A portrait of Jess Chonowitsch by Artur Lopez
At the center of every hobby are practitioners who build reputations on the exceptional quality of their work. Those who collect knives, firearms, fishing rods, or virtually anything else that can be handmade, know who makes the finest products in their hobby. Some craftspeople commend themselves with superior skills, at a higher level than most can ever hope to accomplish. Like musicians or actors, some are just enormously talented. Some are geniuses.
In pipemaking, one name in particular has maintained its place at the pinnacle for more than 40 years: Jess Chonowitsch. For those who have followed his work, the name Jess is synonymous with superlative. Even those who know nothing about pipes can recognize with a glance the extraordinary workmanship of Chonowitsch pipes.
Jess almost became a veterinarian instead of a pipemaker. He attended vet school, completing about three-fourths of his courses before the school building developed structural problems and was closed. The school itself didn't reopen immediately. "We didn't know what to do," says Jess, remembering those student days. He had to make a living while waiting for the vet school to relocate. His father, the tobacconist Emil Chonowitsch, was learning pipemaking from Poul Rassmussen at the time. Emil helped Jess secure a job with Rasmussen, who had run the Suhr pipe repair workshop after Sixten Ivarsson left that post and became Denmark's first independent pipemaker. Rasmussen specialized in traditional shapes, as would Emil, and Jess learned classic shaping while working there.
Emil and Jess worked together for only a couple of months before Emil left to embark on his own pipemaking career. Jess loved the craft and never returned to his veterinary education, deciding that pipemaking was his future.
Rasmussen suffered health problems, contributing to his death only two years after Jess started working with him. Jess stayed on for another six months, helping Poul's widow, the now famous pipemaker Anne Julie, until she had the shop well in hand.
He found work with the W.Ø Larsen workshop, working under pipemaker Hans "Former" Nielsen, the shop foreman at the time. "It paid the bills," says Jess. He became fast and precise at Larsen, but he was making the designs of others and he didn't enjoy it. "At Larsen, it was, 'make eight mouthpieces today,' or, 'sand these four identical pipes.' It was never any fun."
He worked at W.Ø. Larsen in the morning, and at Sixten Ivarsson's in the afternoon. "I asked Sixten if I could work there, and he said, 'Yes, but you don't get any money until you can make a pipe I can sell with my name on it.' I said, "Fine; let's start.'"
He was able to survive on his part-time employment with Larsen while he earned nothing with Sixten — except the skills that would forever change the way artisan pipes are made.
"When working for Poul," says Jess, "it was specific shapes. Poul would say, 'Please make a number 42,' and I knew what that was and could make that model. But at Sixten's, there were no model numbers at all. He'd say, 'Make a pipe the way you want it.' That was always Sixten's philosophy. 'And when I think it's a good idea,' he'd say, 'and a good pipe, I will let you know.' Then you could just start working."
It was a couple of months before Jess made a pipe that Sixten would approve. "I was working at Larsen and experimenting at Sixten's, so it took a while. Sixten said, 'If you run into trouble or a problem, you can always ask.' And he would show you. Sixten was very open minded for new shapes and new ideas. It should not be a model that you should make ten times. That didn't interest Sixten.
...at Sixten's, there were no model numbers at all. He'd say, 'Make a pipe the way you want it.' That was always Sixten's philosophy.
"Sixten allowed you to do whatever you wanted to do. Then after you were done, he'd say, 'That's ugly. Why? Tell me why you would do that to a pipe.' That was his way. He would give you freedom. He always said, 'There's no reason to copy others, that's nothing new; then nothing will happen. But something will happen if you dare to make something new or different.' That was his way of making a pipe."
In Denmark, military service was mandatory, and Jess again found his education interrupted. He was working with Lars Ivarsson at Sixten's shop, and they were good friends. Lars found Jess' situation hilarious. "He laughed at me," says Jess. "'Ha!' he'd say, 'you have to go in the military. Not me.'" Lars had citizenship in both Denmark and Sweden, so he wasn't called for service. "I didn't think it was that funny. I said, 'Fine, good for you. I'm leaving.'"
Jess spent the next 18 months as a soldier, then came back to Sixten's shop. He did not return to Larsen. "I was out of there."
All of this took place between 1965 and 1970: Vet school, Poul Rasmussen, W.O. Larsen, military service, Sixten Ivarssen. At Sixten's shop, only Sixten, Lars, and Jess made pipes that were stamped "An Ivarsson Product." Many, but not all, were stamped with the year and the number of the pipe in that year. They also included (most of the time) an "L" if made by Lars, a sun if made by Sixten, or a "J' for Jess. In the U.S. at that time, the only place that sold Ivarsson pipes was Iwan Ries in Chicago. Some can be seen in vintage catalogs for the shop.
"Both Lars and I were carving for Sixten when he was selling pipes to Iwan Ries. Then one day a guy from Japan came into the workshop. He said to Sixten, 'I want to buy some pipes from you,' and Sixten said 'No. I don't have anything.' He said he would not go back to Japan without pipes from Sixten. Lars had just finished a half dozen and I had finished a half dozen, and this customer said, 'There are 12 pipes here. I want those.' And Sixten said. 'We cannot; they must go to Iwan Ries in Chicago.' He asked the price, and when told, he doubled it.
He would give you freedom. He always said, 'There's no reason to copy others, that's nothing new; then nothing will happen. But something will happen if you dare to make something new or different.' That was his way of making a pipe.
"Sixten looked at Lars, and he looked at me, and he said, 'Are you ready to work? We will sell these and make another 12 pieces.' We said, all right, we'll do it. That was interesting; that was a good day."
In 1970, Jess met Bonnie and his life changed. "We bought the house, and I immediately built the workshop and started making pipes." Bonnie had her own career as an interior decorator. She was always interested in seeing what he was working on, and especially in what was recently finished, but her participation in his pipemaking was one of constructive comment and lots of admiration, though she and Jess travelled together for his pipes. They would, much later, visit the U.S. 18 times together, mainly for pipe shows.
"I was still going to Sixten's at that time," says Jess. While Iwan Ries couldn't compete with the Japanese market, which consistently paid double the price for Ivarsson pipes, it did sell Chonowitsch pipes. All the pipes emerging from the Ivarsson workshop commanded better prices in other countries. "That was the beginning for me," says Jess. "For a while, Iwan Ries was the only place to buy my pipes."
He spent some time developing designs for Stanwell, which needed new shapes. Sixten developed dozens of Stanwell's shapes himself. Most of the easily recognized Danish pipemakers contributed considerably to Stanwell's wonderful shape chart.
It took little time for interested buyers from other countries to find Jess. "They came from Japan and Germany and Switzerland. I was selling only internationally. Only a handful were sold here in Denmark." Switzerland became his largest market and he would make more than 40 trips there.
"I don't know how many pipes I was making," says Jess. "I have never counted how many pipes I make. It's not that I don't want to say, but I really don't know. Everything sold easily enough." Pipes didn't last long enough to become inventory. He made a pipe and it sold, made another and it sold.
Germany was a large market for Jess, even though he did not make pipes accommodating 9mm filters, which were the most prevalent and popular pipes in that country. Jess prefers pipes without filters. "I have never made filter pipes. I designed a few filter models that were made in a factory, but I don't remember where."
One of the pipemakers who has always inspired me is, of course, Lars, because we worked so much together. And when I opened my own workshop, Lars was only 20 km away, so we spent a lot of time together, hunting, fishing, and talking about shapes.
Japan, Germany, the United States, and Switzerland were Jess' markets in the '70s. He never became involved in making the fancy Danish Freehands that were so popular in that era, though. "You saw a lot of those that were not well made; even in America they stopped buying them. They became available even in supermarkets, because they exported too many; they were everywhere. The American market stopped because they could not see the difference between a well-made Danish pipe and a bad one. After the Freehand popularity, Danish pipes became unfashionable. If it was Danish, then no one wanted them."
The American market did not become interesting to Jess until he met Rick Newcombe. "That was in 1995," says Jess. The phone rang and it was Rick. "He said he'd been in Germany, at Peter Heinrich's in Cologne, the biggest pipe store in the world, and he bought a lot of pipes there. And Peter Heinrich, I knew him well, a good friend, he said why don't you go up to Denmark and meet with Jess? Then Rick came up here, called me up from Copenhagen and said, 'I want some pipes.' And I said, 'What are you talking about?' He said, 'I want to come to you and see your pipes.' His flight left for America at 4:00 p.m., so I said it was better if I came to him in Copenhagen. I had three or four pipes ready and drove to him."
What Jess didn't tell Rick until later was that he decided it would be worth the drive because Rick was staying in a suite at the d'Angleterre, the most luxurious hotel in Copenhagen, so Jess knew he had the means to purchase Chonowitsch pipes. He wasn't wrong. Rick bought them all.
"Rick went back to America and called me up and said, 'I don't understand why your pipes taste so much better than other pipes.' I said, 'Good, then you're satisfied.' He said he wanted six more, something like that." The two quickly became friends and enjoyed talking about pipes with each other. Rick would buy 13 pipes from Jess during the year they met. He still owns and smokes them all. He's smoked them many hundreds of times, and although he could now easily sell them for four times what he paid, he would never give them up and intends to smoke them many hundreds of times more.
Rick Newcombe deserves enormous credit for popularizing Danish artisan pipes in the U.S. He worked tirelessly to introduce the pipes at shows and retail shops. He wrote about them in Pipe Friendly magazine and in his own books. He wanted Jess to come to the U.S. to meet collectors and see what the North American pipe world was like. A pipe show in Los Angeles was coming up and Rick thought Jess should attend.
I think he was interested in the comfort of the mouthpieces and the draught of the smoke channels, that's what was interesting to him. My mouthpieces were a little more open, with a better draught. The lip buttons are the same as I learned from Sixten, made a little higher so people have something to bite onto and it will hold longer.
Jess was not inclined to do so, knowing the U.S. was a dead market for Danish pipes. "I said, 'Never in my life. What would I do there? There's absolutely no reason for me to go there. No.'"
Rick knew it was in Jess' best interest to become familiar to U.S. collectors. He told Jess that he personally guaranteed all the pipes he brought would sell, and if they didn't, Rick would buy them himself.
"I went," says Jess. "And I didn't sell out. Rick bought what didn't sell, but he sold them very quickly." Rick also motivated Dayton Matlick, founder of Pipes and tobaccos magazine, to become interested in Jess' pipes. Dayton wrote several articles about the Danish artisan pipe scene, and his own collection became monopolized by Danish masterpieces. One of the most prized pieces in his collection is a Jess "Fish" pipe with the Chonowitsch high-grade "bird" stamp.
One of Jess's most illustrious shapes, the Fish was achieved in the usual way Jess develops shapes: "By trying. You have an idea and you try and try and try. Then at a certain time, when you have made 25 of them or so, then the perfect shape finally comes. But when it happens, then it's over for a while. Okay, finished now, I have to find a new shape and start from scratch. Not that there was anything wrong with the first 24, but when the shape finally comes out the way you want to make it, then it's not that interesting anymore.
"That's the best way to learn: by trying and trying and trying and trying. And still be able to sell the first 24, but thinking in your head, I can make it better, I can make another one with better lines or proportions or shaping. You keep doing that until there's nothing to improve."
Jess learned that Rick had been right about the American market. "Rick helped me a lot in the beginning. His friendship is very important to me. I brought him to Lars and Sixten and Bo Nordh, and Ulf and Per, the Bang Brothers. He was already interested in those makers; he'd heard about them at Peter Heinrich's.
"That was really the beginning. That was Rick. I don't know why my pipes smoked better for him. I think he was interested in the comfort of the mouthpieces and the draught of the smoke channels, that's what was interesting to him. My mouthpieces were a little more open, with a better draught. The lip buttons are the same as I learned from Sixten, made a little higher so people have something to bite onto and it will hold longer. And always vulcanite, the best made."
You have an idea and you try and try and try. Then at a certain time, when you have made 25 of them or so, then the perfect shape finally comes...but thinking in your head, I can make it better, I can make another one with better lines or proportions or shaping. You keep doing that until there's nothing to improve.
No particular shape he's designed maintains more importance in his mind than other shapes. "I have always enjoyed making both classic shapes and total freehand shapes. This combination, to be able to make both, that has been a lot of fun for me. Switzerland and Germany were very interested in real classical shapes, maybe a little bigger than average, but all the customers at that time wanted only classic shapes. You could try to slowly introduce some freehands and find the right customer for them, though.
"My pipes never fit the classic shapes perfectly; they always had modifications that I wanted to do. I don't copy. That's no fun. They all have my style." Jess doesn't think that his style has shifted much over the years. "At least not that I can see. Maybe others can see it. I think they still have the same idea, and still there is so much you have to do. There are always new ideas that you have to try; you have to see what happens when you make changes. You succeed with some, and with others you don't. So it's not doing the same thing all the time. Every day is different."
One of Jess' most successful and impressive students is Jeff Gracik of J. Alan pipes, who absorbed an appreciation for Jess' style early in his career. Both pipemaker Jody Davis, and Keith Moore, pipe buyer for UpTown's Smoke Shop in Nashville in the late '90s, recommended he investigate Chonowitsch designs. "Keith said I should carefully study the classic shapes from Jess," says Jeff. "Jody had already told me the same thing. Then I had an opportunity to get to know Jess through Rick Newcombe, and I talked with him on the phone several times. He was incredibly generous with his advice, not just about construction, but marketing and quality assurance, even problem solving issues that I had." Jeff has visited Jess in Denmark several times, and spent three days collaborating with him on a pipe for Rick Newcombe. "I'm tremendously grateful to Jess; not only did he provide shaping advice and a better understanding of a shape-based approach, but he inspired me with his generosity and hospitality. I've tried to emulate that with young carvers who visit my own shop.
"Jess is a master of understatement. He has tremendous ideas, revolutionary ideas, like his Blowfish, or his Sailor. Everything he makes is rooted in classic pipe design. That's something I think a lot of Freehand pipemakers don't do as masterfully as he does. They don't exhibit a foundation in classic pipe design in all of their work. That traditional cornerstone is present in the majority of what Jess does. His foundational design principle is absolutely dedicated to superior smokability. He makes pipes that are meant to be smoked, that are made to smoke well, and while I think we can agree that they're gorgeous and would be lovely to see sitting on a mantle, or in a museum, every one of them is meant to be an efficient, high-performance smoker. I think a lot of other pipemakers don't always have that end use as firmly forward in their minds as Jess does. They can be distracted by style, but Jess places function above all else."
I have always enjoyed making both classic shapes and total freehand shapes...My pipes never fit the classic shapes perfectly; they always had modifications that I wanted to do. I don't copy. That's no fun. They all have my style.
Jess' pursuit of beauty and smoking efficiency may have been precipitated by the creative freedom he was afforded early in his career. "My whole life, except when I was at Larsen, I had a free hand to make what I wanted." That's not to say he wasn't influenced. Poul Rassmussen and Sixten Ivarsson, who helped him develop his skills, were not the only important craftsmen to influence his career. "One of the pipemakers who has always inspired me is, of course, Lars, because we worked so much together. And when I opened my own workshop, Lars was only 20 km away, so we spent a lot of time together, hunting, fishing, and talking about shapes. Lars was really concentrated on Japan in the beginning and didn't want to hear about Switzerland or America. He felt he could make exactly what he wanted to make for that market. I went to Japan in '75, and that was fun, and I still continue to sell pipes to Japan, but I was there once for three weeks and that was enough. Lars continued to go to Japan all the time."
In 1999, Uptown's Smoke Shop in Nashville started semi-exclusively importing Jess Chonowitsch pipes. Keith Moore was an enthusiastic proponent of Danish artisan pipes. Uptown's also (semi) exclusively sold S. Bang, Lars Ivarsson, and Bo Nordh pipes. The popularity of Danish (and Swedish) artisan carving was building momentum in the U.S.
In 2006, arguably at the height of his career, Jess stopped making pipes. Bonnie had become gravely ill and Jess wanted to spend all his time caring for her. That's what he did until her death six years later. For two years afterward, he remained insulated, recovering from the loss. He made only a handful of pipes in those eight years.
During the time he was away, his pipes appreciated in value. They were a commodity no longer made, and were known as among the best in the world. Of course they appreciated.
Contributing to the rarity of Jess' pipes is his current production of only about two or three dozen pipes a year, available at only two venues worldwide, including Smokingpipes. But the pipes he's making are the ones that interest him, and it could be argued that he's reached a level of craftsmanship, at such a stratospheric altitude of creativity and execution, that each pipe now represents a culmination of his vast experience. He is a part of pipemaking history, present at the beginning of the modern carving era with Poul Rasmussen and Sixten Ivarsson, with Lars Ivarsson and Bo Nordh, with Former and S. Bang. And he has himself inspired new generations of pipemakers, pipemakers who look to Jess Chonowitsch as an exemplar, as an archetype, and as a standard by which few can be measured.