Good evening folks, may I join you in a smoke? About six months back, I was looking at a photo of me taken about a dozen years prior and wistfully reflected that my former 54' chest and 30' waist had all but reversed (ok, not quite, but you get the idea). What were once rock hard pecs were now certifiable 'moobs', and the closest thing I possessed to a six-pack resided in my fridge. Not being delusional (well, not completely), I knew that a better diet, and an exercise program that didn't solely consist of '37 gram briar curls', could reverse a good deal of this decline. Having said, rather than introducing healthy new habits, I found myself taking a bit of perverse comfort in noting that a good deal of the South Carolina populace wasn't all that far behind me, started wearing all-black clothing (great, a 55 year old 'Goth') and, following the sage advice of the late Rodney Dangerfield; "If you want to look thinner, hang out with fat... ", renewed my vow to only smoke huge pipes, such as Ardor Giants and Ashton Magnums in public. Then I rejoined Smokingpipes.com and my well-seasoned sense of complacency began to crack at the foundation...
Back in 'the good ol' days' at SPC, with the exception of Sykes who was already starting to lose weight faster than the protagonist of Stephen King's "Thinner", I was just another member of the 'male chub club'. Today, (insert maniacal cackle), pretty much every guy in the place can boast either a body fat that could convince most male models to throw in the towel, well developed muscles, or (worse) a combination of both (nobody likes a curve buster, Brandon!). The final straw for me took place when I looked at the pictures from the SPC pipe club meeting; "Hey, there's John! Adam, Jonathan, Ted, Chris... but who's the oinker in the red t-shirt? Ohdeargodthatsme!!!"
Please don't get me wrong, I'm not slagging anyone who is heavy and happy, and my motivation isn't strictly a vanity issue (four heart operations might be nature's way of telling me to lay off lard & crackers for a while). Having fit co-workers is an inspiration, I can now set firm goals/timetables for my personal physical development. Within a month I will be able to climb to the top of my 6' Craftsman ladder. I will enter and complete a 50 meter 'fun run' (I think a local pre-school sponsors one). I will also rededicate myself to observing a healthy diet... just as soon as my OX-Fam relief-sized boxes of Fritos, pretzels, and Snickers bars run out. After all, they are paid for and why waste money? Now if you will please excuse me, a new life of vigor and vitality is calling. Time to do my 157 gram curls with my 'Ardor barbell' (feel the burn, YEAH BABY!).
Here at Smokingpipes, we have big updates, and then we have really big updates. And tonight's presentation (with a total of 236 fresh offerings) definitely qualifies as the latter (that made no sense whatsoever... maybe they won't notice). Last night the spotlights fell on the Luciano and Radice lines. Luciano just unveiled four breathtakingly innovative new series, all of which feature top-tier Mediterranean plateau briar which was hand selected and seasoned by Luca di Piazza himself, as well as elegantly elongated shapes, beautiful bamboo work and a shaping aesthetic which was heretofore unknown (en masse) from Italy. These beauties come with handsome zip-up bags, posh sleeves and the information about your specific pipe inscribed on a parchment. At prices that start at a pretty modest base-line, these Lucianos can't miss. Radice just unveiled their 2013 Christmas pipes with matching tampers. In addition, for a limited time, you will receive a very gnarly tamper with each Radice pipe that you purchase. Does that mean if you purchase their Christmas pipe you will get two tampers? Yes indeed.
Tonight we headline with nine superb pipes from the legendary Tom Eltang and, while all are tempting, you really must see the one of the most impressive Horns that you are likely to encounter in your lifetime. Michal Novak, Rattray's, Ser Jacopo, Mastro de Paja and Ardor are up tonight, and the latter includes a Urano Giant Apple of Herculean proportions. Neerup, Nording, Brigham, Savinelli and Peterson also came on board in a big way, and the Irish lads even include the highly popular 'Darwin' series. Toss in (well, not literally) seventy-two fresh estates and this is one massive update. We hope you will enjoy!
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.
In the great marital ledger, I, like most husbands, have some entries in both the credits and debits column. Specifically, I've gained credits for taking my wife to Europe five times in the five years we've been together. But those credits have been partially offset (as my wife rarely fails to remind me) by debits associated with dragging her to a few dozen pipe maker workshops, pipe factories and the like during each of those five trips. My wife and I enjoyed our honeymoon two years ago in Italy. We enjoyed it, in part, in the Castello workshop, Mimmo's briar cutting operation, and other, similar, august sites of Italian culture. However, this year's trip to France was to be a vacation. And a vacation alone. Well, mostly. Except for one little side trip to St. Claude...
Antoine Grenard and I have known each other for a few years. The young--my age; in his early-mid thirties--managing director of the Chapuis-Comoy factory and I have always gotten along well, but I'd never visited the factory on my previous trips to St. Claude. Grenard's team of thirty make Chacom (the flagship brand's name is a portmanteau of Chapuis-Comoy) and a variety of other brands, including Ropp, Jean LaCroix and others.
The factory itself is one of the most fascinating places I've ever been. Even my wife was delighted to have her vacation interrupted by the tour. Built in 1910, the factory once had more than two hundred workers, busily making pipes. Two hundred people and the concomitant equipment take up a lot of space. That leaves a lot of interesting underused space and artifacts of pipe making of decades past.
Much of the equipment used has been in continuous operation for decades. We met Antoine in a conference room filled with a century of pipe memorabilia and started the tour in the vast spaces reserved for shaping pipes. The available shape chart from Chacom is vast. Hundreds, if not thousands, of templates for classic French and English shapes are on hand. As is the case with almost all pipe factories, the bowls are rough shaped using fraizing machines, a multi-step process where a given machine will cut a specific angle--the back of the bowl, or the area around the rim. Making a given shape requires setting up the equipment for a production run, so runs of hundreds of stummels at a time are cut and then stored to be completed, sometimes having the shape further tweaked. The factory also has a newer template-based shaping machine from Denmark that shapes an entire bowl based on a plastic template of the shape, similar to the equipment that Stanwell used before it closed a few years ago. The Eltang designed Oscar series, with its more challenging angles and modern shape, is made using this method.
From there, we worked our way across rooms and floors, seeing pipes being sandblasted, stained, rings and silver bands added and finished. Many factories outsource the preproduction of their decorative bands, but Chapuis-Comoy does almost all of this in house, with specialized lathes turning and then cutting decorative rings for the ends of shanks at a spectacular pace.
Seeing current production was exciting, but the real highlight of the visit was pipe stummel storage. Vast rooms filled with baskets, bins and giant bags of rough shaped stummels occupy a full floor of the massive facility. Rack after rack holds tens or even hundreds of thousands of unfinished pipes. Some of these are shapes in current production, just waiting to be moved to production. But hundreds of different shapes, each with dozens or hundreds of stummels, have sat there for decades, representing the tail ends of production runs for discontinued shapes, now covered in thick layers of dust.
Another flight of stairs up--perhaps the sixth floor in the facility; I rather lost count--takes us to an attic, where the truly ancient stummels are stored. In some cases, huge wooden bins of many hundreds of stummels await inspiration. And inspiration struck. I started accumulating a little group of assorted, old shapes, one example of each of a few different shapes. And my pile grew. Eventually, I was carrying around more than I could hold. I didn't know immediately what we'd do with all of these, but these were old French shapes that simply had to be back on the market. Interesting, smaller bowls abounded. Fifty years ago, the average size of pipes sold were much smaller--equivalent to a Dunhill group 2 or group 3. Modern pipes are larger, driven by a taste for increasingly large pipes in the US and German markets. Not all of the interesting shapes I found were that small, but part of what makes classic French shapes interesting are the delicacy of the lines, something only possible with smaller shapes.
We progressed from there back to a conference room, stopping along the way to wash the accumulated dust off of ourselves. Crawling around in the attic was a particularly messy activity. By this time, it had become clear that a few special series based on these shapes would have to happen. I couldn't give up the prospect of bringing these beautiful, delicate shapes to life. We slowly pared down the shapes from the eighteen or so I'd pulled out of bins down to eleven and began to explore stains, stems and decorative rings. Ultimately, we opted to create three new series, each available in multiple finishes and with multiple shapes.
All three series will be available on Smokingpipes.com starting in the next few weeks. In some cases, these will be fairly limited editions. There are no plans to produce many of these shapes again, so we'll keep the lines going for as long as we can.
I hesitate to admit it, but of all the wonderful things we saw and did during our vacation, the visit to the Chapuis-Comoy was the highlight of the trip for me. People ask me whether, after fourteen-odd years in the pipe business, it ever gets old. It doesn't. I love it. More than that, Chapuis-Comoy is an undoubtedly special place. There are few businesses in the early twenty-first century that have operated in substantially the same way for a hundred years. The materials of historians are records and written documents and, at times, physical artifacts. But rarely does the historian get to experience something so similar to life as it was lived. For an avid pipe man whose whole career has been in the pipe business, who also has an academic background in history, it was a unique and special experience. Perhaps even more importantly, my ever patient wife not only tolerated this side trip, she enjoyed it immensely.
Think of a tobacco pipe, and the first image that pops into most people's minds is a briar pipe. Oh, sure, most of us have a few non-briars -- a meerschaum or two, maybe a "Missouri meerschaum" corncob, a clay, perhaps a prized calabash -- but most of the wood pipes are briar. It's not too difficult to find pipes made from other woods, such as cherry or olive, and there are lots of other exotics out there, but, still, briar is the standard.
Briar isn't just the usual material for a pipe, it's become a synonym: You can use the word "briar" in place of "pipe" in a sentence and it will make perfect sense. But why is that? How did briar become the most accepted material, more or less, for tobacco pipes?
The traditional story, repeated in almost every history of pipes, is that a French businessman was traveling through St. Claude in the early 1850s, when he stopped to spend the night at an inn in a little village. Some versions of the tale have it that he'd left his meerschaum pipe behind at his previous stop, others say that it had broken in his saddlebag. Either way, he was horrified at the prospect at facing an entire evening without the solace of a good smoke. Asking the innkeeper for advice, he was directed to an old woodcarver who promised to have something ready for him by the morning. Sure enough, at breakfast the traveler was presented with a beautiful pipe carved out of briar. As the French say, voila. The briar pipe suddenly became wildly popular and everyone lived happily ever after.
Personally, I say that story smells worse than a handful of old, dry oak leaves stuffed into an uncleaned churchwarden. (The pipe, not the person.) Let's see... a woodcarver in a then-obscure rural village just happened to have a chunk of properly seasoned wood, gathered from the root burl of a tough old tree that has little other value. Then, skipping those steps in the process that are hugely labor-intensive and require years of foresight, the woodcarver, without a pattern from which to work, was able to solve all the problems of chamber size, wall thickness, draw hole positioning and stem placement overnight?
At least we weren't asked to believe that the Pipe Fairy left a polished bent brandy with beautiful flame grain under the traveler's pillow. In a village that soon became the center of carving pipes from briar, a large supply of which just happened to be locally available. Well, why not? After all, I believed everything that nice gunnery sergeant told me at the recruiting station 35 years ago.
On the other hand, it might have had something to do with the fact that other materials being used to make pipes just weren't able to meet the demands of a growing pipe-smoking population. Not only was the demand for pipes in the 1850s increasing, but the way pipes were being used was changing: Instead of being exclusively smoked at a home hearthside or in a pub -- London even had smoking clubs where men would gather to enjoy a bowlful or two -- people were carrying pipes with them.
The stone pipes originally used by the American Indians, from whom we learned the joys of tobacco, are slow to make and heavy to carry. Clay pipes, the most common material for European pipes for a couple of centuries, were easily broken. Ceramic pipes, which had become popular in the Low Countries (Holland and its neighbors) were more expensive than common clays, but not much more durable, particularly when carried around. Meerschaum was, and still is, obtainable only from a fairly small area of Turkey. Plus, meerschaum is a fairly soft stone and can easily break.
That leaves wood. It's relatively cheap, easy (sort of) to work and is less likely to break than the other materials that had been used. It seems likely that the traditional story of the origin of briar pipes is probably just a convenient just-so story told by someone who was enjoying a nice pipe in the company of friends.
But why briar, specifically? Well, that's another story. You'll just have to be patient, while I look for my pipe.
Bryan R. Johnson is a freelance writer who lives deep in the North Woods, where pipes and tobacco are delivered by dedicated men on snowshoes.
My wife is from Russia, and I got the chance to read her "Traveling to the United States" handbook when we first met in 2008. I found it entertaining how accurately it illustrated the American inclination for chit-chat. Frankly, we're nosy.
"Americans can be very friendly, but are generally very curious about other people's affairs. When you first meet an American, they may ignore you, but if you find yourself in a cab, on a plane, or sitting with them for any extended period of time, they will start asking you a lot of personal questions."
"What is your name?" "Where are you from?" "What kind of work do you do?" "How long are you visiting?" "Do you have any brothers or sisters?" "Where did you go to school?" "Do you like it here?" "What do you do after work?" "Tell me more about your job."
To us, this seems like perfectly normal, innocent conversation. To others around the globe, we can't mind our own business. I have noticed that people frequently ask about my profession, but they rarely stay engaged for the answer.
We pipemakers sometimes have difficulty relating our craft. We make pipes, sure, but this process can be described in a variety of ways. While some folks are generally curious, the majority of people ask just to ask. I find it difficult to explain what briar is, how stems are made, how pipes are priced, or describe different shapes and creativity, without noticing that the person who asked 1) doesn't really care. 2) can't follow what I'm describing. Fortunately, there are those rare encounters...
When I was at the dentist office a few weeks ago, my dentist had to grind down part of a filling that was too high. A really nice guy, he asked me about my personal life to make me more comfortable. "Well....I work for Smokingpipes.com, an internet source for pipes, tobaccos, and cigars. I also make pipes at my workshop at home." (He got a more direct answer than some people. If a nosy neighbors asks me what I do, and I get a bad vibe, I just tell them I make dollhouse furniture. No more questions after that.) My dentist is a cool guy, but I could tell he was struggling when I went more in-depth. Looking over at a poster, I mentioned that briar is like a tooth, only upside down. He became more interested.
"On a tooth, the outside is the hardest, nicest area. Picture a briar cutter taking a bowling-ball-sized thing out of the ground and cutting it in half. The outside is good, but the inside is typically not used for pipes. When I get a block of wood, it has plateau - the bark - on it, and when I start carving, at times this bark can be deep. Sometimes it goes away, and sometimes it shows up on the sides of the pipe. Think of these sandpits as 'cavities'. Some pipe makers and factories fill these, just like you filled my tooth. Heck, a lot of us even use scrapers and little rotary tools like you do to shape some areas of the pipe."
As I was showing him pictures of blocks and finished pieces, he seemed excited, and even brought in another dentist to see them. "Teeth have growth rings and 'grain' just like those blocks have!" he said. I found that really interesting; he was teaching me about teeth as much as I was teaching him about briar. I enjoyed explaining my profession to him, in a back-and-forth conversation. The only disappointment: I learned he did not smoke a pipe.
To quote one of the coolest and most unusual comments I've ever heard: "Man, those pipes are so cool. If this was my own private practice, I would totally trade you dental work for one of those pipes!"
One of the highlights of my trip to Italy each year is my afternoon with Claudio Cavicchi, his wife Daniela and his good friend (and occasional translator) Gianfranco Musoni. There area handful of reasons for this, but it boils down to two things: Claudio's pipes and Daniela's cooking. Daniela is as masterful in the kitchen as Claudio is in his workshop, but since this is a blog about pipes and not about food, we'll talk about pipes…
After lunch (which was extraordinary lasagna followed by a delicious artichoke and meat dish, but I digress…), Claudio, Gianfranco and I went out to Claudio's workshop, which adjoins the house. We started talking about this and that related to Claudio's pipes when I asked Claudio what inspired his shapes. Solely from his pipes, it's clear that shaping is far more central to Claudio than it is to a lot of Italian pipe makers. His shaping voice is clear and well articulated. There's a lot of variance to his shapes, but there's a consistent voice from shape to shape; there's a cleanness to the lines that they all share. Though not necessarily aesthetically, Claudio's shaping philosophy is more akin to the Danes than it is to most Italians.
Claudio makes pipes in fairly large batches, usually working with fifty or sixty simultaneously. This is about a month's production (Claudio makes around 700 pipes each year), so he starts a new batch about once a month. The first two days are dedicated to sorting briar and finding shapes for each block. Claudio has perhaps two hundred shapes cut out on little pieces of paper that serve as approximate templates as he ponders each block. Of course, these aren't set in stone. He scales the shape as needed and modifies the shape if the block requires it or if he discovers a flaw in the briar that necessitates a change of plan.
For Claudio, looking at the structure of the grain in a block and matching it to a shape is the single most important, and most interesting, step in the pipe making process. He stresses that he makes pipes for himself: he does it because he loves to make pipes. That he makes pipes that customers also like is nice, but not central to the creative process for him. Claudio stresses that at this point in his life, with a career as a farmer and a second career as a pipe maker, he doesn't need to make pipes for money. He does it because the process itself is rewarding; he loves making beautiful pipes. And he likes that others enjoy them.
Claudio has paper shape templates going back more than twenty years and he's always developing new ones. They have been inspired by a wide variety of things. In one case, Gianfranco's daughter (age eight) drew a pipe shape while they were visiting with Claudio once that went on to become a Cavicchi template and ultimately a number of pipes! But most are based on shapes that Claudio sees from other pipe makers. They're not copies; they're very much reinterpretations.
One such example is the S. Bang volcano from the Uptown's advertisement in P&T a few years ago pictured to the right. The Cavicchi sitting atop the ad was being smoked by Claudio himself and we snagged it for a minute to present it in this photo. It's far from an exact copy, but the family resemblance is definitely there: the curve of the bottom of the bowl and the angle and curve of the front of the bowl lean heavily on the S. Bang. Other areas differ: length of the shank, the paneling of the shank and the unique Claudio shank treatment mark it out as an unmistakable Cavicchi.
Another great example of this is the volcano shape to the left sitting atop José Manuel Lopes' original Portuguese version of Cachimbos, translated unsurprisingly as Pipes: Artisans and Trademarks for the English edition. That is, of course, Teddy Knudsen and a volcano he made in about 2003 with a bamboo shank. Cavicchi liked the idea, but modified it to have a regular shank and a decorative wood (in this case, boxwood) ferrule that nonetheless echoes the bamboo, with the flaring at the end of the shank, echoed by the decorative flourish on the stem. Contextualized, it does look rather like a little playful hinting at the knuckles of the bamboo in the Teddy original. Similarly, the base of the pipe is totally different: where Teddy emphasized the rugged plateaux contrasting against the smooth sides of the bowl, Claudio offers a gently convex smooth surface. The important line here is the front of the bowl though; that's the element that holds both of these shapes together and serves as the clear commonality between the two. While Claudio's rendition is quite different, the dialogue that goes on between the pipe makers is certainly evident.
Finally, we come to what I think is the most fun of the pipe shapes Claudio, Gianfranco and I discussed. To the right is something of a bent apple-cavalier hybrid. It's based loosely on the Adam Davidson pipe that Claudio saw on Smokingpipes.com pictured below it. In some respects, these shapes couldn't be more different. For starters, Adam's is a derivation of a blowfish shape, itself based loosely on a couple of shapes Hiroyuki Tokutomi has done (which in turn were based very loosely on shapes by Sixten and Lars Ivarsson). The defining characteristic of the shape is the crosscut grain, the large panels on the sides to display birdseye and the balanced asymmetry of the composition. In Claudio's version, all of this is abandoned. Claudio used just the outline of the shape, re-imagining everything else about it. Looking at the two pipes together, one wouldn't guess that the Davidson led to the Cavicchi. Yet, since it did, the ideas that Claudio pulled from the shape are clearly evident in his version. What makes this even more satisfying for Claudio is that a few weeks after he developed this shape based on the photo of Adam's pipe, Adam emailed him to ask him about some of the woods that he uses as shank adornments. He was delighted to be able to reciprocate the unintended favor that Adam had done him.
The copying of shapes is something that seems to cause a whole lot of angst in the pipe world, but not a whole lot of thoughtful discussion. Bo Nordh once said that there's a Swedish expression, "I steal with both arms and both legs," that applies here: all pipe makers borrow, reinterpret, reinvent and reimagine. Pipe makers each add a little bit to the greater aesthetic discussion, but the act of copying and interpreting other works is as central to pipe making as it is to furniture design, knife making or any other aesthetic craft. These are wonderful examples of this: ideas that caught the attention of a creative mind, then filtered and reinvented they become something quite new. For thirty-odd years now, Claudio Cavicchi has contributed his voice to that symphonic aesthetic discussion.
As I indicated in previous posts, I'm now terribly far
behind in sharing all sorts of little insights about our trip to Italy and Germany, from which we returned
almost a week ago now. In my jetlagged fugue of last week, editing videos just seemed far more tenable than
putting metaphorical pen to paper and stringing words together in some coherent pattern. Now that I lack any
excuse for procrastination (or any videos left to edit to facilitate said procrastination), it seems only
appropriate that I return to the trip narrative and share some details about our visit with Mimmo Domenico of
A famed Hollywood makeup artist or clothier invariably ends up with the "to the stars" monicker. In much the
same way, Mimmo is briar cutter "to the stars". His customer list reads like the who's-who of the world's top
pipe makers: Teddy Knudsen, Lars Ivarsson, Kent Rasmussen, Tom Eltang, Kei Gotoh, Hiroyuki Tokutomi, and on and
on. I've also known Mimmo for perhaps six years and while we've never had any direct business, I've helped
connect pipe makers with him and he's helped with introductions for me in Italy, and during that time we've
become friends. So, along with visiting a host of pipe makers while in Italy, we swung down to the Italian
Riviera, in Taggia, near San Remo. We didn't hobnob with Europe's political or business elite while they were on
vacation, but we did hobnob with some of Europe's pipe making elite, which, frankly, is way more fun.
We arrived in Taggia late at night on the 18th of June; we'd gotten rather lost chasing down a restaurant
near Genoa on our way from the Como-Cucciago area north of Milan. The restaurant, which we finally found at the
top of a small mountain on a perilously steep and winding road, was excellent (with superb views of
Genoa), but it also meant that our planned arrival time was missed by a good two hours. We saw Mimmo briefly as
he helped us get settled into our hotel.
Late the following morning, we reached the factory and
Mimmo embarked upon the tour. We started in the dark, dank cellar where the burls are stored before being cut into blocks. Thousands of briar burls, each weighing a few kilos, were piled high against one wall. And
Mimmo indicated that another truck of briar was to be delivered the following week. Mimmo and his assistant
cutter Nicola, who cut briar in Greece before coming to work for Mimmo, cut 600kg of briar a day. Of course,
only a fraction of that becomes briar usable for pipes, and only a fraction of that actually becomes pipes, but
the scale of the initial inventory of burls is extraordinary for a workshop with just two cutters.
Mimmo's father founded the operation, first in Badalucco, up in the valley from Taggia on the coast, then
moved it to Taggia in the late 1960s. As the pipe industry shrank in general, and especially in Italy, he began
to focus more and more on artisinal pipe makers and small workshops, offering the best briar available. Mimmo,
with a better command of English and a savvy head for business, continued the tradition. It began to a great
degree when Teddy Knudsen showed up with nothing but an address on his first foray to Liguria in search of
briar. Mimmo and his father were exactly what Teddy was looking for and, though perhaps it took a little while
to become apparent, Teddy was exactly what Mimmo was looking for. Over the years, Mimmo and Teddy became good
friends, and this initial contact with a Danish pipe maker blossomed into relationships with many of the best
pipe makers in Denmark, then more in other countries: the United States and Japan are now also important for
We all went back upstairs to the cutting floor, Mimmo
grabbed a homemade wooden cart, threw it into the elevator and we walked back down the stairs. He steadily
filled up the cart using criteria that I couldn't quite discern to pick the briar from the vast cache. Hauling
150kg back to the elevator, he brought it back up, weighed the batch and began work. All this time, Nicola had
been cutting burls from the previous batch, which ran out pretty much simultaneous to Mimmo's return with the
cart load of briar. Nicola took a short break while Mimmo sharpened and straightened his saw. Now, Mimmo has the
largest saw blades I've ever seen aside from those used by stone cutters. Perhaps two feet in diameter, with
sharp, deep teeth on the edge, and sporting almost nothing in the way of safety guards (that's a flap of
cardboard over it to prevent saw dust from flying up), this is one scary piece of machinery. While Mimmo wears
nothing out of the ordinary aside from a newspaper hat, Nicola wears what appears to be a breastplate of sorts,
to protect himself from small pebbles flying out of the briar, coming off of the saw. Tools and I tend not to
get along terribly well; I would never go near the apparatus that Mimmo uses on a daily basis. Perhaps in one of
those suits that bomb squad guys have, but I wouldn't approach it wearing anything less robust than that.
And Mimmo set to work. First he'd make a deep cut in a large burl, hand it to Nicola, who would use a press
with a wedge mounted in it to split the burl the rest of the way. Apparently, this is another technique used to
avoid getting hit by high speed pebbles. Almost every briar burl has a red, pebble ridden center that is
unusable for pipes, so with half of a burl (think of something vaguely spherical, so a half sphere of briar),
Mimmo begins by cutting away the obviously bad bits. From there, he reads the briar so that he can cut it
optimally, to maximize the quality of what the burl produces.
When Teddy Knudsen arrived at the door of the briar cutter in Taggia, what he found was a father and son team
that thought far more deeply about briar than most cutters. Most cutters cut for speed, yielding lots of nearly
cookie-cutter blocks, some of which happen to be beautifully grained. Mimmo takes the time, drawing also on
decades of cutting experience, to try to optimize what each block with yield. Then, on the best pieces, he
leaves as much briar as possible. Of course, as with any cutter, only a tiny fraction of the briar is the top
stuff, so most is cut into simple ebauchons to feed the machinery of the pipe factories of northern Italy and
Germany. But this studious process yields more of the good stuff, and his intimate knowledge of the pipe makers
and pipe making give him a real edge in making good cutting decisions. And, indeed, these decisions really
matter. A normal ebauchon might sell for about a dollar; a top-top quality piece of beautiful plateau sells for
twenty or thirty times that.
More important than the price difference, though,
is the dialogue that Mimmo has with each pipe maker. He makes impressive high grade pipes himself and has become
intimately acquainted with his high grade pipe making customers. He builds batches for his customers over time,
knowing which pipe maker is likely to be happiest with a given block shape. Some of his craziest blocks,
especially narrow blocks with horizontal grain orientation, go to Tokutomi in Japan because it's what he favors.
It's not that he segments based upon the quality of the briar; he segments based on what sort of block--large
and odd shaped, smaller and more proportionate, better for a horizontally oriented pipe, etc--a given pipe maker
is likely to be able to make the most of. Mimmo sees himself, and I've heard this sentiment echoed by pipe
makers, as a collaborator in the finished product, serving to inspire, challenge and meet the needs of his
customers. He is far more to them than just a man who sells them briar.
Continuing to watch Mimmo work, it becomes clear that far more briar ends up in the furnace than it does in
pipes. A massive 10kg burl might yield three or four smallish ebauchons or a couple of good plateau pieces. Most
it cut out because it's bad, or to shape the ebauchons to the standardized sizes and shapes that the factories
need, or simply in the process of determining what part of the burl is good. And while I've described this as a
painstaking process, Mimmo actually works extremely quickly. In the low light conditions of the cutting room, it
was extremely hard to capture him working as his hands flew around, pushing massive hunks of briar against the
saw, inspecting his work and deciding on the next cut. Since we were there, this whole process was interspersed
with Mimmo's rapid-fire, stoccato, Italian-accented English explanation of what he was doing and why. Like any
craftsman who so thoroughly knows his work that he could do it by instinct, Mimmo makes the process look easy,
but it becomes, through is explanation, abundantly clear that it is anything but. He's pointing out things in
the briar that, even looking at it, I can't see, explains he's using that information as to where to make the
next cut, cuts, and then shows me the result. What he says makes sense at some literal level, but I fear a real
understanding of what he describes requires a few months, if not years, at the cutting wheel. It is clear that
Mimmo is as much a world class craftsman as the pipe makers to whom he sells briar.
Over the years, Mimmo and Teddy have become so close that Teddy and his wife Mette selected Montalto, a small
mountain-top village in the valley above Taggia as their second home in Italy, where they spend about six months
of each year. This decision has a little to do with briar and much to do with the region, which is stunning: rugged mountains
extend into the Mediterranean, creating some of the most beautiful terrain in the world. And the friendship
between Teddy and Mimmo anchors both of them, on each side of the process that turns briar burls into beautiful
Having cut a few briar burls, yielding a handful
of ebauchons and one nice plateau piece that he will grade a notch below his top-top grade, Mimmo breaks to show
us the rest of the process. After the blocks are cut, they're placed into a giant water-filled vat for boiling.
The boiling process is key to the expulsion of bitter, acrid saps and other impurities from the briar. Keep in
mind, also, that the briar is wet when it's cut. It is intentionally kept wet to keep it from splitting. It
isn't until after the boiling process (heated, not surprisingly, by briar scraps) that the slow, methodical
drying process begins. Again, if it happens too rapidly, the briar will crack, so it is done in various stages,
both outside, but covered, in the breeze and inside the large cutting room, across weeks and months.
From there, we looked through his small pipe making
workshop, where he makes perhaps a hundred pipes each year. I wonder how he does all he does so well, given his various commitments to briar cutting, pipe
making, and generally running the briar cutting business. While inspired by the Danes, Mimmo's work retains
something that is prototypically Italian. His shapes seem more at home among the land of Versace and Ferrari
than the home of Arne Jacobsen. At the same time, his construction techniques are undeniably Danish, having been
taught primarily by Danes. It's a fascinating hybrid to which Mimmo brings his own particular personality.
After a morning of looking at briar in various stages of completion, we retreated to Mimmo's apartment above
the workshop to enjoy more conversation, coffee, and, of course, an excellent lunch that Mimmo whipped up, using
fresh ravioli and homemade sauce that he and Karin, his girlfriend, had prepared. I grew
up in a household where the kitchen was the central room in the house, to parents who are both capable amateur
cooks, so I particularly appreciate the Italian approach to food and its centrality to everything that they do.
The conversation was as good as the food and Mimmo and I discussed the nature of the pipe and briar business in
Italy (doing better, from Mimmo's perspective, it seems) and rambled across a half dozen subjects, generally
catching up on various goings-on.
After lunch, we left Mimmo to visit Teddy Knudsen in
Montalto. We made it to Montalto without incident (that much is hard for even me to screw up, and since I'd gotten
lost once before, I knew which turn, that leads to a certain tiny logging track, not to take this time). Montalto itself is accessible only on foot. The little town features
narrow stone passageways and alleys, with frequent arches containing homes over them, and we, of course, became
terribly lost before I called Teddy and told him where we'd ended up and he came and got us. We weren't even
close. I should have known better than to try to navigate a maze-like, if beautiful, little medieval town based
on a three year old memory. Teddy walked us through his new Italian workshop that he's recently finished
renovating, complete with, literally, red wine on tap (a contraption that only Teddy would have a) decided was
necessary, and b) have the ingenuity to construct) and then sat on his balcony with a stunning view of the
entire valley. We hadn't long with Teddy before we all met at a restaurant about half-way between Montalto and
Taggia for dinner with a small host, including Teddy, Mimmo and Karin, Gabriele and family of DG pipes in
Bologna, other friends and family of Teddy and Mimmo. Having settled upon English as the lingua Franca (both
because of us English speakers and because it's the common language for the Danish camp and the Italian camp),
we enjoyed a spectacular four course meal that stretched on for four hours. With us seated between Mimmo and
Teddy, facing Gabriele, there was never a dull moment.
This was only my second visit to Taggia and Montalto, but it will certainly not be my last. To some it might
seem odd for a briar cutter and a pipe retailer to develop the sort of business-friendship that Mimmo and I have
developed, but good things always come from these sorts of collaborations. Knowing what Mimmo's up to helps me
to do a better job of helping pipe makers find great briar, while Mimmo is, as one would expect, wired into the
Italian pipe making scene in a way that, from this side of the Atlantic, I'm simply not. Oh, and yeah, we have
way too much fun when we all get together. But let's pretend that isn't the real reason I hope to continue to go
to Taggia from time to time for years to come...
I'll have something of a write up on the visit to Mimmo's briar cutting operation later today or tomorrow, but in the mean time, I thought I'd get this little video of Mimmo and his colleague Nicola at work. Mimmo supplies briar to many, if not most, of the top pipe makers in the world. Here he is at work!
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