Load bearing” carabiners are commonly used in both the sailing and rock climbing industries. These “real” carabiners are made from aluminum rod or forged steel shaped around a spring loaded gate. Traditionally made in both D and oval shapes, today carabiners can be found in a variety of sizes and basic shapes. Their functionality stems from the gate mechanism which opens with pressure and springs closed when released allowing carabiners to hold and be attached to various objects.
This article is concerned not with the load bearing variety of carabiners, but with the much smaller “replica” or “promotional” carabiners used primarily as keychains. Promotional carabiners are about 1/3 the size of “real” carabiners and are no load bearing and not for climbing. They function in a similar way to their load bearing cousins. By way of the spring loaded gate they can be easily clipped to most straps and loops creating a very convenient way to carry keys as well as other small objects. This “clipping” function along with the ability to customize them with a name, logo or message is why carabiner keychains have sky rocketed to the top of the big hit promotional products chart.
The carabiner keychain craze started with the introduction of the large D replica measuring approx. 3.0″ x 1.5″. Initially it was introduced in black with a silver gate. Additional colors would come later. These carabiners were typically sold in outdoor retail stores as accessories and started to get some notice from rock climbers. They proudly displayed these replica carabiners clipped to their belt loops and back packs identifying themselves as climbers as well as for the dedication to their sport.
The first use of carabiner keychains as a marketing tool began in the early 90’s when a prominent company displayed them in their promotional products catalog in black with a colored nylon strap and custom imprinted label. The next step would dramatically increase the popularity of carabiner keychains world-wide. In 1995 RMG Accessory Gear a small promotional products company in Connecticut developed carabiner keychains for the college market. They introduced carabiner keychains at a college store tradeshow with custom college logos printed on a white polyester label which was stitched onto a piece of nylon webbing attached to the carabiner. The carabiners were available not only in black, but a variety of clip/strap color combinations. The product was a big hit on college campuses. At the same time both small and large companies were taking notice and would soon be using custom imprinted carabiner keychains as very effective marketing tools. They were effective because people were actually using them and not throwing them out as was the course for the many nonsense promotional products at the time. acrylic keychain
At this point the only imprint appeared on the label; the clips were blank solid colors. The next innovation would send carabiner keychains into the mainstream promotional products market. Around 1995 some companies were experimenting with using lasers to apply marks directly onto the carabiner surface. Since the surface color was just a “coating” the laser could effectively remove this coat exposing the bright silver color of the aluminum below. The process of coating carbabiners with color is known as “anodization”. In addition to applying color, anodizing the aluminum surface also protects it from abrasion and wear. This process known as “laser engraving” now allowed for the direct customization of the carabiner clips with names, logos and messages. Laser engraving offers several advantages over custom printed labels; more horizontal space for text, less expensive than the more labor intensive printing and stitching labels onto nylon webbing and the marks don’t rub or scratch off. Although, due to the height of its printable surface area (0.50″) the label offered more possibilities for the reproduction of logos compared to the narrow engraving area on a large D carabiner (0.25″). Other customization methods, such as, “pad printing” involving ink being deposited onto the metal surface was being performed as well. The advantage of pad printing is that now the imprints can appear in color. The down side of this method is that the imprints do not hold up well and are subject to being scratched and worn off from constant handling as well as by keys rubbing against it. Pad printing is still in use today for customizing carabiners, but laser engraving is by far the more popular and desired marking method.