ROPP: Past, Present, and Future
Pipe smoking worldwide declined steadily for the half century between 1960 and 2010. Once home to dozens of pipe manufacturers making many millions of pipes, St. Claude now has three that make fewer than a quarter million pipes a year among them. As has been the case the world over, factories were consolidated. The Ropp factory, unusual among French pipe manufacturers in that it was not in St. Claude, but rather some 150km away in Baume-les-Dames, closed in 1991 and was absorbed by Chapuis-Comoy shortly thereafter, where briar Ropp pipes continue to be made.
Chapuis-Comoy makes a variety of brands these days, though by far the most significant and the most intertwined with the company's history is Chacom. I wrote about my visit to the factory more broadly earlier this week and you can find that here. Following our exploration of the factory, we wandered down to massive storage rooms filled with pipes. In some ways, this was no different from any other pipe manufacturer. Many of Chacom's most significant lines are simply kept in inventory to be shipped to distributors around the world.
In pretty much every large pipe factory I've been to, there's also been a few dozen or a few hundred pipes that are interesting, and are great pipes, but don't fit anymore: the last few of a line that was discontinued from a catalog or an order that was manufactured before a customer went out of business. I relish buying these. Smokingpipes.com's one-at-a-time approach to putting pipes on the site is perfect for great jumbles of good things. We don't need ten of the same shape-finish combination as another retailer might. We're delighted to get ten different, interesting pipes instead. I've done this with lots of different manufacturers over the years: Peterson, Savinelli, and Tsuge also come to mind. Sometimes it happens on scale (think last year's Tsuge sale, which amounted to some 1,500 pipes) and sometimes it's not quite so huge (my purchases at Peterson, where we've bought a handful of a few different things they don't know what to do with on a couple of occasions). Now, keep in mind that there's nothing wrong with these pipes. Often they're really good. They're of the same quality as the rest of what the factory produces. They're just the forgotten ends of lines that have become extinct or custom orders that were made with the wrong ring and then made again. It often means we can offer unusual things at lower prices.
But, the experience at Chapuis-Comoy, while not qualitatively different, was quantitatively different. Antoine Grenard, Alyson (my wife) and I walked through room after room of dusty shelves, each holding pipe boxes, or boxes with dozens of pipes or giant bins of finished and semi-finished pipes. I did what I always do. I asked Antoine if there was anything he wanted to sell. We started slowly. He showed me some English made Comoy's pipes from the 1970s and I bought a few of those for the estate section (at one point, Chacom was Comoy's French distributor). Then he showed me some Jean LaCroix pipes. I bought a few dozen of those, which will also appear in the estate section.
Then we got to the real prize. He had dozens--I had no idea how many at first, but it turned out to be around a hundred--of beautiful old French shapes--delicate billiards and acorns and apples--with horn stems. Now horn is a beautiful material for stems, but it's also not terribly practical. It's not as durable as acrylic or vulcanite and takes a little more care in the teeth. It's also difficult and expensive to make, so no one does it very much anymore. A hundred years ago, with few alternatives, it was all but ubiquitous in French pipe making, but seeing a hundred pipes with horn stems these days is unusual. Antoine didn't know how old they were, though from the stems and bowl shapes they seemed decades old, but from the stains, they couldn't have been too much older than about 1970. So, I'd guess they were made--or at least mostly made--forty-odd years ago. I bought them all.
And that was the starting point for what became the 'Ropp project.' At this point, those pipes weren't stamped, but they needed a brand name, and a prestigious one at that. They are beautiful pipes with clean wood and great shapes. It seems arbitrary, but Ropp seemed the best fit as a brand name among the major brand names that Chapuis-Comoy owns (and Antoine didn't want to use Chacom for a variety of reasons having to do with US distribution rights and the overall direction for that brand). This whole thing was a very organic process that was born out of discussion and shared passion for great pipes.
So, from there we moved to other things as Antoine remembered various odds and ends he didn't know what to do with. We found some great extra-long shank canadians in a bin. The shape was awesome, but the stain, frankly, was not. It was a sort of funky reddish-brown color that didn't really work and didn't get absorbed into the wood properly, leaving a bit of a mottled mess. Obviously, that's why these were just hanging out in a giant bin of 50-odd. Looking closely, though, it was obvious the wood was very good. These were great pipes that had something go horribly wrong in staining. I was beginning to tell Antoine that I wasn't interested when he proposed, knowing as I did that the stain was the problem with these otherwise great pipes, that we blast them and restain them. I took him up on the offer. The results, which I didn't see until they arrived a couple of weeks ago, are awesome. They're on the site now.
Rounding this out, we found another few dozen sandblasted pipes that looked great. Antoine couldn't remember what they were for, but it was a classic tail end of a series. There were three or four of each of a bunch of different shapes. We rolled those into the project.
So, these Ropp pipes you started seeing on the site last week were all from this first round of treasure hunting that we did in the factory in St. Claude. We have quite a few of each, though they won't last forever. We're restarting the brand in the US with a couple hundred pipes, but Antoine and I also discussed finding other things to roll into the line as time goes on.
We want to make the brand quirky and interesting. The world has enough great classic pipes. The Chacom line from the same factory is filled with such things. What makes this project different is it's a place for great pipes that don't fit elsewhere to have a home. We'll emphasize classic French shapes and styles: delicate, elegant, perhaps with interesting stems. No one in their right mind would create a big line with horn stems these days. They're just not practical enough to have the wide appeal a factory needs for a big new release. But, that's exactly the sort of stuff I love. Little niche things that a certain number of people will think are really cool. That's the awesome thing about the internet and the long-tail of product availability that it makes possible. Just because something can't be a blockbuster doesn't mean that it isn't awesome and wouldn't be great pipes to folks looking for something unusual and interesting.
Some of the most rewarding things we've done with pipes over the years are like this. Cool, interesting, smaller projects with a more limited audience that let us get creative and do what we do well. And I hope that the Ropp project seems as exciting to you as it does to me.