Italy 2012: Castello
I'm beginning this little missive while Marco Parascenzo and Franco Coppo are locked in detailed discussion. I love listening to the lilting, almost musical, Italian, though I have little sense of what they're discussing. Marco flew up from his home in Rome for the day, while I traveled from Varese, about an hour from here, assuming one doesn't get lost. Marco was here to meet me, but also to select pipes for the United States and China, where he represents Castello. We finished selecting pipes a few minutes ago. Selecting pipes at Castello has an almost ritualistic character, a process laden with meaning, as three men who love pipes come together to pore over perhaps a thousand beautiful Castello pipes.
Appropriately, this process takes place in a small room, protected by a heavy steel door, with no windows and thick stone (or at least stone-like) walls, off of the factory. The room is lined with drawers of pipes, shelves of beautiful Castello wooden boxes, paintings from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and assorted bits of Castello memorabilia. The room's mood has an almost religious character to it; it feels rather like a small chapel in a medieval church. A single source of light, a bright lamp, sits over the central felt covered table. And on this table, we look at pipes. This is my third visit to Cantù to spend the day with Marco and Kino, so I know what to expect.
The process always starts with things like Sea Rocks and Trademarks and we work our way up to the Collections and Collection Fiammatas. I'm not sure if I can properly articulate how much fun it is. I select pipes all the time. It's a huge part of what I do. I do it in the office. I do it at shows. I do it in various countries. But, somehow, the whole Castello experience is just different. I don't know whether it's the atmosphere, the scale of the project, or the pipes themselves, or some combination of the three, that make this one of my favorite pipe experiences each year. Perhaps it's because all present take it all so seriously. It's not that we're terribly solemn; it's actually a lot of fun. It's more that there's a reverence there and none of us take the pipes lightly. Ourselves we may take lightly, but for all involved, these are objects of value well beyond the economic. These are special objects, worthy of care, even love.
For the first couple of hours, we wended our way from Sea Rocks through Castello "Castello". Standard practice is for me to pick out those that catch my eye and then thin the selection afterwards. It's just too hard to pick and prune at the same time. It's far better to just pick out those that I think are best and then cull by perhaps a third at the end of the process. We broke for lunch around 1:30pm, having looked at pipes for almost two hours. I'd probably selected more than a hundred, out of perhaps eight or nine hundred, by then.
A lovely lunch of a proscuitto and cheese antipasti and a pasta course later, we returned to the selection process. Now, this is where it gets difficult. Out came the Collections, Collection Fiammatas and Collection Fiammata Great Lines. I could easily, happily have taken more than half of what was on offer. I ended up selecting about thirty, knowing that serious pruning would be required. There were Occhio di Pernice, Fiammata and Great Lines all on offer. It was an astounding variety of extraordinary pipes.
Finally, it was time to discuss the Pezzo Unico. We did this last year too, with two superb pieces. Franco sets aside pipes that are particularly special, important, significant to him or otherwise sufficiently noteworthy that he doesn't really want to sell them. While it's a little odd to own a pipe factory and not want to sell pipes, I sort of sympathize with him: the number of times that I wished I could keep a pipe at Smokingpipes.com as a museum peice of sorts attests to at least the same impulses on my part. From this selection, with some begging, pleading and prying, come the Pezzo Unico. Last year it was a 150th Anniversary Collection Fiammata. This year, in a truly extraordinary briar and Canadian cedar presentation box, it will be a spectacular Great Line Fiammata. This was an achingly difficult decision to make. And trying to get Franco to part with the pipe was difficult in its own right. It took me a few years of getting to know Franco for any of this to even become a possibility. At one point, he rather dramatically declared to Marco, but in English for my benefit, "But this is my art! You're taking my art!" He did finally relent. Franco's wonderful, though: he's totally serious--he has flatly declined to sell me certain pipes on a number of occasions, and it's often hard to tell those apart from the ones that just require extra pleading--but he also recognizes that the whole thing is a little comical nonetheless.
Having scaled the Pezzo Unico summit, it came time to prune. I had about 120 pipes picked out and I needed to get it under 80. I selected Castellos in Chicago three weeks ago and will again in August at IPCPR and will likely have at least one more opportunity to do so by the end of the year. I did not need to be selecting 120 Castellos at once today. Besides, Lisa (she who is in charge of Smokingpipes.com's finances) would not have been happy. And while keeping Lisa happy is important in and of itself, I also recognize that Lisa is sort of my business-man conscience. When I want to do something like, say, buy 120 Castellos, including no fewer than four Collection Fiammatas plus one Pezzo Unico for the website in one throw, I think "what would Lisa say?" I've worked with Lisa long enough to know the answer to this. I usually end up splitting the difference between crazy pipe guy and imaginary Lisa when pipe budgeting. She's not too upset and I can almost justify the pipes I purchased for the website.
I love the process of picking Castellos. I hate the pruning part. It's excruciating deciding which pieces won't make the cut. While I think it ultimately ensures that only the best of the best pipes make it on to Smokingpipes.com, it can be really hard narrowing it down. I'll get it down to two pipes: each of which is a keeper for eighty two different reasons, but one of which really, really has to go. And so I stare at them stupidly for minutes on end. Anyway, in the end, I did it. All told I chose 78 pipes total. 78 jaw-dropping Castellos. Hopefully they'll arrive quickly…
And below, you'll find a selection of photos I took at the factory: folks making pipes, great piles of briar (Castello has about 30,000 blocks on hand, enough for almost ten years work, including one large pile of blocks that are more than twenty years old), hundreds of rods of acrylic from which they cut each stem by hand, and much more…
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