History of Charatan
For discerning pipe collectors, Charatan is one of the few brands whose name is nearly synonymous with quality. For many, this may come as a surprise, but at one point, Charatan was one of England's premier pipe manufacturers, and the pipes they made were the very finest available. Charatan, in some ways, forever revolutionized the world of English pipe-making, and to examine their history is to examine the very history of English pipe making itself.
Charatan's storied history begins in 1863, when immigrant Frederick Charatan founded a pipe workshop on Mansell Street in London, England. Frederick started out carving meerschaum pipes, and his craftsmanship quickly found an audience. His sudden newfound success required Frederick to find a new workshop, and he moved to a larger space on Prescot Street. In his new shop, Frederick began crafting pipes from briar — a decision most likely inspired by the briar pipe manufacturers of Saint-Claude, France.
While most English pipe manufacturers at the time imported pre-turned bowls from factories in Saint-Claude, Charatan produced handmade pipes crafted from start to finish from rough blocks of briar, a process that gave rise to the "Charatan's make" nomenclature still used to this day. This then-novel production method differentiated Charatan from the competition and led to their eventual market dominance.
Charatan produced handmade pipes crafted from start to finish from rough blocks of briar
Charatan's pipes were of such superior quality that Alfred Dunhill, unsatisfied with the pipes he was importing from France, began buying pipes from Charatan to ensure his clientele the best pipes in England. Dunhill during this time didn't make their own pipes, but that changed when Alfred Dunhill convinced Joel Sasieni, one of Charatan's most talented carvers, to start a workshop. Sasieni eventually became Dunhill's factory manager, and he brought with him the knowledge and expertise he learned at Charatan.
By 1910, Frederick Charatan had retired and turned the business over to his son, Reuben Charatan, who oversaw production until his death in 1963.
During the time Rueben headed the company, tobacco suppliers, like Dunhill, turned to making their own pipes, and new workshops began to open — Sasieni, for instance, eventually left Dunhill and opened his own factory. The market was swiftly changing, and larger outfits began to proliferate to meet growing demand. Charatan, as a small family-owned business, produced significantly lower quantities of pipes than their competitors, but their comparatively smaller output allowed them to focus on quality and innovation. However, due to their low production rate, Charatan was relatively unknown outside of England.
In short time, WWII brought pipe production in England to an almost complete standstill, as briar, like most imported goods, became incredibly scarce.
Herman G. Lane and the United States
Like most pipe manufacturers, Charatan, after the war, was looking to get back on their feet and take advantage of the United States' booming post-war economy and newfound interest in briar pipes. Charatan reached out to various wholesalers and established a business relationship with Herman G. Lane, a retailer who would forever alter Charatan's history.
Charatan reached out to Herman G. Lane, a retailer who would forever alter Charatan's history
Herman Lane was a German immigrant with a mind for marketing and an eye for exquisitely made briar pipes. Charatan was a brand that Lane imported for his pipe shop in New York, and something about the family-owned workshop intrigued him. He saw potential in Charatan, and in 1955, he became the English brand's sole U.S. distributor.
According to Gage, when Lane became the Charatan's U.S. distributor, "Lane and Charatan agreed to have the distinctive script 'L' stamped on every pipe sent to the United States. European market pipes did not carry the Lane mark."
... the better grades of Charatan were made by hand, from the tip of the vulcanite button to the end of the hand-turned bowl
Herman Lane was first-and-foremost a businessman, and he brought a much-needed structure to the Charatan company, which was more interested in artistry than profit. Lane marketed Charatan pipes as the high-quality smoking instruments that they were, and he had the high-grade pieces that were made for U.S. distribution stamped "made by Hand" in order to emphasize their artisanal excellence: "This was one of many marketing concepts introduced by Lane, one that he felt would enhance the aura of exclusivity. Indeed, the better grades of Charatan were made by hand, from the tip of the vulcanite button to the end of the hand-turned bowl. But by no means were all Charatans handmade!"
The lower-end Charatan pipes were marketed as everyday smokers, and even though they were of lesser quality, they were more easily accessible to pipe smokers on a budget. Gage describes how "Lower grades, such as the sandblasted Relief and others, were good 'everyman' pipes by any standard. The 'Made by Hand' stamp appeared mostly on the Charatan Selecteds and Executives, and was occasionally used on Supreme and very occasionally on large or unusual shapes in lower grades — both smooth and freehand relief. The stamping was haphazard, in retrospect. This makes perfect sense, because it was all about selling pipes and creating a niche for Charatan."
Lane's greatest marketing feat was solidifying in the mind's of pipe smokers that Charatan was a name associated with quality. Lane knew that if he marketed Charatan as a luxury brand, the clientele would associate even the economical, less refined Charatan pipes with their more expensive counterparts. Lane elevated Charatan's market value and prestige by charging higher prices for certain Charatan pipes — the higher the price, the higher the perceived value. Gage writes of Lane's marketing strategy: "If you establish a price for a rare, handmade creation, and people buy it at that price, then it is worth that price. Not much different than today's high-grade handmade pipes ..." Charatan's S-100, for instance, was the first commonly available pipe in the U.S. to cost 100 dollars.
Sold, Bought, and Sold Again (and Again)
When Rueben Charatan died in 1963, Herman Lane bought the company and stewarded the brand for a number of years. Sometime in the late '70s or early '80s, Charatan was sold to Dunhill, and in 1982, the Prescot Street factory shuttered its doors.
During this time, Charatan pipes are said to have declined in quality, and by 1988, they were no longer distributed in the United States. Dunhill eventually sold the company to James B. Russell, a French pipe manufacturer that resumed distribution in the U.S. in the early 1990s. Under James B. Russell Inc, Charatan pipes were manufactured in Saint Claude, France, but were still considered inferior products, and sales in the United States reflected that impression.
James B. Russell went out of business in 2002, and Dunhill once again resumed control of the Charatan brand, rescuing the prestigious marque from total obscurity. Charatan's legacy is now continued by a line of pipe tobaccos that honor the firm's history and commitment to quality.
Five signature blends comprise Charatan's line of pipe tobaccos, including:
EventideA hearty English blend fashioned specifically for the evening, and boasting Latakia, Turkish leaf, Virginas, and a touch of Perique, all in a ribbon cut
First BowlAn English blend for the morning, offering Turkish leaf, Virginia tobaccos, and Latakia, all heat-pressed before being cut into ribbons
FlakeA pure Virginia blend, offering the namesake tobaccos in a flake cut, all elevated by a light flavoring to enhance the mixture's natural aroma
RollsA coin-cut blend featuring flue-cured Virginias from Africa accompanied by Perique, offering a subtly sweet-and-spicy flavor profile
No. 10 MixtureAn archetypal English blend offering Turkish leaf, Virginia tobaccos, and Latakia, all in a ribbon cut
Though Charatan is not the pipe-making powerhouse it once was, the brand's longevity and prestige are testaments to its impact and position once held in the English pipe-making cannon. Do you have a favorite Charatan pipe? Or a favorite of their tobacco blends? If so, what makes it so special to you? Why do you think the name still carries so much weight?
- "Charatan Pipes: The Mysterious and Marvelous Marriage of a Pipe-Making Family and a Renowned Tobaccoman," by Tad Gage
- "Charatan," Pipedia, 14 August 2022
Many, many years ago (60’s) I started smoking pipes. I would always stop at the pipe store at the shopping mall (every mall had a tobacco shop in those days). I would just saliva looking at their pipe display. The worker there would talk to me about the different pipes, the good ones compare to the not so good pipes, and the different pipe tobaccos (he knew I was loving every minute of it). Of all the pipes in the store he felt the best pipes were Charatans. I saw them and it was love at first sight. The only problem was that they were so expensive (I was just out of high school and working in a factory). I could only light up my Kaywoodie pipe and dream of Charatans. However…one day on my visit to the mall and the tobacco shop the worker called me to the side. It turns out he had just gotten in Charatan seconds (maybe thirds). No name. just marked “London England”. It was priced way below the Charatans on display. I gave him five dollars (that’s all I had on me) and told him I would come with the rest later. Borrowing from my parents, I came the next day and brought the pipe. I loved that pipe! Some time later, I brought another Charatan second. I now possessed three pipes (a Kaywoodie and two Charatans). Over all the years I lost count of how many pipes I have brought and lost and broken and threw out, but I still have those two Charatans seconds. I smoke them occasionally and realize that guy was right, the Charatans were the best pipes in the store.
Excellent article. Thank you.
Davin: Interesting that you did not mention, or maybe you did not know about the book describing the association between Charatan and Lane: R.L. Schnitzer, Leaves from a Tobaccoman's Log (New York, 1970).