At Smokingpipes.com we always do our best to bring you the best pipes, cigars and tobaccos, but today, we are also bringing some extra-special pipe-related goodness.
This afternoon at Low Country Pipe and Cigar, our brick & mortar location, Smokingpipes is hosting a Castello pipe event. From 4:00 PM (EST) through 7:00, special guest Marco Parascenzo will be on hand from Castello. (Aside from his services to Castello, Marco also runs the widely renowned Novelli Pen & Pipe store in Rome.) The evening will be full of food, drink and conversation (about pipes, naturally).
Of course, not every one of our customers can make it here to sunny South Carolina for the event, and we don't want to leave anyone out. So, we are extending the event to the cyber-world via GotoMeeting.com and their virtual meeting software. All you need to do is go to GoToMeeting.com and download their free software. Instructions on installing the software and joining the meeting can be found at the top of our website -- just click on the "Castello Live Event" image at the top of our website after 4:00 o'clock and a snazzy pop-up window will offer you a step-by-step walkthrough. We're featuring an interview with Marco at 5:00, hosted by Sykes. You definitely won't want to miss that, and Phillip, one of our distinguished customer service reps, will be available for chat.
To help celebrate the event, we are also running a special with Castello pipes. With the purchase of any new Castello pipe, customers will also receive a Castello tobacco pouch, usually retailing at $70 value. That's not just one per order, mind you, but one free with each and every new Castello pipe. And that special is running right now, so you can beat the rush.
As previously indicated, today we're bringing you a special promotion. It's quite simple, really: We've acquired a whole, extra-large bunch of fresh Castellos for a live event to be held tomorrow at our brick & mortar, Low Country Pipe & Cigar, and an even larger number of Castello tobacco pouches (normally retailing at $70 a pop) to be given away with each Castello pipe purchased. Why more pouches than pipes? Because we aren't limiting the deal, nor the pipes themselves, to just those of you who happen to be able to stop by in Little River, SC -- that's why. Nope. Instead we're offering the same deal to all of our customers, wherever you may happen to be, and with the purchase of any new Castello pipe at that, not just those from the forty-eight specially acquired for said event. We're even extending the timeframe of the online offer as well, which will begin today and continue through the 30th of this month, while supplies last.
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…
We visited the Castello factory the day after we arrived and visited the Radice workshop the following day. It's been over three weeks since then, but I wanted to share some photos I took during the two visits. The Castello factory wasn't operating that day because it was an Italian national holiday, but we met with Franco and Marco and looked at pipes. The following day, we met with the Radices and Luca diPiazza, their agent for the US and other countries and picked out pipes there, took some video and some photos. We hope to have that video to you soon. In the mean time, enjoy the photos!
While I work on more substantial posts about the trip, I'll offer up some little videos we took along the way. The video below is, well, pretty much self explanatory. I will offer that there's a reason that I do not make pipes for a living. Watching the Castello worker rusticating for the Sea Rock finish makes it look easy. It isn't. And that music in the background was coincidental, yet perfectly appropriate, no?
Castello is something of an anomaly in the world of modern Italian artisan pipe making. Carlo Scotti, when he founded Castello in 1947, did more than anyone else to create the idea of the modern Italian hand made pipe as we've come to know it. Today, Castello pipes, roughly 3,500 each year, are crafted by six men under the aegis of Franco Coppo. Most Italian pipes of the variety that Scotti's vision ultimately spawned are smaller workshops, with perhaps one to three pipe makers. Each Castello pipe is hand shaped; it is Coppo's guidance and vision that keeps Castello pipes consistent in terms of shape and engineering. It is impossible to overstate how central Castello has been to Italian pipe making. When Carlo Scotti founded Castello, millions of pipes were being made in Italian factories. It wasn't that he created a pipe making tradition; it's that he created a new sort of pipe making tradition. Through the 1940s, high quality pipes principally came from London. Cheaper pipes were made elsewhere, especially in Italy. Scotti recognized what Italian craftsmanship and sense of style could bring to pipes, just as it was doing so for everything from clothes to cars at the time. The historical significance of this factory weighed heavily on me as we made the 50km drive from our hotel to Castello. I had the sense that I was about to tread upon hallowed ground. I knew that this would be a special experience. I had yet to discover how special.
When we arrived Franco Coppo and Marco Parascenzo met us outside and quickly brought us in out
of the cold, wet drizzle. Entering Castello, even before reaching the factory, is a special experience. Pipes are everywhere, lining the walls and in cases.
These aren't pipes that will ever be for sale. These are simply a mix of Coppo's collection, examples of shapes, and some experiments. We were bundled into
the factory without too much ado, supplied with much needed espresso after our rainy, circuitous journey to the factory, and began to poke around. There was
something different about Castello from almost every workshop or factory I'd ever been to. It was clean. It was also massive. In part, this sense was lent by
the simple fact that it was one massive, rectangular room. Briar filled bin after bin, extending for perhaps sixty feet down the right side of the factory.
The cleanliness and massiveness seemed to accentuate each other. It's not that most pipe workshops are particularly dirty or messy. Well, actually they are.
But that's rather to be expected for small enterprises that make briar dust and vulcanite shavings for a living. While I'd be disinclined to perform surgery
in the Castello factory, it was remarkably clean. The briar in the bins extending down the right side of the factory represented only a part of what Castello
has on hand, representing the last stage of the ten year storage and drying process that each Castello block goes through to ensure that it is completely dry.
Running the length of the left side of the factory was a long work table, terminating into a
series of smaller work stations. Six men worked diligently while we watched. One sanded stems, another rusticated bowls for the Sea Rock finish, one worked on
slotting and rough shaping stems, yet another carved one of the rare, celebrated Flame series of pipes. Watching this last process was particularly special.
These stunning pipes are only worked on in the morning, when the light is perfect to be able to see the work properly, then executed extremely slowly: one
pipe might take two or three weeks to complete in this fashion. Each is done with a series of tiny chisels and sharpened spoon-like instruments, slowly
painstakingly letting the flames that encompass the bottom of the bowl emerge.
Watching the steps that went into the rustication of the beloved Sea Rock finish was equally fascinating. First, deeper channels are dug with a rounded-chisel-like instrument, followed by lighter rustication with a home-made doodad that looks like a bunch of nails protruding from a small, round block of wood, with a handle affixed. Finally, two different grades of wire brush are used to rough the remaining smooth areas and graduate the transitions. Mr. Coppo suggested that I try my hand at rustication. The chisel is unwieldy and the briar is extremely hard. After a few minutes of diligent effort with the chisel, my rusticated half of a pipe looked not nearly as good as that of the Castello gent who had kindly let me play at his station. I moved on to the nail contraption and that was equally challenging. The wire brushes I managed without incident. The finished result was, well, not quite as good as Castello's normal Sea Rock fare. I suspect that they'll have to clean up the rustication on that one. Perhaps what surprised me most is what hard work it is. Briar is an amazingly hard wood, which is what makes it the perfect material for pipes. It also makes it extremely difficult to cut in any controlled way. My hands were exhausted after a few minutes. I'm left very impressed by men who can do this for hours at a sitting.
We moved on to watching stems be shaped and finished. Every stem at Castello is cut from sheet acrylic-- there isn't a pre-made stem to be found in the factory. I've watched stems being made elsewhere-- Denmark, Japan-- and the process is what I would have expected. The results, as any Castello aficionado would attest, are a remarkably comfortable stem. Apparently, the acrylic stock that Castello uses is also specially mixed for them to be slightly softer on the teeth and less brittle than most acrylics used for stems.
The Castello factory is the only facility that Castello has ever inhabited. Every single Castello pipe, for all sixty-three years of its existence, was made here. The first pipes, those that established Castello as a new force in pipe making in the late 1940s and early 1950s were made here. And those early creations have been joined by hundreds of thousands of pipes since. Today, approximately 3,500 pipes are made by Castello annually. From the perspective of a small artisan, that's an extraordinary number. From the perspective of the middle-sized enterprise that it is, it is truly tiny. The care, the diligence, the reverence, the love that Franco Coppo and his team of pipe makers bring to the process is extraordinary.
The factory was an extraordinary experience, but the real treat was entering the pipe room. Case upon case of pipes line the walls of this tiny room, surrounding a large wooden table. The room feels like the crypt of a church: for its closeness, as well as for the sense of reverence that one has upon entering. This is very much Coppo's domain. A handful of Renaissance frescoes, rescued from churches over the years, hang on the walls, high above head height. The best pipes in the Castello museum are lovingly kept here in glass cabinets. It's not that Coppo describes it as a museum, but it's far more than a collection. It feels almost like a shrine to great pipes of years past.
And that is where the selecting began. We had perhaps 1,500 pipes to select from. This was very much a surfeit of riches. In the world of selecting pipes, more is almost always better. But to go from 1,500 to our planned seven or eight dozen was quite a challenge. We selected some 150 pipes, then weeded from there. The most difficult, painful part of the weeding was on the Castello "Castello" and Collection grade pieces. We ultimately picked 96 pipes, but all of those 150 would have been happily selected (and indeed more that we passed up in the first round) had I been choosing from a less extraordinary array of pipes. Franco, Marco, my girlfriend all watched as I made excruciating choices to return some of the pipes back to the cabinets. It was a bittersweet process,
letting great pipes go like that, only to have the best of the best remain. Indeed, we had planned to go out to lunch, the four of us, but that plan was
abandoned in favor of quick sandwiches that Marco went out for as I labored slowly through the selection process.
As we sat down for lunch, having picked out nearly a hundred Castellos for Smokingpipes.com, I began reflecting on what had just transpired. I love pipes.
I love being in the pipe business, at the nexus of maker and collector. There is something about the tradition of pipe making and the tenacity and
perfectionism of pipe makers that I love. I also love the pipes that result from that. And Castello is an extraordinary institution devoted to those virtues.
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