October 1998
Volume 25
Number 5

Reflections From Afar:
What's New in Pipes

by James Lawson

As I write this column, I am sitting on the bank of my favorite trout stream. The source of this stream, a small undeveloped lake, lies forty yards hence. Summer here in Maine has gone the way of its antecedent. Gone as well are the hordes of tourists, assured that their Range Rovers and Lexus 4x4s never once left the pavement.

Earlier, I stood mid-current, fly-rod in hand, watching the swaying pattern of my line with an elk-hair caddis helplessly in tow. Atop an eighty-foot spruce, an osprey surveys the lake where a family of loons nest. The only means by which to reach this pristine place is by float plane. The nearest man-made structure is 18 miles away. I often come here to fly-fish, think, smoke, and write.

It is a perfect place to reflect on the bustle of the annual RTDA trade show, held this year in Fort Nashborough (Nashville's original name). There was, as everyone knows, uncertainty at the show regarding the cigar trade - too many brands competing in a maturing market. But sales of pipes, at certain price points, are escalating.

Joe Giardina of Joe's Pipe Repair and Imports was quite pleased with the interest that retailers expressed for the exclusive Italian pipe lines that he imports. He notes that younger pipe smokers continue to appreciate the Paronelli Zebra and Illusion pipes. These handmade pipes are constructed from Sardinian briar. All of the Paronelli's have non-oxidizing acrylic stems, while the overall appearance sets them apart from more traditional pipes. The Zebras come in many bold colors, and the Illusions are film-photo-etched (a secret process) creating an appearance of granite, marble, or silver. Paronelli's retail from $25 to $69.

At the 1997 RTDA trade show in Orlando, Joe displayed a sample of 20 pipes from a new pipe brand - Tommaso Spanu. Response was so positive that Joe officially launched the full Spanu line at the Nashville show. As a result, he sold hundreds of these gorgeous pipes.

Spanu, who previously worked for Alberto Paronelli, created a line of Italian freehand-style pipes. Like the Paronelli's, these pipes are handmade from the local Sardinian briar, and are devoid of fills or flaws. Since quality is paramount, all seconds or rejects are burned.

Some of the Spanu pipes feature unusual briar inlays in the Lucite stems that perfectly match the grain of the stummels themselves. Also noteworthy are the pipes made with absorbent bamboo stems. There are nearly 150 styles and shapes of these naturally finished, non-carbonized pipes; available exclusively from Joe's Pipe Repair and Imports. They retail from $125 to $325.

The venerable Saint Claude pipe brand, Butz Choquin, commemorates its 140th year with a Jubile' model. This handmade pipe features a white square shank extension and a black Lucite stem.

1998 is the centennial for the special Peterson lip stem. This favorite stem is designed to direct the intake of smoke away from the tongue and towards the roof of the mouth, thus minimizing the effect of "tongue bite" - perhaps the largest single reason that smokers give up the pipe.

Stephen Monjure of the eponymous Monjure International USA was a newcomer to the RTDA show. After more than two decades in sales, he founded a company that is the exclusive distributor for well-regarded pipe brands such as Pipe Brebbia, Ardor, and Invicta.

Italy's famous Brebbia firm celebrated 50 years in 1997 and now offers a Designer Series, whereby a new pipe will be introduced by a different designer every year until 2007. The Brebbia line offers a wide range of shapes and sizes, priced from an entry-level $35 to $350 for a straight-grained handmade pipe.

The Ardor brand, also Italian, is a handmade pipe. The company air cures their briar for ten years before it is carved. These beautiful pipes begin at $160 retail and extend to $850 for the rare straight-grain with 18K gold bands. Ardors are mainly priced at around $200. Machine-made Ardors are available for a retail price of $50 to $60, but carry the name Lampedusa. The handmade freehands carry the name Varese. Quite popular at the show was the Ardor Ninfea, which had a silver spigot. The Ninfea retails at $160 for the rusticated version, and $190 for the smooth. Ardors containing bamboo shanks were well-received as well.

"Retailers have noted a sharp demand for pipes in the $200-plus range," Monjure says. "Pipe customers are becoming more savvy and demanding more quality." Others agree that the market continues to show signs of segmentation. Joe Giardina comments, "There are two basic pipe markets; low end and high end. The low end will pretty much take care of itself. But there is a growing market for pipes that retail for over $150." Keith Moore of Music City Marketing told me, "It's unbelievable how many high-end pipes we are able to sell. It's unbelievable."

The proliferation of pipe clubs, shows, swap meets, and publications aimed at the pipe smoker have helped to fuel this demand. Distributors such as Monjure International and Joe's Pipe Repair & Imports have seen firsthand the enthusiasm in the pipe community at the various pipe shows around the country. Monjure notes, "I basically participate in the pipe shows to build brand awareness. Pipes are definitely hot."

Plenty of new pipe tobaccos were available for sampling at the show. Craig Tarler of Cornell & Diehl has just introduced three new blends. Nutty Virginia contains red and bright Virginia ribbon with a light hazelnut sauce. Coffeenut has a base of unsweetened black Cavendish and Green River vanilla with a coffee/hazelnut sauce. Cross-eyed Cricket is a new "Vintage" tinned blend based on unsweetened black Cavendish with Latakia, Perique, and Turkish. I have smoked these three blends and they smoke extremely well. The Nutty Virginia has a very pleasant aftertaste.

Sex sells. But among the various pipe exhibitors at the RTDA show, there was a noticeable lack of "surgically enhanced" models. I can report, however, that one such woman approached me. In a throaty whisper, she murmured, "You are one of the most handsome men I have ever seen." She then turned around and walked right into a wall.

SMOKESHOP - October 98