In the great marital ledger, I, like most husbands, have some entries in both the credits and debits column. Specifically, I've gained credits for taking my wife to Europe five times in the five years we've been together. But those credits have been partially offset (as my wife rarely fails to remind me) by debits associated with dragging her to a few dozen pipe maker workshops, pipe factories and the like during each of those five trips. My wife and I enjoyed our honeymoon two years ago in Italy. We enjoyed it, in part, in the Castello workshop, Mimmo's briar cutting operation, and other, similar, august sites of Italian culture. However, this year's trip to France was to be a vacation. And a vacation alone. Well, mostly. Except for one little side trip to St. Claude...
Antoine Grenard and I have known each other for a few years. The young--my age; in his early-mid thirties--managing director of the Chapuis-Comoy factory and I have always gotten along well, but I'd never visited the factory on my previous trips to St. Claude. Grenard's team of thirty make Chacom (the flagship brand's name is a portmanteau of Chapuis-Comoy) and a variety of other brands, including Ropp, Jean LaCroix and others.
The factory itself is one of the most fascinating places I've ever been. Even my wife was delighted to have her vacation interrupted by the tour. Built in 1910, the factory once had more than two hundred workers, busily making pipes. Two hundred people and the concomitant equipment take up a lot of space. That leaves a lot of interesting underused space and artifacts of pipe making of decades past.
Much of the equipment used has been in continuous operation for decades. We met Antoine in a conference room filled with a century of pipe memorabilia and started the tour in the vast spaces reserved for shaping pipes. The available shape chart from Chacom is vast. Hundreds, if not thousands, of templates for classic French and English shapes are on hand. As is the case with almost all pipe factories, the bowls are rough shaped using fraizing machines, a multi-step process where a given machine will cut a specific angle--the back of the bowl, or the area around the rim. Making a given shape requires setting up the equipment for a production run, so runs of hundreds of stummels at a time are cut and then stored to be completed, sometimes having the shape further tweaked. The factory also has a newer template-based shaping machine from Denmark that shapes an entire bowl based on a plastic template of the shape, similar to the equipment that Stanwell used before it closed a few years ago. The Eltang designed Oscar series, with its more challenging angles and modern shape, is made using this method.
From there, we worked our way across rooms and floors, seeing pipes being sandblasted, stained, rings and silver bands added and finished. Many factories outsource the preproduction of their decorative bands, but Chapuis-Comoy does almost all of this in house, with specialized lathes turning and then cutting decorative rings for the ends of shanks at a spectacular pace.
Seeing current production was exciting, but the real highlight of the visit was pipe stummel storage. Vast rooms filled with baskets, bins and giant bags of rough shaped stummels occupy a full floor of the massive facility. Rack after rack holds tens or even hundreds of thousands of unfinished pipes. Some of these are shapes in current production, just waiting to be moved to production. But hundreds of different shapes, each with dozens or hundreds of stummels, have sat there for decades, representing the tail ends of production runs for discontinued shapes, now covered in thick layers of dust.
Another flight of stairs up--perhaps the sixth floor in the facility; I rather lost count--takes us to an attic, where the truly ancient stummels are stored. In some cases, huge wooden bins of many hundreds of stummels await inspiration. And inspiration struck. I started accumulating a little group of assorted, old shapes, one example of each of a few different shapes. And my pile grew. Eventually, I was carrying around more than I could hold. I didn't know immediately what we'd do with all of these, but these were old French shapes that simply had to be back on the market. Interesting, smaller bowls abounded. Fifty years ago, the average size of pipes sold were much smaller--equivalent to a Dunhill group 2 or group 3. Modern pipes are larger, driven by a taste for increasingly large pipes in the US and German markets. Not all of the interesting shapes I found were that small, but part of what makes classic French shapes interesting are the delicacy of the lines, something only possible with smaller shapes.
We progressed from there back to a conference room, stopping along the way to wash the accumulated dust off of ourselves. Crawling around in the attic was a particularly messy activity. By this time, it had become clear that a few special series based on these shapes would have to happen. I couldn't give up the prospect of bringing these beautiful, delicate shapes to life. We slowly pared down the shapes from the eighteen or so I'd pulled out of bins down to eleven and began to explore stains, stems and decorative rings. Ultimately, we opted to create three new series, each available in multiple finishes and with multiple shapes.
All three series will be available on Smokingpipes.com starting in the next few weeks. In some cases, these will be fairly limited editions. There are no plans to produce many of these shapes again, so we'll keep the lines going for as long as we can.
I hesitate to admit it, but of all the wonderful things we saw and did during our vacation, the visit to the Chapuis-Comoy was the highlight of the trip for me. People ask me whether, after fourteen-odd years in the pipe business, it ever gets old. It doesn't. I love it. More than that, Chapuis-Comoy is an undoubtedly special place. There are few businesses in the early twenty-first century that have operated in substantially the same way for a hundred years. The materials of historians are records and written documents and, at times, physical artifacts. But rarely does the historian get to experience something so similar to life as it was lived. For an avid pipe man whose whole career has been in the pipe business, who also has an academic background in history, it was a unique and special experience. Perhaps even more importantly, my ever patient wife not only tolerated this side trip, she enjoyed it immensely.