Jess Chonowitsch had achieved legendary distinction long before I became involved in this wide world of pipe smoking. I'd read about him. His stature was mythological. He didn't reside on my plane of existence, but at some rarefied elevation where his work could be admired from sea level only in images. If pipe culture was Hollywood, Chonowitsch would be Steven Spielberg. If it was literature, he would be Gabriel Garcia Márquez.
I was a writer for Pipes and tobaccos magazine. If pipe culture was a metropolis, I'd be a pedestrian. Chonowitsch was Michelangelo; I was a platypus with a crayon.
In 1999, UpTown's Smokeshop in Nashville started semi-exclusively importing Chonowitsch pipes and had a batch at the Nashville pipe show that year — exciting news for me, as I'd seen only a couple Chonowitsch pipes in person, and never a new, unsmoked example. I was not disappointed. As I was examining these remarkable pipes, lost in reverie, dumbfounded by their level of excellence, a friend, Rick Newcombe, appeared at my side. "There's someone who'd like to meet you," he said. I turned, and Jess Chonowitsch was standing in front of me. I recognized him from photos. I hadn't known he'd be at the show and had never considered the possibility of actually conversing with him, but here he was. I concealed my surprise, rallied all of my mental faculties, applied years of formal education to my thoughts, and carefully formulated a sentence designed to impress.
"Ack! Thppththth! Horgenstretcilmalenfloob."
Jess gazed calmly at me. Rick came to my rescue. "I think Chuck's trying to tell you how much he admires your work, Jess," he said.
Jess reached out and shook my hand. "I admire your work too. I wanted to tell you how much I like your writing." That statement did not improve my elocution. What alternate reality had I blundered into? Jess Chonowitsch knew my name? I couldn't have been more surprised had the Queen of England walked up and knighted me. I considered the possibility that I'd had some sort of mini-stroke and was hallucinating. "Umm...you...I...errrr—"
"Have you smoked one of my pipes?" Jess asked.
"No, but I enjoy looking at them," I managed to say.
"You must have one! You can't write about pipes without knowing how some smoke differently from others." He gestured at the UpTown's display. "Choose any one you like, as my gift." Keith Moore, the pipe manager for UpTown's, was attending to the table, and grimaced for a microsecond, poor man. "I couldn't possibly," I said. "It's too much — thank you, but I can't." Keith perked up a bit.
"I insist," said Jess. He convinced me (it wasn't difficult) to accept a pipe. I chose the only example that represented less than a mortgage payment, a small, unadorned sandblast that was among the most beautiful pipes I'd ever seen. "That's the one you like best?" asked Jess. "It's yours."
I wasn't a special case; Jess and his wife, Bonnie, who always traveled with him, went out of their way to make everyone feel special. Jess spoke at length with every pipemaker there that weekend, sharing tips, discussing pipemaking philosophies and being a considerate, caring individual.
He's a normal guy. It's not his fault he's saturated with genius. It oozes out of him like honey from a honeycomb. People like to be near him, not only because he's among the nicest guys who ever lived, but in hopes that some of his talent could rub off. (It doesn't. I've tried. That honey doesn't stick).
The next time I spoke with Jess was on the phone. I was getting ready for a trip to Denmark to visit a number of pipemakers, but Jess wasn't on my list. We'd already done an article about him. But he heard I was coming and called me. "You must stay with Bonnie and me at our house," he said.
I accepted. Jess' charm made it impossible to decline his hospitality. At his home, it was remarkable to see Bonnie and him as they moved about the kitchen, preparing supper in a choreography that had clearly been perfected by years of practice. "The refrigerator is full of soda," said Bonnie. "We know how you Americans love your soda pop."
They were thoughtful with their choice of meal as well. By that time, I'd been in Denmark for a week, and everywhere I went, I was encouraged to enjoy traditional Danish fare. But I didn't enjoy it. It was wretched. No offense to my Danish friends, but Danish food is the worst on earth: cold herring and raw bacon, hard bread, gamey meats and various mixtures of pureed animal organs — no wonder everyone is so skinny. But Bonnie and Jess were more interested in my comfort than in providing a tourist experience. They prepared cheeseburgers, and I was never so unutterably relieved and gratified. I ate like a hyena and we talked into the night. Never have I experienced such a loving household and such intelligent, fascinating conversation.
When Bonnie became gravely ill, Jess stopped making pipes (except for a small handful from 2006-2012) so he could dedicate his time to caring for her. He did so for six years before she passed away. He spent two more years getting his life in order before revisiting his dusty workshop.
He'd spent eight years away from his craft. Bonnie had provided feedback for him, but now he was alone, and he needed to reinvent himself as a solitary craftsman. "I don't talk with so many people these days," says Jess. "You have to know exactly what you want in pipemaking, not take from several opinions. I just enjoy my family and making some pipes. It's strange, but still fun. I'm not as fast as I was. But there were pipes that I had started before Bonnie's sickness, and I went back to them." He was unsurprised that his hands still remembered everything and that pipemaking was as intuitive for him as always.
Chuck & Shane discuss Jess' work
We don't see much of Jess these days. He's stopped traveling. "I don't like to travel alone," he says. "Bonnie and I made 18 trips to the U.S., and many more to different countries. One day I'll wake up and say, 'Now I'm ready.'" But that day has not yet arrived.
Jess' production is much reduced now. Where he used to make 150-200 pipes a year, he now makes only 25, all sold through two different venues, including Smokingpipes.com. But he's still as ingenious and skilled as ever, his pipes still represent the pinnacle of achievement in his field, and he still works in the little garden workshop he's used for decades.
He's still Jess Chonowitsch.