Italy 2012: Savinelli Part I
I spent two full days visiting Savinelli for the first time this past Monday and Tuesday. I've decided that one blog post simply can't do the whole experience justice, so I've opted to split it into two (or even three; we shall see). Almost the entire first day was spent poking around the factory. I love pipe factories. And I've been in bunches of pipe factories and workshops all over the world. I can't make a pipe to save my life (I've tried; it was a disaster), but I'm about as familiar with methods, machines, materials and the like as someone who doesn't actually make pipes can be. Giacomo Carlesi, Savinelli's export manager and my factory guide, suggested that the factory tour took much, much longer with me than it does with most folks because, well, I actually knew what I was looking at. I had tons of questions. As I said to Giacomo, it's not the things that are the same at each factory that are interesting, it's the differences from operation to operation.
Savinelli's production is really split into two distinct pieces. There's the factory piece, which accounts for the overwhelming majority (98%?) of Savinelli's production, and the artisan piece. The Autographs, Briar Lines, Linea Artisans and Milanos are all the result of the second set of processes. Both are fascinating, but they're so different, that I've decided to split off the factory discussion for a second article to follow in, hopefully, a couple of days. So, today, we're going to discuss Autographs and we'll follow one through a number of the processes.
Briar for the Autographs and other freehands is sourced specifically for those pieces. Extra grade ebauchon blocks are used for most of Savinelli's production, but Savinelli keeps a separate supply of Extra Extra plateaux blocks for the freehands. Savinelli has about one million blocks of briar on hand (yes, that's a whole lot), which amounts to a ten year supply. This ensures that they're only using top-quality thoroughly dry briar, and it also gives them the ability to weather supply shocks if they were to find themselves unable to secure as much briar as they need for a few years.
Though the shapes are unmistakably Savinelli's, the blocks are shaped first and drilled afterwards, using the same method the Danes use to maximize flexibility when shaping. It requires greater skill on the part of the maker, but generally yields better results as the carver is able to work around problems in the wood and cut to maximize the quality of the grain. Three artisans in the factory are responsible for all of the Autograph and other freehand pipes. Ignazio Guarino, who has been with Savinelli for fifty years, worked on the piece that we're following through some of the steps to the left, but every piece is touched by each of the three senior artisans in the factory.
First the pipe was shaped almost completely. Ignazio works on the sander (which is structured with the sanding area on the outside of a spinning disk, perhaps an inch wide, quite different from the disks I've seen elsewhere) faster than anyone I've ever seen: decades of practice making variations on the various iconic Savinelli Autograph shapes means that he can do it almost without looking. Then it's taken to be drilled on three different machines (this being an artisanal process in a factory, most everything is set up for exactly one process) and the plateaux top lightly is blasted to remove the bark. Then a stem is fitted, shaped to match the bowl, and bent over an alcohol lamp. Then the pipe is stained, polished, stamped and it's done. (I've omitted a number of steps from the photos to the left since some of them aren't terribly photogenic and I'm not a terribly good photographer).
All Savinelli pipes, including the Autographs of course, are stained with natural dyes mixed in the factory, primarily by the factory manager, Luisa Bozzetti. Savinelli has bags and boxes of various components to create the various stains. The area used for this has a sort of medieval herbalist or apothecary character to it. The recipes are loosely interpreted, executed through trial and error with tests on scraps of briar since there's considerable natural variance in the dye components. I don't think I've ever encountered anything like this. It gives Savinelli considerable flexibility to create new stains, which is perhaps one reason that there's such color variance from series to series, instead of just a few stock colors employed over and over again.
Of course, only a fraction of the free hand pipes that come from Savinelli bear the Autograph stamp. And such was not the happy destiny of this pipe. The grain was stunning, but a small fissure emerged while the bowl was being shaped. It would have ended up a Milano Handmade, but as I learned while all of this was being discussed, it was to be very kindly given to me, so it just bears the Savinelli stamp, my name and the year, and I'm smoking it (in a smoking hotel room, no less) as I write this.