Home of the Briar Pipe
Yesterday, we drove through St. Claude on our way from northern France to Italy. Historically, Smokingpipes.com hasn't worked too much with French pipe makers or French pipe brands. We've been talking here and there with Sebastien Beaud, owner of Genod Pipes. Genod has a storied history, reaching back decades. Its previous owner, Jacques Craen, was famous in France, but less well known elsewhere. Indeed, Genod itself has a dedicated following in France, even if it has been less well known outside of its home market for the past couple of decades. We had a nice chat about pipes--French pipes in general and Genod in particular--and, of course, had a lovely lunch. St. Claude is beautiful, clinging to both sides of a steep valley, with bridges crossing between the sides as various altitudes and intervals. It seems an unlikely place for industry-- even light industry like pipe making-- until one considers the fact that it has abundant water power, which is what originally drove the machinery. So, while it is rather remote, it had the absolutely necessary condition for early manufacturing: water power. The Genod workshop has been there a long time. Sebastien showed us the shaft that drove the old water powered machinery by way of belts. Of course, none of that has been used in decades, but it's neat that the shaft is still there.
For us, perhaps what is most remarkable is that this is a city that celebrates its history as the birthplace of the briar pipe and the center of French pipe making. About one hundred and fifty years ago the first briar pipes were made in St. Claude. Fifty years ago, millions of pipes were being made each year in St. Claude. Today, fewer than 80 people work in pipe manufacturing in this city of perhaps 12,000. There are just four independent outfits left: Butz Choquin, Chacom, Genod, and LaCroix. And the last two are small workshop sized rather than factory sized, with a handful of makers rather than a large staff. Still, from the topiary pipe in front of the cathedral to little bits of pipe artwork here and there, and the ubiquitous murals, almost all of which feature pipe making or pipe smokers, this is a city that does not shy away from its cultural heritage, even in this climate of anti-tobacco hysteria. Apparently, Genod workshop tours are even quite the tourist attraction for St. Claude, with groups of 30-50 people coming multiple times a week to see a pipe being made. We arrived early and Sebastien was wrapping up with one group when we arrived. We joined the tour part way in. Given my familiarity with the stuff he was doing, I was more curious to see and hear reactions from the group. These folks were genuinely interested and curious about the process. My French is far from great, but I answered a couple of questions as best I could once Sebastien introduced me to the group. None of the questions that I could understand suggested any round rejection of tobacco; they asked about the process, the methods, even the market for pipes (some questions I just missed amidst the whirring of the machines; it's tough enough for me to understand French without a disk sander in the background!). And these were just run of the mill French tourists, not people with a particular interest in pipes. I was pleasantly surprised.
St. Claude is also in a part of France that is quite new to me. I've spent a lot of time in this wonderful country, though never in the Jura mountains. It's rugged and beautiful, an awesome setting for the birthplace of briar pipe making. And kudos to the good citizens of St. Claude for preserving that tradition!