Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Come Together...Right Now...Over Pipes

(Photo by Gary Birnie)

There's something beautiful hidden within that piece of briar or meerschaum or corn or clay that you are holding. Beyond the external beauty, beyond the physical properties that allow it to turn dried leaves into mystical experiences, beyond the hard work that went into its formation, there is something bigger, yet invisible. That pipe represents a form of global unity rarely found today. You are holding proof that man can come together out of love, out of a shared passion.

(Photo by "psd")

If I am sounding a bit transcendental, cut me some slack, since I have spent the last four years of my life studying religion, philosophy, and literature (hurray for a liberal arts degree!). If you give me a bit of leeway, I hope I can illuminate what I find so amazing about the pipe.

When I picked up my first pipe, not even four full years ago, I knew nothing about the differences between given schools of pipe making, nor did I have any conception of the history of the wondrous object that I had just purchased. I just knew that I put tobacco in the hole, lit it on fire, and puffed, and even that I did not fully understand.

Once I started to widen my gaze and do a little research, I saw some of the most beautiful works of art I had ever seen. The first one that made my jaw drop was shown to me by my older brother, Tommy, who I had also brought along with me in my exploration of pipes.

Sitting at home, puffing contently on my Neerup apple, I saw a message pop up on my computer from my brother, reading something like: “You think your pipe is pretty? Look at this!”

(Photo Courtesy of Smokingpipes) 

To say that I thought that this pipe, carved by Kei'Ichi Gotoh, was magic is an understatement. I was expecting a jinni to slither out of the pipe at any moment. Fascinated, and disappointed by the red SOLD OUT next to every pipe made by Gotoh, I looked for other Japanese carvers, to see if there was any similarity between this carver and his countrymen.

The pipes I found were organic and breathtaking, their curves flowing more naturally and more perfectly than a super-model's. Since then, I have learned that this is one of the signature qualities of the Japanese carvers: natural, organic shapes that push the boundaries of the pipe-making world, while simultaneously showing respect to the traditional form.

This is it, I remember thinking to myself. These are the top of the line pipes.

While there are those out there who would agree with this assessment, the Japanese style is but one jewel in the crown of pipes.

My piping education continued. I eventually discovered more online resources beyond the retailers, including A Passion for Pipes, the revered blog of Neill Archer Roan. 

(Image: Neill Archer Roan, © 2008 Neill Archer Roan, All Rights Reserved)

My very first visit to this website brought me face-to-face with an Eskimo, by Tom Eltang. At the time, I was unfamiliar with both the shape and the carver, so, like a good little student, I did my research.

With a few keystrokes, I discovered that Mr. Eltang is a contemporary artisan based out of Copenhagen. I may be American, and thus horrible at geography, but I knew enough to know that meant he was from Denmark. My curiosity piqued, not least of all because I found it intriguing that a Danish man would make a shape called an Eskimo, I determined to find out about other Danish carvers.

(Photo by Ashtyn Renee)

To this day, it is a mystery to me how I went a single day in the pipe world without stumbling onto the wealth of information concerning the Danish pipe-makers. Images of stunning caliber flashed across my screen, filling my hard-drive and my mind with shapes unbeknownst to me previously. These shapes came equipped with titles like tulip, bent egg, elephant's foot, blowfish, and, most commonly, freehand.

(Photo by slynndesign)

Had I been a more casual collector, I may have paused for a moment to admire the stunning prowess of these carvers and then been on my jolly way. Instead, I dug deeper. Soon, I found out how much I owed to the Danes.

Back in the late 50s, a man by the name of Sixten Ivarsson – a name now on the same level to me as Michael Jordan and Jimi Hendrix – did something practically unheard of: he left the bark on the top of a bowl he was forming, rather than removing it, as the classic doctrine dictated he should. This simple decision led to the creation of what we now know as freehands.

Before this innovation by Mr. Ivarsson, pipes looked mostly like what are today called classic shapes: billiards, dublins, princes, maybe a bulldog or zulu or two. The undisputed master of the classic shape was, and is still widely thought to be, England.

(Photo by David Salafia)

Ashton, Barling, Comoy, oh my! ABC, one, two, three, you've got three incredible companies who have been putting out reliable, handsome pipes for years. Beloved by many, revered by some, these pipe markers have stayed close to shore and have not adventured as far as others in terms of shape innovation. However, when you know how to do something pretty close to perfectly, why change?

Don't worry, I haven't forgotten the biggest English name of them all, the big-daddy, the Goliath of pipes: Dunhill. The name itself is still enough to send shivers down the backs of some pipe collectors – in a good way!

During its time, the Dunhill company has helped to reshape the pipe world, creating some new shapes and transforming the meaning of a quality pipe. When Alfred Dunhill opened his first tobacco shop in 1906, he found the quality of pipes coming in from France to be below his required quality level: he saw fills and did not seem to think the pipes smoked as well as they could.

Like a true entrepreneur, Alfred Dunhill set out to fix the problem himself, opening a small factory that followed a simple motto: the best briar at the right price. The rest is history.

Dunhill and the rest of the English pipe-makers have ever since enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for producing handsome, elegant pipes of high quality. They were the undisputed gold standard of pipes, and still probably would be if it were not for little man in Copenhagen by the name of Sixten.

The Danish artisans did not rest on their laurels, however, and have since continued to innovate and create some of the most popular and exotic shapes available today, using some of the highest quality briar available in the world. I actually discovered that a lot of those Japanese carvers whose work I had fallen in love with had studied with some of the great artisans of Denmark, including Sixten and Lars Ivarsson and Jess Chonowitsch.

Okay, I said to myself, I was a little hasty in my conclusion before. This is really the top of the line, the best of the best.

I was so convinced by the superiority of the Danish pipes that I messaged Neill Archer Roan, since his website was the springboard for this whole investigation, to ask him his opinion as to whose work I should focus on in the Danish market.

Helpful as always, he directed me to several of his favorite artisans. He then said something that caught me totally off guard: “Have you looked into Russian carvers?”


(Photo by Marc Veraart)

How many different countries could possibly produce great pipes? Sure enough, I did my research and was once again wildly impressed. In fact, Russia has recently become my country of focus in terms of pipes. The Russian artisans show a vast awareness of the organic possibilities within a pipe, as well as the simple beauty of the classic forms, and are not afraid to mold the two worlds into one piece of art, creating something new and yet, at the same time, timeless.

The pure talent coming from everywhere in the world is mind-boggling: Turkey is home to the master Meerschaum carvers, who come the closest to making actual sculptures of their pipes; American carvers are some of the world's rising stars when it comes to pipes, reinventing the notion of sandblasting and turning it into an art-form of its own; German artisans seem to have taken the best of both worlds from Japan and Denmark and turned it into something new and heart-stopping.

The list simply does not end. Every country bears its particular perspective on pipes and brings something unique to the table. While each is unique, none is an island (even though some of the carvers literally live on island). Every tradition relies on another and somehow, despite physical, ideological, and language barriers, they all come together to form something beautiful: the pipe.  

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