May 2000

Bearer of the Saint-Claude Torch

by Jim Lawson

A national favorite in its native France, Butz-Choquin - with the help of its new U.S. distributor - banks on history, style, and an ample product line in its bid to raise its American profile.

Butz-Choquin, founded in 1858, is located in Saint-Claude, France, a village nestled in the heart of the Haut Jura Mountains, not far from the Swiss border. The soi-disant Pipe Capital of the World, Saint Claude is largely a single-industry town, though local officials tell me they are working hard to develop tourism in the region. Briar pipe manufacturing, which originated here, has faced many challenges: increased competition from other countries; the advent of modern machinery enabling pipemakers to mass-produce pipes; changes in smoking preferences; and a couple of world wars with subsequent economic upheavals.

A century ago, the village’s industry employed thousands: men, women, and yes, even children - it was a different era for all countries. Today, relatively few people make pipes in Saint-Claude. A majority of the independent pipe firms that were once there no longer exist. Butz-Choquin has been able to endure through persistence, vision, innovation, and a dose of good luck. Current president Jean-Paul Berrod represents the fourth generation to run the company since his great-grandfather founded it. Jean-Paul’s father, quite healthy at age 87, still comes to the factory regularly.

The Butz-Choquin factory itself is in a nondescript commercial building, located near the river that bisects the village. Inside is a warren of rooms and passages, each serving a dedicated purpose. In some sections of the factory, one can still see the overhead pulleys and drive shafts that once powered the belt-driven machinery. When first visiting the factory years ago, I was unable to escape the sense of history embued within its walls. This facility alone has produced millions of briar pipes, made by generations of local residents who spent their entire working lives here.

According to Jean-Paul Berrod, his factory produced approximately 150,000 pipes in 1999 - 90,000 of which were Butz-Choquin pipes. Butz-Choquin’s largest market is its domestic market. Thousands of French smoke shops or tabacs proudly carry the Butz-Choquin brand. The largest foreign market for Butz-Choquin is Germany. About seven percent of Butz-Choquin’s production is exported to the U.S.

Focusing on U.S. Market
This seven percent figure will rise, if Butz-Choquin’s new American distributor, Nashville-based Music City Marketing, has anything to say about the matter. Music City was chosen as the Butz-Choquin distributor just weeks before the Las Vegas RTDA show in July 1999. Music City’s operating vice president, Arron Sissom, says that his firm scrambled to prepare for the RTDA show. The specific pipes were selected, a Butz-Choquin inventory was established, and a color catalog was created depicting all the Butz-Choquin pipes currently imported.

Arron notes that retailers who attended the ’99 RTDA show responded favorably to Music City’s Butz-Choquin debut. Retailers appreciated that, for the first time in anyone’s memory, a separate Butz-Choquin catalog, with wholesale pricing, was available to them.

The Butz-Choquin Selections
The Aged Briar Sets from Butz-Choquin were first introduced last summer. This six-pipe set consists of three Capitans and three Galions. The bowls for these pipes had been turned back in the 1970s, set aside, and forgotten. Several months ago, someone in the factory "rediscovered" them. One hundred Aged Briar Sets were created; approximately 50 sets remain and retail for just under $400.

Retailers who desire premium Butz-Choquin pipes will be pleased to know that Music City offers the Maitre Pipier (Master Pipemaker) Series. This selection has been designed by famed French pipemaker Alain Albuisson, but hand carved by other artisans. The Maitre Pipier pipes range from $72 to $220 retail; there are five different models in this series.

The Two, Three, and Four Star Butz-Choquin Collection Series are even more upscale pipes, handmade by Albuisson. Most of the Butz-Choquin Collection Series pipes have lighter stains highlighting the more interesting graining of the briar. All have Lucite stems, and most of them feature individuated hardwood bands. Sizes and shapes vary, depending on the number of stars. These pipes retail from $270 to $570.

Butz-Choquin’s top-of-the-line model, pricewise, is the Morningstar. Also made by Albuisson, each Morningstar is one-of-a-kind - no shape is repeated. The retail pricing for these extremely limited pipes is from $950 to $1200. Both Robert Doherty, sales manager for Music City’s wholesale division, and Sissom stress that these pipes will be made available to smoke shop retailers who sell premium pipes and not funneled solely to Music City’s own retail operation, Uptown Smoke Shop.

Doherty says the Uptown staff would take "every one of these pipes" if he let them. "The wholesale business is our bread-and-butter," adds Sissom. "We need to offer these pipes to our wholesale customers as they become available."

The majority of Butz-Choquin pipes are in the medium-price category. The Tradition Series, offered in eight basic shapes is a popular seller. These pipes are priced from $44 to $98. According to Doherty, the Supermate, a matte-finished pipe with a non-carbonized bowl and vulcanite stem, is one of the best sellers, since there are few pipes at this price point with this type of finish.

Butz-Choquin’s Vest Pocket pipes also sell well. These are circular, shankless pipes that can be conveniently toted in a shirt or vest pocket. A generic ($26 retail) and a Butz-Choquin-branded Vest Pocket Pipe (at $44 or $52) are available. Customers who enjoy Calabash pipes may appreciate the briar series of Calabashes that Butz-Choquin makes. Six different models are offered and retail from $76 to $154.

For those pipesmokers who yearn for a little more heft to their briar, consider the Giants Series. The fist-sized Makalu sandblasts, one bent and one straight, will provide an entire evening of smoking pleasure. The Jumbo, in orange, rusticated, or brown finish, has a marbleized-Lucite shank extension and a Lucite saddle stem.

The Jubilee Series was first offered two years ago to commemorate the 140th anniversary of Butz-Choquin. These attractive pipes feature a much larger marbleized-Lucite shank extension than the Jumbo series. These pipes are selling fast and Berrod says it will be many years before Butz-Choquin makes a series like this again - perhaps the 150th anniversary?

The Unique Series of pipes are just that - unique. Among the shapes are the Cobra, which when held with the stem pointing downward resembles a Cobra in attack-mode; the Castel (referring to a castle or chateau); and the Chatelaine (lady of the manor) with its crenellated walls. The Chatelaine, designed by Jean-Paul’s father nearly 40 years ago, is not, as the name might indicate, what is generally regarded as a "ladies" pipe. When I asked Berrod why he gave this pipe a feminine designation, instead of the masculine Chatelaine (gentleman of the manor) he said that Chatelaine (with a slightly different pronunciation) sounded, in effect, more euphonious. The Chatelaine is made in two different shapes and three finishes, retailing at $74, $102, and $176.

This is just a sampling of the Butz-Choquin pipes that are offered by Music City. When a retailer calls Music City’s pipes division, managed by Doherty, they will be glad to know that the pipes are physically located near his office. He says that he can easily walk to the storage room, and put his hands on any pipe in question, and answer a retailer’s specific questions. As an added convenience to the retailer, a digital image of any pipe can be emailed in a matter of minutes. Or, provided the retailer pays any related expenses incurred, Doherty will gladly fly to any of the 50 states, sample bag in hand, to give interested retailers a firsthand look at any Music City pipes. Call for details.

Bill Nunnelly, Music City’s c.e.o. and president, says that what drew his interest in Butz-Choquin was the breadth of the line, in terms of styles, shapes, and pricing. Berrod says that he felt Music City would be a good distributor "because it is a small company…capable of devoting sufficient time and effort to promote the Butz-Choquin brand." Both companies say that they look forward to a long and prosperous partnership. Give your smoke shop a French pipe connection.

Jim Lawson can be reached by email at jlawson@smokeshopmag.com

SMOKESHOP - August 2000