Certainly you have heard of pipe dreams, but what of tobacco dreams?
It has become a ritual for me, once a week, to wander down to the warehouse and do a little tobacco shopping. Typically, I will grab a few tins of my perennial favorite but with such a wonderful selection available to, it's only natural that in addition to my "usual," I pick out something new to try. I don't have to tell you this, but every now and then, one of those new blends has a profound effect and ends up claiming a spot in the regular rotation.
Some time ago I made the trip downstairs to the warehouse and grabbed a few tins of McConnell’s Scottish Flake, one of my standbys. Looking around for something new, I noticed the Wessex shelf and remembered Josh mentioning to me that he really enjoyed Wessex Brown Virginia flake. I have loved many blends from Wessex, but the BVF was one that I somehow overlooked. "Why not?", I thought while adding a tin to my stack. I paid for the tobacco and rushed home to crack open the experimental tin.
This is where things get a bit hazy.
The tin note was luscious. The moisture level directly from the tin was ideal and the beautiful, medium-brown flakes rubbed out effortlessly and felt like velvet in my hands. It would take at least another page for me to adequately describe the flavor, but I will say that it is creamy, full-bodied, and chock-full of dark, dried fruit notes and an aroma of freshly baked bread. As my first bowlful approached its end, I felt enlightened; I felt my spirit finally at peace, floating contently through time and space and into other realms that were strange and beautiful. Truth be told, I'm not even sure just how long I was "out of it."
The next thing I remember was walking into Sykes' office. “I will always be grateful for the opportunity, but I’m afraid I must request an indefinite sabbatical," I told him. "Although it will be very difficult to leave this place, I have to summon the courage to see this journey through." He couldn’t tell if I was serious as I continued my cryptic explanation. "I will take my final pay in the form of Wessex Brown Virginia Flake, please". I’ve never been more serious about anything in my life. Fortunately, Sykes is an understanding man who knows exactly what it’s like to find a tobacco that one can really share a life with. We shook hands and he wished me well.
I gave my car away, abandoned my home and set out on foot with a rucksack full of Brown Virginia Flake, a few trusty briars and my loyal canine companion by my side. I walked and walked until the days turned into months. I slept under the stars. I fished in the streams for my supper. I carved "BROWN VIRGINIA SHANE WAS HERE" in the oak trees. Young women smiled and winked at me as they passed me on the side of the road; they knew I couldn’t care less and they wanted me more because of it. Others would tell me that whatever I was smoking smelled wonderful. "I know," I would reply and I would be on my way. The world finally made sense to me. I was free and happy. One evening I took the last few puffs of a bowl, laid down my head, the night sky above, and drifted to off sleep.
Seemingly in an instant, I awoke in a panic. I looked around and recognized my living room furniture, my apartment; my old life. It was all a dream? The confusion was devastating. Did I really imagine all of that? I looked over to the end table and noticed an open tin of Wessex Brown Virginia with a few flakes missing. I really had tried the blend, and it truly was dreamy.
Shane Ireland: Copywriter & Customer Service Representative
We sell pipes. We sell a lot of pipes. By the time you receive your pipe from us, your briar or meerschaum has passed through more than a dozen sets of our hands and eyes. Though our individual investment in a given pipe can range from a quality inspection upon arrival, to a near-bonding experience when describing, that new friend which just arrived in your favorite brown truck, in at least some small way, carries much of our thoughts and energy with it.
You purchase a pipe. You purchase many pipes. At some point you gift a pipe to someone you feel worthy, perhaps you even surprise them with a shipment directly from us. That instrument of meditation and solace, with the addition of your care and energy, now travels and the metaphysical river lengthens. From time to time we receive emails with photo attachments from customers showing us where their Smokingpipes briar is presently located, and the impact of actually getting to see how this beneficent butterfly effect is currently manifested, well, it’s downright magical.
We have received emails from missionaries like John Michael George in Papua New Guinea who is ministering to the needs of the Hewa tribe, along with a photo of his new friend, "Nafas" enjoying an (originally) Smokingpipes Stanwell Bulldog. Due to the kindness and generosity of a SPC customer (Alex Kummel), many of our pipes wound up in the hands of the brave American men and women currently stationed at FOB (Forward Operating Base) Fenty. The philanthropist emailed us with not only the story, but pictures of some of the recipients, along with the video of a push-up contest with a pipe originally purchased from us as the grand prize.
While not the easiest thing to articulate (we didn’t personally create these vessels of solace, and their further travels resulted from your generosity), seeing a briar that we once held continue to provide happiness to yet another person, in an unexpected part of the globe, feels quite amazing. If one of your Smokingpipes.com briars is presently in the service of another, far from your home, we would love to hear about it.
"I returned to my desk the other day, just after lunch, to find a mysterious zip-lock baggie, cryptically labeled '4/21/14' in red marker. It was filled with what at first glance appeared to be... pipe tobacco, but I couldn't be sure. A chill passed through me. How did this baggie get here? Who was it from? What could it mean???!!!! WHYYYYYY??!!!
Then I remembered that Eric does this kind of thing about every two weeks, leaving mystery tobacco on the desks of those of us who have expressed interest in writing reviews for the blog's blind tasting entries. No reason to freak out.
Thinking much more clearly now, I began to examine the contents of the formerly scary but now familiar baggie. The tobacco was mottled brown and bright, speckled densely with black and the aroma was mild but distinct aroma of VA with more than a hint of Latakia smokiness.
I must say this is mellow and light and with sour tones of Bright VA leaf making themselves most notable, underpinned with a kind of nuttiness. Despite the amount of black leaf observed in the bag, the Latakia component remains far in the background like a lone Basso Profundo in a boys’ choir. The room-note is also quite mild, I'm told, with little of the Latakia presence coming through and the hint of perhaps Burley perhaps even a small amount of Dark Fired. I think this would be a good all-day kind of smoke for someone who enjoyed very light English tobaccos and did not want a strong room-note. Perhaps this is Planta Mild English. All-in-all what started out as a chilling mystery turned out to be a very harmless and gentle experience."
"Appearance: Handsome ribbon cut, consisting of what appears to be roughly 50% red and bright Virginias, 20-25% Cyprian Latakia leaf, with the remainder showing the tell-tale hues I associate with Perique. If there are Orientals, processing has changed size and color enough that I cannot visually detect them.
Tin note - Latakia dominant, with slight raisin notes playing in upper third of the nose (fragrance).
Pack - Good moisture, springy, with a lively rebound on the first and second gravity load/tamp.
Toasting light - A very inauspicious beginning, for which I am willing to shoulder a good part of the blame. Using a pipe rescued from our 'pipe science' victims, I grabbed a torch, hit the tobacco like Mike Tyson, and roughly 60% of instant combustion went up my nose. The net result was that I now, though far too young to have taken part in the Chicago Democrat Convention riots, feel an unexpected solidarity with those who were maced.
First third of the bowl - Not unexpectedly, Latakia instantly established the tempo. Not a 'Latakia Monster' by a long stretch, but still solidly the center of the team. (Latakia begins to become the dominating note/taste when it starts climbing above 20%, and will be the proverbial 800lb gorilla at the 30% mark.) That out of the way, I found myself wishing it was a Cyprian behemoth, for the peppery aspects of the Perique (if it wasn’t Perique, it should consider a career as a stand-in) assaulted my palate like a rototiller on paper mache. Did I say 'peppery'? Make that pepper-spray. I had a flashback to basic training. The only thing that was missing was a DI yelling 'Don’t rub your eyes, and don’t you dare puke on this Drill Sergeant’s ground!' Putting the pipe down and taking three long pulls of coffee, I tried again. This time, it was closer to an inoffensive, if unremarkable, Latakia smoke, the room note about what you would expect from the same – until a new claymore mine of pepper went off. Testers are not supposed to compare notes. Having said, I did walk by Josh grinding his way through a bowl. My expression conveyed 'Anything but Latakia and despair?' 'I kind of sense some clove.' 'Heh, "Cloven Hoof" maybe'.
Second and third part of the bowl: Didn’t happen, I simply didn’t have the motivation to power through. To be as fair as possible, maybe I was having an off day. I just can’t imagine being that much off my game."
"It’s nice to see an English blend make its way into our blind tastings. Pouch note is welcoming—musky sweetness from the Virginias and fairly subdued smokiness from the Latakia. The cut is uniformly thin, which means that the tobacco packs and takes a light well. Surprisingly, the Virginias predominate on the charring light, but they move into the background pretty quickly. Thereafter, the taste is rather predictable—smoky Latakia, light tanginess, perhaps suggesting the presence of Orientals or Perique (I’m not quite sure which), and a fairly pronounced topping of cloves or allspice. Flavor doesn’t develop much throughout the bowl. The last third of the bowl, in fact, becomes a bit acrid. On the whole, this is not an offensive blend, but it’s ho-hum. With so many other interesting and delicious English blends on the market, I can’t imagine reaching for this one again."
Well, that was instructive. In particular, it suggests there’s something we can take away from the combined presence of Josh’s comment on “cut is uniformly thin, which means that the tobacco packs and takes a light well”, and Bear’s “I grabbed a torch, hit the tobacco like Mike Tyson…” There’s a reason not to use torch lighters to light a pipe, even if it is a pipe science box pipe."
The blend? It was none other than Leo, winner of the People’s Choice award for the 2012 John Cotton Throwdown. Given that the blend won an award that hinged on mass appeal, I’m not too surprised it didn’t particularly wow the experienced palettes of Josh and Jeremy. Given how Bear went about things, I’m not surprised at the manner in which it wowed his.
Looking back at older images of people with their pipes, there seems to be a natural theme. From sailors to passengers, being out on the water seems to be the perfect time to strike a match, which is what brings us to this somewhat nautical look at pipes in days past.
Above: With a pipe and a bottle of whisky labelled "W. Lumsden & Co, Aberdeen" this passenger is travelling in style. Circa 1900
[Photo courtesy of the Australian National Maritime Museum]
Above and Below: The smoking lounge in a luxury passenger ship, Hamburg-Amerika. Circa 1888-1894
[Photos courtesy of Southern Methodist University Libraries and DeGolyer Library]
Above: Author Sawyer poses with his pipe and a young Elephant Seal during the first Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Circa 1911-1914
[Photo courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales]
Above: Karl Muller smokes his pipe while washing the deck of the ship SEETEUFEL. Circa 1938
[Photo courtesy of the Australian National Maritime Museum]
Bear Graves and Ryota “Our Man in Japan” Shimizu, sat down and had a chat with Reiichi “Ray” Kurusu. Ryota, pipe man and translator extraordinaire, amply demonstrated his value throughout the interview, by correcting Bear’s poor Japanese. Thus, questions which arrived as “Do you have any sisters at home?” became “Do you smoke a pipe yourself?” SPC extends its deepest thanks to Ryota-san.
Bear Graves:When and where were you born?
Reiichi Kurusu: I was born on the 21st of November 1977, and I’m from Osaka Japan.
Bear Graves:What career path did you take immediately upon graduation?
Reiichi Kurusu: After graduating high school in Osaka, I lived abroad for about a year in New Zealand. When I returned to Japan, I moved to Tokyo pursuing my love for music. I worked at a tattoo studio, not really having clear vision of what to do.
Bear Graves:Where do you live now? Is your workshop in your home?
Reiichi Kurusu: Right now, I’m back home in Osaka and my workshop is there as well.
Bear Graves:At what age did the idea of pipe smoking appeal to you? Did you have men in your life, whom you looked up to, who might have smoked a pipe?
Reiichi Kurusu: When I visited the 2011 Pipe Fest in Tokyo, I met with Tokutomi-san for the first time and pipe making sounded so interesting that I thought of giving it a shot. I asked Tokutomi if he could teach me and that also got me seriously thinking of pipe making as a career. After that, I’ve been visiting his workshop countless times trying to learn as much as I can.
Bear Graves:Do you smoke a pipe yourself?
Reiichi Kurusu: I smoke about every other day when I want to relax after work.
Bear Graves:What types of blends do you prefer?
Reiichi Kurusu: My favorite is SG’s 1792, but I usually smoke my mixture of Virginias. Dunhill Flake is one of my favorite as well.
Bear Graves:What, aside from pipemaking, is your vocation?
Reiichi Kurusu: I still love tattoos and music. Sometimes, I enjoy playing the piano and singing.
Bear Graves:Who was the maker of your first quality pipe?
Reiichi Kurusu: My first high end pipe was a Jess that I was able to acquire 10 years ago from a friend. He was kind enough to let me have it for a very reasonable price. I can still remember how fascinating the stem work was.
Bear Graves:Your first pipe was a Jess?! I wish I had friends like that! When did you create your first pipe that you were proud of, one that you felt was worthy to sell?
Reiichi Kurusu: It’s only been 3 years that I started making pipes and looking at some fantastic handmade pipes that my friends show me, I realize how much I still need to work. But I think this past 6 months has been a huge leap for me.
Bear Graves:What is the origin/source of your briar, and, roughly, how long is it seasoned prior use?
Reiichi Kurusu: All my briars are from Mimmo, and I let them sit for about 2~3months before using them. Personally I would like to season them for at least 6 months or more in the future.
Bear Graves:What is your stem material of choice?
Reiichi Kurusu: I use vulcanite for my stems and never acrylic. I sometimes use Cumberland as well.
Bear Graves:Do you hand cut your stems?
Reiichi Kurusu: All my stems are cut from rods. Never a mold.
Bear Graves:What size are your draft holes?
Reiichi Kurusu: Draft holes are all 4mm.
Bear Graves: We have noticed a couple of different aspects of approach to your shaping. If you have a prevailing theme for your work, how would you describe it?
Reiichi Kurusu: I don’t really have a theme per se, but I try not to overuse complicated lines or curves. There are the soft gentle lines and simple curves that I am very fond of. But I do like those lines that just click on blowfishes as well.
Bear Graves:What pipe makers, if any, have aided you in your progress as a pipe maker?
Reiichi Kurusu: As I’ve mentioned, Toku has helped with me from the beginning and has taught not only how to carve pipes, but also what it means to be a pipe maker. Ichi [Editorial note: Ichi Kithara] as an elder student, has been a great mentor as well.
Bear Graves:I have noticed some beautiful lines in your work that are quite evocative of Tokutomi’s aesthetic Looking at the broadest spectrum of great pipemakers, either living or passed, whose work do you most admire?
Reiichi Kurusu: There are so many that I admire… Tokutomi Hiroyuki, Kei’Ichi Gotoh, Takeo Arita, Bo Nordh, Jorn Micke, Jess Chonowitsch, Bjorn Bengtsson, Sixten, Lars and Nanna Ivarsson… I like how Tao and Poul Ilsted make their bulldog shapes.
Now, to the more 'personal insight'?
Bear Graves:Do you have a nickname, one that you like and we might use on occasion? An odd question, but a nickname, even if simply a shortened version of your given or surname, creates a greater sense of personal connection with collectors, as well as allows us not to simply repeat your same first/last name in a description (reads a bit better).
Reiichi Kurusu: My nickname has always been Ray. My real name is Reiichi but I’ve been using Ray for so long that I used Ray Kurusu as my brand name.
Bear Graves:What kind of music do you like?
Reiichi Kurusu: Tom Waits and Nina Simone, and Fiona Apple. I respect their ability as musicians, as well as their vocal talents. I used to like Nine Inch Nails and Ministry, but now I enjoy the quieter music.
Bear Graves:What are your favorite things to do, when away from work?
Reiichi Kurusu: Right now, I use every second I have on pipe making, but I love traveling and so one of these days I would like to go on a trip for a change.
Bear Graves:Do you have a favorite sports team?
Reiichi Kurusu: I'm not much of a sports guy and have no clue! [Laughing.]
Bear Graves:Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions.
Ray Kurusu: You are very welcome, it’s been my pleasure.
We’re all familiar with the stereotypes surrounding pipes, and those of us who enjoy them. If we have beards, they’re expected to be grey, or at least well-grizzled; we’re to be old-fashioned, steady, inclined to ponder (even to the point of becoming ponderous), restful, quiet, staid, so on and so forth.
While I can’t speak knowledgeably as to whether or not Stuttgart artist and graphic designer Hanns Lohrer himself may have borne or resembled any of these archetypal aspects, I can say that his life’s most famous work certainly didn’t. And that’s because it looked like this:
I’m not a “Porsche guy” – four out of the five vehicles that I’ve owned have been in excess of 18 feet in length, and all have moved out of their own way courtesy of cast-iron V8 engines displacing a minimum of 300 cubic inches. Yet I can’t deny that from the first time I was exposed to Lohrer’s advertising work for Porsche, I was taken. His creations were vibrant and confident, without forced affectation; the stuff a good life is made of. They spoke to that boyish spark in a man’s soul, the one which remembers most fondly those times when with a wink or smile Father or a favorite uncle might have said, “Alright kid, just don’t tell your mother.”
Hanns Lohrer’s artwork is remembered today for his ability to speak to such a spirit. He was good at it, and he had to be good at it – uniquely good at it. That is because attention-grabbing advertising materials were a full one-eighty from Porsche’s own planned approach to building recognition. Word of mouth and face-to-face customer exposure with the automobiles themselves were what Ferry Porsche was comfortable with, trusting that reputation would spread within the sports automobile driver community. Yet Hanns Lohrer’s work wowed and wooed, with brilliant, clean, quite often deceptively simple images, depicting not only Porsche as a car, but Porsche as a chosen mode of transportation in a world made much larger and more exciting. In many of the most famous Lohrer materials, the automobile itself appears only in small scale,
…or only in part,
…or even not at all.
Unlike Ferry Porsche’s far quieter, more old-fashioned approach, Hanns’s work captured the attention not only of those already within the small, exclusive community of sports-car drivers, but those who might have aspired to be a part of it as well. No doubt his work also inspired quite a few lads, and ladies alike, as yet still too young to even get behind a wheel.
Even in his old company headshot Hanns appears to have been playing with the themes seen in his work; the curious forward posture, that satisfaction in his smile, the line and angle of the pipe he holds, and the roundness of the chosen briar’s bowl and the streamlined shape of its stem remembering the lines and contours of the performance automobiles he helped make icons.
Crazy Eddie? I can live with or without home electronics, insane deals or not. Last summer’s biggest blockbuster? Odds are I still haven’t even heard of it. But Hanns’ work, like the restless ad-copy prose of Edward S. Jordan before him, was the stuff of life – that was its theme, and that was its essence. That’s what makes it enjoyable simply as art. And that’s the kind of thing we shouldn’t do without; art, and life, for art and life’s own sake. Can’t say I was surprised to find out he was also pipe man, stereotypes be damned.
Jared Coles (J&J Pipes) and Adam Davidson discuss the best way to clean the knuckles of bamboo, while Steve Liskey talks about different ways to drill and fit bamboo with Nathan Armentrout. Meanwhile Jeff Gracik (J. Alan Pipes), who is hosting this get-together at his home and workshop in San Diego, bounces about, playing the consummate host, making sure everyone has what they need, whether it's a certain drill bit or some of Jeff's famous (at least in the pipe world) coffee.
Jeff Gracik sketches on a rough shaped stummel as Adam Davidson and Steve Liskey look on.
Adam Davidson and I are attending the first of what will perhaps become an annual event for pipe makers that Jeff Gracik, of J. Alan pipe fame, painstakingly organized over the past few months: the West Coast Pipe Maker's Pow Wow. The feel was sort of like a very small, very relaxed pipe maker version of a professional conference. The two day event has been broken into a series of technical demonstrations, short seminars and roundtable discussions. It's a small, select group of fourteen, of which eleven are pipe makers. It is very possibly the first of its kind, anywhere in the world. Sure, American pipe makers have a history of getting together to share ideas and processes, but never with this much structure, nor on this scale.
As, I write, sitting in a folding camping chair on Jeff's driveway, Jeff stands at a lathe demonstrating how to properly execute a military style mount for a stem as ten other pipe makers look on. The other pipe makers are a pretty select group. These are mostly guys that have been making pipes for at least a few years, here to learn new techniques. Jeff is one of the top pipe makers in the country--perhaps the top pipe maker in the country--and while these guys are already professional pipe makers, there's still much that they can learn from Jeff. But it isn't limited to Jeff. All of these guys have areas of expertise that they can share with the group.
Jared Coles drills on Jeff's lathe.
Earlier, Steve Liskey led a seminar on bamboo, detailing methods ranging from digging it out of the ground to using it as a shank on a pipe. Yesterday, I led a discussion on some of the business aspects of the pipe world. Later today, pipe maker and longtime Smokingpipes.com Estate Manager and Pipe Specialist Adam Davidson will discuss quality control and the pitfalls pipe makers can avoid if they want to make the best pipes possible.
What's truly remarkable, to the point that it would utterly baffle an outside observer from most any other industry, is that this actually happens in the pipe world. Jeff is completely open with how he does things, unconcerned that he's teaching his competition. Perhaps it’s the security he feels regarding his place in the pipe world that makes this so natural for him. Or perhaps it's simply the master's desire to share his knowledge. There have been a handful of pipe makers over the decades who have been happy to disseminate the skills that they've mastered. It's part of the craft and part of being a great pipe maker.
Sixten Ivarsson, to take the most famous example, was great because he thought about pipes in a new way, and because he taught others how he thought about pipes. If he'd done the former without the latter, Sixten's historical role as the progenitor of the modern artisanal pipe would simply not be. He would have been a brilliant, but relatively insignificant, dead end in the history of pipe making. At the end of the day, Sixten is important because he passed on what he'd learned and what he'd developed.
That willingness to share, exemplified by others--Tom Eltang also comes to mind as a particularly open and willing teacher--is important not only for those who take the opportunity to learn. Indeed, nothing further refines skills as well as teaching them. It forces the teacher to refine amorphous thoughts into coherent structures, furthering his mastery of the material. Jeff Gracik, along with Adam Davidson and Steve Liskey, are confident teachers this weekend.
The goal for the weekend was to help good pipe makers get better. Some of the subjects covered were fairly straightforward: drilling techniques, for example. Others were more sophisticated, such as working with oddly shaped pieces of bamboo. Some of the focus had little to do with how to make a better pipe, but rather addressed individual development as a pipe maker. Adam didn't hold forth before the group about how to make pipes (though he did give a lot of one-on-one advice throughout the weekend), instead he talked about common quality control pitfalls, the small (but crucial) things that pipe makers can watch out for, in order to help them catch errors before they leave the workshop. As long time quality control guy at Smokingpipes.com, Adam's in a unique position to talk about common pipe maker errors. My presentation was about how to navigate the business end of being a pipe maker, how to manage brands, how to avoid potentially bad, short-term focused decisions in favor of better, longer-term decisions, and the like. Indeed, of all of them, my talk was the only that didn't really have much to do with the pipes they make, but hopefully it gave them some insight into how to think about managing the business and marketing side of what they do.
Adam Davidson sketches a mortise, while Nathan Armentrout holds the board for him.
Adam and Ernie discuss a rough shaped pipe made by Ernie (E. Markle Pipes) on Jeff's driveway.
While the centerpieces of the weekend were the formal demonstrations by Jeff and the seminars led by Steve Liskey, Adam and me, much of what made the event exceptionally special was the ad hoc discussion about pipe making that took place during the weekend. At one point I was looking at some pipes Ernie Markle was working on (seriously nice stuff, I might add), when Adam wandered over and started offering his thoughts. One of the pipes Ernie had at hand was a partially finished long-shanked acorn. The shape, while impressive, wasn't quite what he was looking for. He and Adam ended up sitting on Jeff's driveway with a sketchpad, working out the problems of the shape. I'm not sure what will come of the particular stummel that Ernie had been working on, but it was clear that this was a valuable, collaborative learning experience for both Ernie and Adam.
It was an enlightening experience for me as well. Obviously, I'm not a carver. The finer points of how to make an army mount were interesting, but didn't mean much to me. What I did take away from it, however, was how hard it is to be a top-tier pipe maker. Of course, at some level, I knew this; I've probably been in more different pipe maker workshops than anyone else in the world. I know how hard these men (and women) work. But usually I'm in the workshops of established pipe makers. Seeing Jeff instruct less experienced pipe makers helped to crystalize, on a personal level, how hard it is to transition from being a good pipe maker (of which there are many out there right now) to a great pipe maker (of which there are few). The difference is mostly in the mastery of thousands of little technical details. This past weekend Jeff demonstrated a bunch of those details, but pipe making can't be learned in a weekend. It can take a lifetime of continuous effort. Even in cases of exceptional natural talent (like Jeff Gracik, who now has over a decade's worth of experience, and whose work enjoys immense demand), you'll still find artisans very eager to listen, and eager to reciprocate by teaching and passing on what they've learned. It's this that makes "greats" from the "good".
Attendees use the sanding disks while Adam Davidson watches.
Most images kindly provided by John Klose of J&J Artisan Pipes.
Long ago, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth (way back in the 1980s), I spent a few years in the Meerschaum Capital of the World. I was in the Air Force, stationed at Incirlik Air Base in the Republic of Turkey. In addition to experiencing the beautiful Turkish culture and lifestyle I had only read about in books, I saw some examples of the most amazing artistry and craftsmanship one could imagine.
The village located just outside the Base had an area known as “The Alley”. To tell the truth, it was nothing more than a short access road leading towards the highway, but that quarter-mile strip of roadway was jam-packed with stores and shops. Everything the local shopkeepers had to offer was there, from brass and copper pots and pans, to gold jewelry, furniture, carpets, a restaurant (aptly named for the BP Gas Station) and of course, Meerschaum pipes. Lots of Meerschaums. I remember one shop that had a dozen glass cabinets filled with pipes. They were displayed like a museum exhibition on the glass shelves, row upon row of pipes. From the small, simply carved smooth bowls to the most elaborate portraits, animal busts and geometric patterns; they had them all.
As if that wasn’t amazing enough, I still remember the clerk telling me I could have one custom carved. I could have my own face on a pipe, or one made in the image of my favorite pet. And this personalized souvenir would have been mine for the paltry sum of $20. Looking back, I’m still glad I chose one already carved. The thought of having this face carved into a piece of sepiolite, forever memorialized, still scares me...and my wife.
The one I chose smoked okay, though I admit that after only a few times, I put it back into it’s case. There it sat, undisturbed for the next 28 years. It wasn’t until I answered a job ad for a Shipping Manager that it would see the sunlight, be taken up and smoked again.
Funny, isn’t it? Sometimes things that you found so beautiful and intriguing will come back and rekindle your interest, no matter how much time has passed. They can also bring back fond memories of friends and family, even when those memories were half a world, and what seems like whole a lifetime, away.
In 2001, my wife and I went on a Scuba trip to Belize. It was a fantastic trip; being an avid underwater photographer, we elected to stay on a live-aboard called 'The Wave Dancer,' a 120’ vessel that went all over the Belizean coral reef and allowed me to dive and shoot up to six times a day (breathing oxygen enriched EANx Nitrox II). Given that it was in 2001 and in Belize, a country that to this very day has yet to impose any smoking restrictions, smoking abounded on the Wave Dancer. While Cuban cigars were essentially omnipresent, it appeared that I was the lone pipe smoker... or at least I thought I was. One of the hands on the ship was a native Belizean, John, a man of about 55 years who was, without question, the finest natural born diver that I have ever met. When he wasn't tending to the guests, he would strap on a tank (no buoyancy control vest or gauges... just mask, tank and fins), and, if asked, he would enigmatically answer that he needed to "visit his friends."
One time, around an hour from nautical twilight, I was at about 150 feet, getting ready to ascend, and down (way, way down) below me I spotted John. When we got to the surface I asked the Captain "What the hell is John doing down at that depth?!” The Skipper shrugged and replied, "He’s a friend of the sharks, that's where they hang out, and so that's where he hangs out." He also related to me that John had never been bent (that is, stricken with the "bends" or decompression sickness). Being a fairly proficient technical diver, with a solid ability to do on-the-fly gas law/physic calculations, and knowing the rough depth/bottom time involved, as well as having personally observed that John filled his single tank with the same stuff we all were breathing, what "Captain Ron" had just nonchalantly imparted was flat impossible. And yet (yet), I had just observed it.
"Belize Wave Dancer" image courtesy of Bear Graves
On our fourth night, following a dive/shoot of the infamous Blue Hole, and after everyone had gone to their cabins, I was feeling restless. Not wanting to disturb my slumbering mate, I quietly exited our cabin and headed up to the observation deck. All the lights on the ship, but save a couple of small navigation beacons, were out, and the stars burned with a ferocity that I had rarely encountered. I pulled out my old tobacco pouch and pipe, thumb-packed, and fired. A voice came out of the dark (damned near ruined my pants) "Mm - Mm... Smells good, Mon... ya got some extra?" It was John. I gave him my pouch, and he loaded some of my aged bright leaf into a very old, small meerschaum and fired up as well. In reciprocity, John cracked a bottle of Cubano "Gold Label" rum. For about two hours we made small talk. He pointed out the Southern Cross, which, of course, I had seen many times… but never nearly so clear and bright as on that night. We talked about navigation without modern instruments, diving, how to find his "friends." Just two guys with nothing in common but a love of the ocean, diving, Cuban rum, and smoke. In John's words, "Dat' US Virginia is da tits, Mon, I dream of seeing your country someday."
After we were about three-quarters into the bottle, I worked up the nerve to ask about his (literally) supraphysical abilities to shrug off ‘gas laws’. John paused a moment... “It’s a family thing. By the late 40s, both my grandfather and me pop were loaned tanks by ‘de rich folk to survey spots where profitable underwater salvage were likely. Some jobs pushed ‘dem limits right proper, but ‘dey never got ‘de aches. Turns out the same with all the men of my family.” He punctuated this with only a so-it-is shrug. Both of us weaving a bit, we parted with the best salutes we could manage in our states, and I headed back to my berth.
A scant few weeks later, Hurricane Iris (Category 4) made landfall at Monkey Town/Big Creek, Belize, precisely where the Wave Dancer was moored. The 15' storm surge, driven by 230 km/h winds, compressed into a 40' high wall of death as it moved upriver. The Dancer was hit so hard by the channeled wave that it actually flipped end over end. 20 experienced divers from the Richmond Dive Club drowned in 18 feet of water in the wee, small hours of that morning. I'm told that John was one of them.
Pipes, and chance encounters with strangers whom are no longer strangers upon parting, are blessings and can stay with you for a lifetime. If you guys get down south, when ya look at the Southern Cross, smoke or drink one for John (he also loved Belikan beer, by-the-by). I know he would appreciate it.
It’s hard to believe that 2013 is almost behind us. We find ourselves at the end of a remarkable year for the pipe and pipe tobacco community, and for Smokingpipes.com especially. For a pastime, passion, and industry that has only just begun to emerge from a half-century of slow, steady decline in popularity, we pipe people have been unaccustomed to good news. Nonetheless good news abounds for our little world filled with pipes and pipe tobacco, a trend we began to see hints and suggestions of in 2010 and 2011, but one that really showed itself, and undeniably accelerated, in 2013.
Artisan pipe making is experiencing an unprecedented explosion. It is most pronounced here in the United States, but it’s also happening in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Fifteen years ago, artisan pipe making at this level was seen only in Denmark and, on a much smaller scale, in a handful of other countries. Today, great pipes are being made across Europe, with Russia, Ukraine and other countries in Eastern Europe burgeoning with pipe making talent. Here in the United States, we’ve seen more new talented artisans come onto the scene in the past three years than we had in the previous two decades.
But pipe successes of small one-man/woman operations are but a fraction of the story. The great pipe factories of the world are busier than they’ve been in years. Instead of fearing the decline of future business, the factories--Peterson, Savinelli, Chacom, and others--are more worried about securing enough briar and training enough new employees to meet demand. These are good problems! There’s a vibrancy and optimism from the factories that simply wasn’t there just a few years ago.
The good news doesn’t end there. On the tobacco front, smaller boutique manufacturers like McClelland and Cornell & Diehl are experiencing tremendous growth and success, while the bigger manufacturers have been exploring new products and bringing old products--such as the huge new releases of Capstan and Three Nuns--to markets that haven’t seen them for decades.
It isn’t all about quantity, though. It’s not just about more pipes and more pipe tobacco. More importantly, it’s about quality. A few decades ago, mass-market pipe tobacco was, with few exceptions, all there was that was readily available. Today, thousands of pipe tobacco options are on offer from a variety of large and small manufacturers alike. Talking with blenders, there’s a renewed interest in developing fresh, interesting, sophisticated mixtures, catering to a new, larger group of dedicated pipe tobacco enthusiasts. Similarly, while artisan and small workshops have always emphasized quality, there have been steady improvements in the quality of pipes we’re seeing from the larger pipe factories.
So far, this little missive has emphasized renewed optimism within the industry, but none of this would be possible without new enthusiasm from pipe smokers and collectors. To reiterate, our hobby is growing. We suspected as much a couple of years ago, and that trend is now abundantly clear. More importantly, the pipe smokers that have become interested in pipes and pipe tobacco in the last couple of years are enthusiasts in a way that was much more uncommon a few years ago. They aren’t just picking one or two pipes and one or two blends, and sticking to being content with just that. They’re excited about interesting pipes and pipe tobaccos, whether new or old. Pipe smokers today are more and more like wine or coffee enthusiasts, less like regular consumers of inexpensive wines or ubiquitous grocery store coffees. Of course, the trend towards connoisseurship is hardly limited to pipes and pipe tobacco--coffee enthusiasts barely existed in the US twenty years ago either--but it has been particularly marked in the pipe world. Instead of simply smoking Prince Albert, people are enthused by the delectable creations of Greg Pease or the specialized boutique blends coming from Mac Baren, such as Old Dark Fired.
What all this comes down to is that it has been your interest in the work of talented pipe makers and tobacco blenders that has driven this renaissance of the pipe world. This past year has seen a widespread sense of optimism among makers, industry people and hobbyists that is special and new. You are driving this; your love for pipes and pipe tobacco make all of this possible.
Being the perpetually sanguine person that I am, I’ve been optimistic about the pipe world for as long as I’ve been involved in pipes and tobaccos. Yet only now am I finding that kind of enthusiasm and optimism permeating the whole of our little world. And for that, we all have you to thank.
Happy New Year!
So here we go, the last update of 2013. It was a year, as mentioned, that’s seen a lot of new faces (both in pipemaking and around our office), new blends, and newly revitalized interest in marques and smoking mixtures of old – quite a bit of it coming from those new to pipes.
Speaking of “new” and “pipes”, we’ve got a whole lot of them. Four fresh Smio Satou creations lead things off, with a sturdy yet sleek Volcano, and elegant bamboo-stemmed bent Brandy, and two lovely sandblasts, the bent Dublin in particular showing off some serious ring grain. American artisan Ernie Markle comes in right on Smio’s heels, with a trio that includes a shapely-bowled “Dirigible”, a finely composed, Danish-inspired canted Egg, and one very smart and trim take on the classic Cutty.
Following up, we find the colorful lines and forms of the Rinaldos, the numerous decades’ worth of artisanal experience of the Radices, and the time-honored traditions of Castello give the Italian school sound representation. Speaking of which, it wouldn’t be a proper update without Savinelli too, of course, and so we’ve rounded up three-dozen of them – and three-dozen Petersons as well, for just the same reason. Rounding things out, you’ll further find Tsuges, Butz-Choquins, Chacoms, Vauens, Stanwells and Nordings – not to mention a batch of Sebastien Beos that includes several new and impressive shapes from this great little marque, as usual expressing a strong classical-French flavor.
As for estates? Italian English, and Danish are on the menu, with such names as Peter Heeschen, Jorgen Nielsen, Kurt Balleby, Tonino Jacono, Ardor, Mastro de Paja, Dunhill, Ferndown, Ashton, and Sasieni - and more.
Those of you who are cigar aficionados haven’t been left out either, as we offer up Drew Estate’s deep-flavored Nica Rustica, plus three different vitolas of the Kentucky Fire Cured.
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