A Conversation with Fernando Santiago: Molecular Biologist, Father, Esteemed Pipe Collector

Meet Fernando Santiago, Ben Wade collector and authority on mid-century pipes | Daily Reader

P

ipe smoking brings together a motley crew of enthusiasts. One day we might share a pipe of Deluxe Navy Rolls with a moonshiner in the foothills of Pikeville and then the next brush shoulders with a CEO over a bowl of Half and Half. Some folks smoke purely for the benefits of nicotine and others immerse themselves in the world of artisan pipe makers and boutique tobacco. While we have many legendary figures participating in this hobby, it's often easy to miss those doing important work who aren't necessarily in the spotlight.

One such figure is Fernando Santiago, a collector of antique pipes and tobaccos who has grown an impressive collection over the years and with it invaluable knowledge. By day, Santiago is what he describes as a molecular biologist, a loving husband, and father to a little boy. Equipped with a Masters degree in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology and a PhD in Neuroscience, he's currently completing his post-doctoral training at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He's a busy man to say the least and in the middle of life-changing circumstances. "I'm in a rather significant transition career-wise, which has taken significant time away from my social life and has meant I have a lot of emails and projects to catch up with once I've tied up some loose ends, professionally speaking."

The Allure of Pipes

Meet Fernando Santiago, Ben Wade collector and authority on mid-century pipes | Daily Reader

By night, he's a pipe smoker and collector, a hobby he started 30 years ago. "I got a job at a Tinder Box in Lenox Square Mall (in Atlanta), back when there were tobacconists inside shopping malls, and you could smoke in them. You could also smoke in the Waffle Houses back then. Back then I smoked primarily cigars, but I was encouraged to learn about pipes. To reach the walk-in humidor in the back you'd have to walk past a sort of archway of shelves filled with every pipe tobacco imaginable. You could also get Turkish Monopoly Yenidje cigarettes then — they've since disappeared. My first pipe was a Peterson Killarney Billiard with a very artificial bright-red finish; my first tin was Mac Baren Navy Flake. I think the Mac Baren formulation was a little different back then — it was not a very forgiving tobacco for a beginner."

Despite Mac Baren's unforgiving nature, Santiago kept with the briar and slowly became fascinated with vintage pipes but didn't want to be another face in the crowd. "I think that I never had a real desire to collect Dunhills or Petersons, for example, as there is just a colossal community of enthusiasts for those brands. I'm not the type to be the 500th guy standing in line, that's just not who I am."

It took a while for Santiago to find what appealed to him, but he eventually discovered that classic British shapes were of the most appeal to him. "My first love was the Paneled Billiard. I like Bulldogs and Cuttys. And a nice 'Swan Neck' bent Billiard with four-point curve. When you regard a shape you can tell whether you're looking at the work of a master — the shape speaks to you — or a tired cookie-cutter shape spat out from a fraising machine. I think when disco music invaded Britain and they ruined all the clothes, a similar thing happened to pipe shapes, the most obvious example being Charatan. The whole phenomenon of Danish Freehands is really very interesting and very organic. I prefer the demure mid-century sleek elegance and the bold austere shapes of the mid-war years."

Santiago kept with the briar and slowly became fascinated with vintage pipes

Why Ben Wade?

Meet Fernando Santiago, Ben Wade collector and authority on mid-century pipes | Daily Reader

What really caught Santiago's eye initially were Ben Wade pipes. "With Ben Wade in particular, and a few other obscure brands, I realized long ago that I'd discovered a brand that was quintessentially British but unique in character, and that had an interesting but as-yet untold history. Old Ben Wade briars are these dark lumps of knotty briar with dense grain, and a trained eye can spot one in a basket full of old pipes. The brand survives to this day, and when you stop to think about it, they were the most famous manufacturer to have survived outside of London (with the exception of Dublin, of course). For several years I bought every Leeds-era Ben Wade I came across, and for many years they were affordable though the brand is enjoying much more attention lately, which has driven prices up."

Over the years Santiago's collection grew from just Ben Wades to all manner of tobacciana. "I enjoy collecting pipes, pipe tobacco, pipe catalogues, pipe tools, advertising and documenting the history of pipemakers almost exclusively from Great Britain from perhaps the 1880s until around the 1950s. I also enjoy collecting some of the older, earlier French pipes from around the 1920s and earlier, during the period that preceded large-scale manufacturing of pipes in London (mostly) at a time when they were being made in France (and Austria, in the case of meerschaum) and imported into England. Of course, every collection has its outliers, and mine has many, however I tend to have fewer pipes from, say, Danish or modern carvers, and very many less pipes from the 1960s onward. I enjoy classic styles and there seems to have been something of a modernization in style that took place from the '60s onward that I find less aesthetically pleasing."

Despite being an enthusiastic collector, Santiago isn't sure how large his collection truly is. "I can't be absolutely sure as I don't count them, and there are pipes in a pile awaiting restoration, but I think a good estimate would be 400 pipes. I would love to be able to spread them out and count them all but I simply haven't got that much space or free, undisturbed time." That doesn't mean they're all shoved in boxes in a dark attic; Santiago exhibits his collection in a style that would rival the Smithsonian.

"I enjoy classic styles and there seems to have been something of a modernization in style that took place from the '60s onward"

Display and Organization

Meet Fernando Santiago, Ben Wade collector and authority on mid-century pipes | Daily Reader

"I display pipes together when I can assemble them into a theme, so currently I have a shelf with approximately 165 Leeds-era Ben Wade pipes on display along with other rare memorabilia. It's something akin to a museum of Ben Wade. Another shelf has groupings of old Barlings, Sasienis, Dunhills, Orliks, (original, non-reproduction) Rattrays, and others. And another shelf is almost entirely devoted to silver-mounted British classics that are somewhat more obscure but well known to collectors, such as Civics. There's a little bit of everything in there. And then a growing rack of early American pipes including KB&B and the earliest Kaywoodies; another rack with old Peterson pipes, which I don't collect per se, but when a pipe with historical value appears at an irresistibly low price I won't pass up the opportunity to add it to my collection. And then there's also the 'current rotation' pile that I happen to reach for at the moment when having a smoke."

And yes, he does smoke his extensive collection, they aren't just collecting dust. "I smoke each and every pipe unless the risk of it breaking represents a significant historical loss. For example, I have several older pipes with cracks in them such as Civics and BBBs and I smoke them rather casually. Another pipe is a Ben Wade Bulldog, likely from the time when Ben himself was alive, and it's got a crack. I've retired that piece as it's more valuable to me in terms of historical preservation rather than as a smoker. I have plenty of unsmoked rarities to catch up on smoking!"

The Value of Vintage Tobacco

Meet Fernando Santiago, Ben Wade collector and authority on mid-century pipes | Daily Reader

Santiago sees historical value not just in the pipes he collects but also the tobacco he's gathered over the years. "I have a significant collection of vintage tobacco, many in cutter-top tins. Some are very rare indeed." He particularly enjoys the perspective that vintage tobacco offers: "Another thing that vintage tobacco does is give you perspective. Imagine someone who began to smoke yesterday. They go to an online retailer and see the varieties of tobaccos that are available. This is the 'tobacco cosmos' so to speak. But these tobaccos came from somewhere. Most of them also have a history and they are made from historical recipes. A good example is Three Nuns. It's not impossible to find sealed tins of Three Nuns from decades ago, and even in cutter-top tins. Having sampled all of these and having read the trade literature about the changing recipes and so forth gives you a real appreciation for the blend, but it also provides context on which to base an opinion on the current incarnation and on any variation in the product from year to year. This is important because as a consumer you deserve the best quality for your money, and in the war against supply shortages and the bottom line, a manufacturer doesn't always put quality first. I work a hard day and I fight for a little peace and quiet time so I can enjoy my pipe. It's a special time — 'so-so' tobacco doesn't cut it."

Santiago just doesn't view these delicacies as for himself but likes to spread the love around with his friends. "I like to save these for pipe shows to open with friends. Squirreling these things away to open by yourself goes against the purpose. It's a celebratory affair, all about sharing with friends." Things aren't all sunshine and roses in the collecting process however; Sanitago faces several roadblocks when it comes to his hobby. "There are certain very rare pipes that I'm after and I know they exist because I've seen photographs of them, but I know they're 'locked away' in collections somewhere, likely collecting dust." Nevertheless, he remains hopeful. "I sure hope they come up for auction while I'm still alive!"

"I smoke each and every pipe unless the risk of it breaking represents a significant historical loss"

He does shine some light on his acquisition process, "I'm relatively young and have a family so I don't have the disposable income that many retired 'empty nesters' have, so my strategy is that of a 'bottom feeder' — I rely on a quick eye and luck. I can't compete head-to-head against the market for a Barling or a Peterson at market prices. For the most part, everything in my collection has found its way to me by luck." In fact, Santiago claims that he almost exclusively relies on blind luck for growing his collection. One example is one of his rarest pieces: a patent Dunhill Shape 482 in a Smooth finish, which he thinks to be the second Smooth 482 in existence. "I won it for $25. It's all luck and a quick eye. At least until I get my son through college and I can go head-to-head against high-bidding collectors for pieces I'm really after."

Even with luck, he still faces competition from unknown rivals. "I bid against these individuals on eBay for Leeds-era Ben Wade pipes. I suspect they may know who I am, but they remain anonymous to me. I often wonder if they know what they're buying and what reasons they have for wanting a particular pipe. Not everyone cares about historical significance. Sometimes a pipe is just a pipe. There were also a pair of 'watchers' on eBay for an empty pipe box for a Leeds-era Wade. I've got to guess that only a serious collector would be interested in something like that!"

Influences

Meet Fernando Santiago, Ben Wade collector and authority on mid-century pipes | Daily Reader

Santiago's growing collection is a mixture of influences from his life but he feels he owes a big chunk of his pipe passion to Pete Rothenberg and Rob Denholtz. "Pete is well known in the circles of the old school of pipe collectors, the guys that were there and saw it happening. In the early '60s, Pete worked as a schlepper in Peterson's in New York City, he backpacked in Europe, and stopped in the original Rattray's shop in Perth, Scotland. Since he last checked on New Year's Day, he has around 2,200 pipes. I consider myself his apprentice in a sense. And before I met Pete, I used to live in California and I would meet with another old-school pipe collector, Rob Denholtz. Rob is a real connoisseur of Virginia tobaccos. We've traded tobacco through the mail for over ten years now, I think I've lost count. Pete and Rob are like family."

Santiago attributes a lot of his success to his mentor-apprentice relationship with Rothenberg and Denholtz and offers some advice to fledgling smokers and collectors: "I know it's not everyone's style, we each have to do things our way, but for my part I believe strongly in the mentor-apprentice relationship. There's certainly nothing wrong with doing things your own way and making your own mistakes but being able to learn from a lifetime of someone's experiences, hearing the stories and listening to the tradition of pipe smoking and its minutia and ephemera from someone who was there — there's no substitute for that. I am an apprentice to many people to whom I will be forever grateful."

"There are certain very rare pipes that I'm after and I know they exist because I've seen photographs of them, but I know they're 'locked away' in collections somewhere, likely collecting dust."

Santiago sees a lot of value in the way the pipe-smoking community forms bonds but also in the work of collectors who research history. "I think my collection, referring again to Ben Wade, is comprehensive enough that it presents a decent representation of the evolution of the company and its offerings from its earliest days through to approximately the late 1950s. To the extent that a museum attempts to document history via the pieces it collects in order to create a narrative, I think I've achieved that nicely."

Sentimental Value and the Pipe-Smoking Community

In fact some of his favorite pieces in his collection are favorites because of the sentimental value they hold. "I think that the piece that holds the most sentimental value is likely a cased companion pair of Leeds-era Ben Wade pipes that was gifted to me by a very close friend and old-school pipe collector. He himself acquired the set through the estate of John Fabris, the well-known pipe collector. So not only is it a cherished gift from a dear friend, but it also represents quite openly the tradition of passing the torch on to future generations. These old pipes have several lifetimes (when properly cared for) and they bear the imprint of their owners down the generations, and as their custodians we have the privilege of ensuring that this incandescent glimmer of light, of hope really, continues to wind its way onward through the arc of our lives."

Since he last checked on New Year's Day, he has around 2,200 pipes

His pipe-smoking relationships aren't just mentor and apprentice. He's met a number of lifelong friends through his 30-odd years in the hobby, fellow smokers who aren't just interested in consuming what's thrown at them. "The world is full of consumers and people with opinions, but I've grown attached to a group of people in the pipe community that make things and do things and research history — they're not consumers but creators, putting all the information out there that we all so often take for granted when we want to Google how to de-ghost a pipe or try to date an old Barling. And finally, I think it's important to mention a very good friend, Jason Woodall, who lives in England. He and I are collaborator-collectors in the sense that he helps me acquire pieces in the UK and I do the same for the American pieces he's after. My collection as it is today would not have been possible without his kind help and friendship."

While right now his collection resides in his home in Minnesota, he has hopes of one day being able to properly catalog and document his pipes in a more public manner. "I hope to apply some of my professional energies to archiving, photographing them and documenting them in the future when I have (I hope) a more structured schedule." He additionally hopes to one day display them at a pipe show. "It would be nice to do an exhibit at the Chicago Show, for example. It has been done before. I think the logistics of carefully packing my pipes and traveling with them, and later setting them up for display and keeping them safe — all of that sounds like more free time than I currently have, but I'd certainly like to when the moment is right."

The Accumulation of Expertise

Meet Fernando Santiago, Ben Wade collector and authority on mid-century pipes | Daily Reader

Despite his extensive knowledge and collection, Santiago is humble regarding whether he's an authority on Ben Wades or other works in his collection. "As with most things, it's important to know what you know and know what you don't know. Coming from a background in research I make educated guesses based on information I have on hand but it's always important to note that the absence of contradicting information does not make a hypothesis necessarily correct, in particular when researching very old things such as pipes. There are significant gaps in our knowledge. I suppose I may be an authority on Ben Wade and a few others only to the extent that I attempt to accumulate facts and synthesize them as conservatively as possible to fill in holes in our current understanding."

... some of his favorite pieces in his collection are favorites because of the sentimental value they hold

He has uncovered details that many have missed. One example is the importing and rebranding of pipes back when many pipe makers in London were starting off. "I think that what stands out the most to me is that there are certain periods of time when brands of pipes were simply stamped on a pipe that was imported — into England, for example — and then resold. Some people may or may not know this, but it sticks in my mind when someone comments 'I bought a very old GBD' or something similar. For example, a very old Ben Wade probably wasn't made by Ben Wade — during this earliest period of the company, the pipes were all imported and rebranded. And this is absolutely true for many meerschaums as well, especially ones where only the cases were branded. I think this is important because people often associate an 'aura' around certain brands, but the reality is that the products themselves may have been manufactured elsewhere. The history is different for every company, and some had their own production from beginning to end, but Ben Wade in particular didn't begin manufacturing in-house until long after Ben Wade himself had passed away."

Despite his humbleness, Santiago is a treasure trove of information on Ben Wade and he's eager to share it with the world. "For the public and hobbyist I've collected a trove of information about Ben Wade that I will be releasing — hopefully soon — that will excite and bring further value to the pieces in their collections." But his work doesn't stop there; he has another exciting release of information in the future. "I have another project on the horizon, rather far off, but of an area of historical significance that hasn't been addressed yet — Charles Rattray. I know from indirect emails with the Kopp public relations folks that there are living Rattrays relatives. Lots of pipes and tobacco get sold under the Rattray name but we don't know terribly much about the man or his story and it would be interesting to look into that further."

"Coming from a background in research I make educated guesses based on information I have on hand but it's always important to note that the absence of contradicting information does not make a hypothesis necessarily correct, in particular when researching very old things such as pipes"

For a man with so much invaluable knowledge, shockingly few people reach out to him for questions, but he still goes out of the way to set the record straight when the opportunity arises. "Occasionally, yes, someone might ask me for information about a pipe, but very rarely, and usually on PipesMagazine forum. I think I often volunteer information in an unsolicited manner, especially when I see people unintentionally (or intentionally) misrepresenting information about a pipe, particularly in an eBay listing. Being wrong is one thing, but intentionally stretching the truth or feigning ignorance to sell pipes to unsuspecting buyers is particularly unfair, I think."

With a lifetime of experience in research, Santiago's advice for those seeking information on pipes and tobacco is more accessible than one might think. "The best tools a researcher has at his disposal include Google, obviously, though it's worth noting that often very valuable information will appear only in 'Google Images' and 'Google Books' and not appear at all in the 'Google All' search. This is important because there are lots of old reference books and ads that have been scanned and are available to query through, for example, 'Google Books.' Another is the Worthpoint website which makes it a point to archive auction sales. Often a rare pipe will appear there for which there is no other mention elsewhere. The British Newspaper Archive website is also a handy tool, particularly for historical reference. And then there are the countless trade publications such as Tobacco World, and the various catalogues from the pipe manufacturers themselves and from retailers such as Wally Frank and George Yale. All of these are very valuable indeed."

Choosing Collecting Themes

Meet Fernando Santiago, Ben Wade collector and authority on mid-century pipes | Daily Reader

Santiago forged his own path in the collecting world, and he recommends that those interested carve their own as well. "Life is too short to follow the crowd. Find something unique and make it your domain. Become an expert at something. Contribute to the furtherance of knowledge in an area of your choosing. And never rely on second-hand knowledge — always seek primary references. There is an unfortunate propensity in the pipe community to repeat improperly researched and misleading information. It's very easy to consume something that someone else has created — creating something of value takes passion and discipline. Your collection can be a resource of learning for the world."

Santiago's collection is founded in the past but it has led him to considerable reflection on the legacy we leave behind and how new generations can honor the past while continuing to evolve. "We are all different. Realistically, a pipe is just an instrument used to smoke tobacco. For some people that's all they are — a tool. But anybody knows, especially people who work in marketing, that you give a pipe a history, a backstory, and all of a sudden it becomes a part of something larger, a part of a legacy. Often these pipes were made by a family-run business, and certainly so in the case of Ben Wade. Having interviewed Ben Wade's great great granddaughter, I learned that she used to visit the factory on occasion — it was a treat for her — and she'd accompany her father, Philip H. Wade, on his circuit of retailers around Leeds. The customers meant something. There was a lot of pride in the name and in the product. In the world of both pipes and tobacco there is a growing disconnect in this sense, I think. Mike McNeil of the McClelland pipe tobacco company is a perfect example. Mike is a very energetic man and he threw himself into his business and was concerned with every aspect of production — quality was paramount.

"I often volunteer information in an unsolicited manner, especially when I see people unintentionally (or intentionally) misrepresenting information about a pipe, particularly in an eBay listing"

"But in other segments of the industry, I think there's a certain 'race to the bottom' to find how cheap a product can be passed off to consumers without hurting the bottom line. In a sense this might be why modern carvers have such a strong following — they have a personal relationship with their customers and the quality of their product is intimately linked to their reputation as a professional. Now, with time, these old British pipes have become something like the Japanese netsuke, these ancient knotty little sculptures that seem almost to have a life of their own."

Which leads Santiago to reflect on his own legacy and if he thinks his son will grow up to share the same enthusiasm and interest in vintage pipes and tobacco as him. "I'm not sure. I think it's hit or miss. It would be nice if he did, but I think the best I can do is to be the absolute best father and friend to him that I can be and keep smoking my pipe. Everyone's different, and taking up pipe smoking is challenging, so we'll see what happens. By the time I've died I suspect I'll have found new homes for most of my pipes (and sold off the ones with less sentimental value) so that I can be certain they'll continue to be enjoyed long after I'm gone. Hopefully, at that age, I'll be friends with several serious young collectors that I can be certain will appreciate the pipes and cherish them."

"Having interviewed Ben Wade's great great granddaughter, I learned that she used to visit the factory"

But all things must come to an end; no one can go on forever, and an end goal for a collection like Santiago's should be considered. "There are a few pipes that are 'grail pipes' that represent something of a missing link with significant historical relevance. Unfortunately, I can't say what they are, not publicly at least. I think the fact that people don't know they're rare means I'll have significantly less competition if it comes to auction. This is also good in the sense that I don't feel compelled to buy each and every Ben Wade I come across. The collection is mostly filled in. The rarities I'm searching for in this case are so inconspicuous that I think nobody would realize just how rare they are."

Fernando Santiago represents some of the best parts of the pipe-smoking community: He's a passionate man who leads with compassion and strives to honor and preserve the legacy of those who came before while carving a new path forward. His passions advance our hobby and contribute to understanding the history of the pipes we enjoy. When you can enjoy a hobby while simultaneously helping to improve it, you've achieved something admirable.

Meet Fernando Santiago, Ben Wade collector and authority on mid-century pipes | Daily Reader
Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   History

Comments

    • Rob Guttridge on January 28, 2024
    • I enjoyed reading this conversation. Thanks to both of you!

    • Astrocomical on January 28, 2024
    • Amazing story. I learned a lot about Ben Wade, Preben Holm who died young but does not say how. Thank you for broadening my horizon on pipes.

    • Ray K. Reese on January 28, 2024
    • Excellent article and very well written! I really enjoyed his passion for the history of pipes and pipe making. It would be an honor to know this person.

    • Funcle Stan on January 28, 2024
    • Fascinating and a real knowledge of pipe history

    • Mark on January 28, 2024
    • I have such a great appreciation for people in our pipe world who dive this deep into their passion. I feel the same way about pipe making...I can't get enough knowledge or collect enough notes and writings about technique, history, and the progression of pipe making masters. Kindred spirits.

    • Al Raitano on January 28, 2024
    • I also enjoyed the read, I have been smoking and collecting since the 70’s it’s a small collection with a select group of Italian pipes. Reading about the Ben Wades I realized I have one. It’s stamped Ben Wade Martinique hand made. He has gotten my curiosity up, it was made in the 70s and I’m going to start doing a little research. It’s very unusual and very beautiful.

    • Phil Wiggins on January 28, 2024
    • Awesome Pipes A!!!

    • JUAN CARLOS on January 28, 2024
    • EXELENTE ARTICULO

    • Erik P on February 20, 2024
    • So glad Mr. Santiago has been honored this way. You captured his authentically generous nature in the article. A well deserved tribute to one of today’s pipe “greats.”

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