kapadia
Oscar for Best Documentary Feature: "Amy"
20/24 Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject: "A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness"
21/24 Pete Docter (R) and Jonas Rivera
Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film: "Inside Out"
22/24 Director Gabriel Osorio Vargas (L) and producer Pato Escala Pierart
Oscar for Best Animated Short Film: "Bear Story"
23/24 Andrew Whitehurst (R), Paul Norris (2nd L), Mark Ardington (L) and Sara Bennett
Oscar for Best Visual Effects: "Ex Machina"
24/24 Chris Jenkins (R), Gregg Rudolf (C) and Ben Oslo
Oscar for Sound Mixing: "Mad Max: Fury Road"
Most of the tops are designed and made in the United States, but Mr Cutler’s is machined on a lathe in Staffordshire. Cut from high grade metals and alloys to a tolerance of 0.05 microns, and equipped with either a stainless steel, ceramic or synthetic ruby tip, it is an object of desire designed to spin for more than 10 minutes.
Long spin times require a top made from a particularly heavy metal – tungsten, for example – and a hard surface. Mr Cutler recommends a concave mirror made from surgical glass. The record spin for a Vorso top is 15 minutes 38 seconds; not bad considering a bespoke top with a diamond-coated tip made by a team of Japanese master craftsmen set a record at a contest last December by spinning for almost 19 minutes.
All this refined engineering doesn’t come cheap: the basic Vorso MK1 costs £32; the Alpha, a stainless steel-over copper top by American design legend Rich Stadler, will set you back about £90. Heavily customised tops – popular with completists who often buy a set of tops in a variety of exotic metals – sell for more than £500.
Who is buying these exotic tractricoids? According to Mr Cutler, the typical customer is a male professional aged 25 to 35 who works in an office, “but has a love of the outdoors”. A man who wishes he was elsewhere, presumably?
“The tops look like toys that should cost very little money,” says Mr Cutler. “But they require extremely high levels of engineering and are made on machines that cost £350,000.
“Essentially, they’re pointless, but when you spin it and it gets to the point when it appears motionless it’s … mesmerising.”