Chuck greeted me at the door. With silver hair and a scruffy beard, he was clad in an oversized cardigan and not-so-white sneakers, welcoming me with a pleasant demeanor and a radiating smile that beamed only after he had removed the robust Lovat from between his teeth. "What tobacco are you smoking there?" I asked, attempting to start conversation. He responded resolutely, "There is only one tobacco. Beacon." (I would later come to find that Chuck has a large cache of McClelland's Beacon, buried deep in the wilds and surrounded by land mines). "Welcome to Smokingpipes.”
My first day at work was as wondrous as it was daunting. I was anxious about all that comes with starting a new job, and my new office also contained more pipes than I had ever seen in one place. As Chuck gave me a brief tour of my new workplace, I spotted a table covered in Italian Billiards, and a certain Radice caught my eye. It was classically shaped, displaying firm lines and endowed with vivid pools of birdseye I hadn't before known possible. However, seeing it wasn’t enough; I had to hold it in my hands. Not knowing the proper protocol, though, I hesitantly asked, "Is it alright if I pick up this RA-dis?" (Hear radish but with "s" instead of "sh"). After a brief pause and puzzled cock of the head, Chuck politely replied, “The Italians have a different pronunciation. Are you referring to that 'Rah-DEE-chay?'" I winced sheepishly at my mistake, but we both chuckled and relaxed. He assured me that such mispronunciations are quite common, ("Especially by me," he said) and our conversation naturally turned to other difficult-to-pronounce pipemakers and pipe terms, running the gamut from Chacom to Claudio Cavicchi.
The experience resonated with me. I was awestruck by the exquisitely carved pipes that surrounded me, but what truly made an impact was Chuck's helpfulness and his sincere desire to teach me about the hobby. Since that first day, I've found that everyone here is just as eager to pass on their knowledge. They've always been gentle to correct and eager to teach, and I've learned much from them already. Coming to Smokingpipes was my first introduction to the pipe smoking community as a fellowship of people rather than just an individual's interaction with pipes. We’re certainly united by our love for leaf and briar, but it's the welcoming nature and willingness to pass along pipe wisdom that makes this community so special.
Which is especially helpful, since apparently I had been saying Latakia all wrong as well.
Porcelain was a great achievement for Western alchemists and potters. Once they had discovered the technique to produce it, soon the material was also being used for pipes, or rather the heads of pipes. The material was pliable and its white surface was just waiting to be covered in multi-coloured decorations. Indeed, soon the heads of pipes came in all sorts of colours, patterns and were often shaped into figurines. However, in the mid-eighteenth century the typical bowls of the Gestekpfeifen (combined with a separate sump) began to appear, which were cylindrical and ended in a small tube. On the one hand, this type of pipe restricted the pipe maker’s creativity, but on the other the bowls lent themselves to an endless series of decorations. It was this type of porcelain pipe head that prevailed in the nineteenth century, becoming a truly social phenomenon. On the cylindrical-like surface of the pipe head anything could be displayed. Craftsmen, who were often true artists armed with paintbrushes, could paint the same image on several models, or else produce a unique illustration for a special client. The themes were endless, but they were often characterized by categories: students, soldiers, and various professions. For many German smokers, it was important to show their status in public through the illustrations on their pipes, which were proudly displayed and which aimed to transmit affiliation, an idea, a sensitivity, a tendency and taste. These particular pipes were not only illustrated, but were also often large, striking, and great attention was paid to details in wood, metal, horn and other materials.
In the early decades of the nineteenth century sea-foam pipes appeared, at first slowly in restricted circles of enthusiasts who represented the market, but then becoming highly fashionable. The sea-foam, or “meerschaum”, was not only an ideal material for pipes given its high porosity, but also its essential characteristics facilitated elaborate carving. While the beauty of a clay pipe depended on the creativity of the person that had carved the mould, and the attractiveness of a porcelain bowl relied on artistry and colour, the meerschaum pipe owed its appeal to craftsmen who were also artists and carvers, often true sculptors. The golden age of meerschaum pipes ran from 1820 to 1850 in Vienna. The heads were often so richly carved (but also relatively fragile) that they could only be admired, masterpieces in which the function of smoking became secondary, featuring complete groups of subjects in a scene, highly intricate decorative detail and lively bas-relief work. Naturally, there were also functional smoking pipes, which were simpler, but which nonetheless retained their elegance. This class of objects featured fine silver mounts and unique amber mouthpieces. In addition to the original meerschaums, cheaper, fake mmerschaum models were produced whose material consisted of various paste mixtures including scraps of real meerschaum pressed together. A number of these were manufactured in Ruhla in Thuringia, and were called “Viennese” to make them sound more convincing. This mining community situated in the mountains, however, did not restrict its activities to imitations, but in fact became an authentic pipe manufacturing centre, almost a German version of Gouda, also producing original meerschaums, Gestekpfeifen with porcelain heads, models in terracotta and also in wood.
Heads of wooden pipes hand-carved into figurative designs often complete with inscriptions and dates given by clients were the specialty of various forest regions, especially in central Germany where the Rhine flowed through or in Alpine towns. Again, a custom-made hand-carved pipe with figurative head became an object to be exhibited that reflected the client’s personality. However, it was not always necessary to apply decorations in order to maintain a “dialogue” with a pipe. Ultimately, a fine pipe was enough. A pipe that was magnificent and much sought after until the middle of the nineteenth century was the unique Maserholz pipe, from Ulm, which was often imitated in other regions in different types of wood and also in other materials. Three types of interesting wooden pipe-heads were also manufactured in Hungary: the Kalmasch, shaped like an inverted bell, stylistically similar to a classic terracotta Chibouk; the Debrecen, named after the town, having a tall cylindrical bowl and the Ragoczy, probably named after a Transylvanian prince, whose upper part of the cylindrical bowl was slightly conical.
As regards the use of clay or more generally terracotta, the nineteenth century was unrivalled in its production of an endless variety of shapes and materials. The English and Dutch white clay pipe remained, but in many markets this was only one option, as the basic material and bright glazes provided colourful alternatives. Red terracotta pipes were typical of Debrecen and also of Marseille, but colourful, more or less figuratively designed pipes were to be found almost everywhere. Even the traditional Dutch types sometimes displayed hints of colour and typical pipes manufactured in Banská Štiavnica, a town in central Slovakia, whose more common German name is Schemnitz, were highly colourful. The heads, made from a mixture of white and red clay (the former provided strength and the latter its sheen), had a high octagonal-shaped burnished bowl (there were also other variations) whose surface seemed translucent. The Schemnitz pipe, much admired and imitated, eventually became a clearly distinct model (like the Ulm pipe) that was produced in many regions, one of these being the Veneto region, where it was produced in the town of Bassano del Grappa.
Meanwhile, the French had always been fervent snuff users. Those who preferred to smoke tobacco used pipes made in Holland or products made locally by small manufacturers. It was only during the Napoleonic era that the new emphasis placed on industry also boosted pipe production on a national scale. Although the white-ivory material available was excellent for pipe smoking thanks to its porous property, its strength caused problems, as the stems broke too easily. The one-piece format was soon cast aside in favour of the more familiar pipe with a clay head and wooden stem. Since figuratively decorated and colourful pipes were in vogue, the French pipe makers who were newcomers to the pipe scene wholeheartedly adopted this fashion following techniques that were similar (but with many variations) to those used by their colleagues who worked porcelain and sea-foam. Pipe heads were miniature sculptures and the subjects were endless. They began with classical themes, going on to craft contemporary politicians, portraits or caricatures of well-known or little-known figures, or recognizable, conventional types. The catalogues produced by the largest factories displayed hundreds of different models, almost as if they were a collection of trading cards. Other figuratively crafted models bearing different features came from the Belgian region of Meuse and from the Westerwald region in Germany.
Eighteenth-century pipe manufacture offered almost a complete range of hundreds of models, a versatile output that is quite impossible to describe fully, a triumph of technical solutions combined with creativity. Yet, such a complex and geographically diverse and mutually influenced scene was being threatened by two powerful factors. The first, plain for all to see, gave pipe makers cause for serious concern and stimulated those who smoked less: the fashion for cigars was booming. The second factor, which had been brewing for some time but only began to reveal itself in the second half of the nineteenth century, seriously jeopardised the world of pipes which had developed so surprisingly. Not so much as visible for all to see, but invisible, underground: the strange, round root of a Mediterranean shrub.