Savinelli's Evolution

A classic Italian pipe maker continues to gain ground in the premium cigar market, adding cache to its storied smoking products.

By Dale Scott

Achille Savinelli, Sr. established one of the world's first dedicated tobacco retail shops in 1876. The store, which still occupies its original location near the Piazza Duomo in downtown Milan, launched what is now a fourth-generation, family-owned company dedicated to their founder's passion - fine briar pipes. Today, Savinellis are the widest-selling pipes in Italy, and enjoy worldwide distribution, including the United States though the company's domestic importer and distributor, Savinelli USA.

The Savinelli brand name also graces a complete lineup of quality pipe tobaccos; lighters; leather goods; humidors; cutters; and other pipe-smoking accessories as well as gift items. But it was the launch of Savinelli premium cigars in 1992 by Savinelli USA - easily the greatest departure from the company's long history - that has led to their company's fastest-growing merchandise line in recent years, one which has become an important cornerstone of the Savinelli brand.

Company vice president Bob Ysidron pictured with Savinelli Armonia pipe tobacco and Savinelli Aperitifs cigars.
"Presently, they account for 25-30% of our total sales," says Ruben Ysidron, president of Morrisville, N.C.-based Savinelli USA, "and we expect them to grow to 50% in the foreseeable future." Ysidron is justifiably optimistic about the future of Savinelli premium cigars as a significant contributor to the product mix - especially as pipe sales at the company have gone through their ups and downs. Ysidron's first attempt to break into the distribution of premium cigars - later abandoned - was in the mid-'70s.

"I'd always been interested in cigars," he recalls. "My grandfather was Cuban-born, and my father rolled cigars for Gulf & Western, which became Consolidated Cigar and now Altadis." Ysidron selected the then-small Miami-based Simone Camacho brand, which was under different ownership than today's Camacho. Though of good quality, the cigars lacked consistency, and he abandoned the relationship shortly thereafter.

"At the dawn of the cigar boom," says Ysidron, "I had several highly-regarded premium cigar makers as industry friends, including the Fuente family and Manuel Quesada. They urged me to let them make a Savinelli line. I declined, remembering my earlier difficulties." The Savinelli family, too, looked askance at the new direction for a century-old, exclusively pipe-oriented company. "Had I known then what I now know," Ysidron ponders, "we could have had a jump on the boom with a major line, made by some of the most highly respected makers."

Seeing the boom picking up steam in 1993, Ysidron approached Carlito Fuente, but was told the storied Dominican Republic producer was too short on choice tobacco to produce a new brand. "I'll wait," replied Ysidron. Finally, in 1994, the Fuente-made Savinelli ELR (Extremely Limited Reserve) was born, with the impressive "Made by A. Fuente" stamp appearing prominently on the box. The cigar, an all-Dominican long-filler blend, is available in Natural (true Connecticut-grown shade leaf wrapper) and Maduro (Connecticut-grown broadleaf wrapper). Now celebrating its tenth anniversary, this flagship cigar, in seven Natural and three Maduro classic shapes, retails for $7.50-$9.50 before taxes.

Since 2001, more affordable cigars have joined the lineup. Ysidron tapped Kiki Berger's Tabacalera Esteli to supply a cigar with a different character, the Nicaraguan Reserve, retailing for $3.50-$4.75 for its six shapes. This is an all-Nicaraguan cigar, with Habano 2000 wrapper. Based on its acceptance, Ysidron and Berger next launched the Savinelli Special Selection, using the same blend as the Nicaraguan Reserve, but with a special wrapper. Its three shapes retail for $5-$5.50.

In 1994, Savinelli USA debuted Aperitifs, a line of six small cigars, made by La Aurora, the oldest cigar manufacturer in the Dominican Republic. The selections are Natural and Maduro (both unflavored), Vanilla, Honey, Café, and Exotica (a blend of fruit flavors). Ysidron echoes other manufacturers of small flavored cigars, saying they are very popular.

At RTDA 2004, Savinelli debuted the Savinelli Fuerte (six shapes, $3.75-$5.00 retail), another Nicaraguan cigar, but from a different respected manufacturer - Tabaccos Puros de Nicaragua, known more popularly as the Joya de Nicaragua factory. "Although stronger than our other cigars," Ysidron explains, "it is smooth enough you don't need to sit down or eat a big dinner to enjoy it."

Pipes: Savinelli's Heart and Soul
While cigars have taken the lead in growth at Savinelli, it is pipes that put the company on the map and continue to serve as the cornerstone of its brand portfolio.

Savinelli, honored worldwide for its quality, uses mainly scarce, wild Corsican briar - sought for its dry smoking and light weight - in producing its pipes. It ages a minimum of two years, and more select specimens are aged up to ten years, using only air, never heat or other artificial means. Savinelli creations are the widest-selling pipes in Italy, and enjoy worldwide distribution. Today, priced from $35 to $1,200, they satisfy the entire spectrum of pipe smokers and collectors.

Designed for first-time pipe smokers, the Savinelli Premier Set features either a straight or bent 5" pipe - less intimidating than full-sized pipes - plus 20 balsa inserts, a pipe tool, pipe cleaners, complete instructions, and a leather case.
Achille, Sr.'s son Carlos took over the retail operation, and he ran it for 50 years. But, it was grandson Achille, Jr. (1918-1986), who made Savinelli what it is today. Favoring the workshop to the retail operation, Achille, Jr. had a vision: to rival the world's most vaunted pipe marques. Italian pipes were shunned for their poor quality, but soon, his creations gained fame, and today, they are respected worldwide.

In 1948, Achille, Jr., established a factory near Varese, Italy, from which he successfully penetrated the global market, with highly desirable and unique pipes. The 1960s saw the birth of the still-available Corallo-Capri pipes, with their lightness and cool-smoking finish, thanks to a closely-guarded secret process. Next came the Autograph Pipe, which resulted from the need of a veteran Savinelli pipe crafter to work at home, due to illness. Achille, Jr. gave him free rein to carve free-form pipes, which yielded uniquely beautiful, flowing specimens that the company considers some of its best.

The 100-Year Anniversary pipe appeared in 1976, offered in an ultra-limited edition for Savinelli's most ardent clients. The six special shapes have never been reproduced since, and the owners enjoy the dubious honor of owning treasures they dare not smoke. The revolutionary Balsa System Pipe followed, with a balsa-wood filtering system that eliminates 77% of the nicotine and 91% of the tars, according to independent testing by respected international laboratories. In 1981, the Mister G Pipe honored Giancarlo Savinelli, who succeeded Achille, Jr., at the company's helm. It broke with the tradition of using only silver shank bands, by fashioning pipes with brass and briar rings.

Savinelli USA supports its retailers through rep-coordinated in-store and other events. The company advertises regularly in Smoke and Pipes & Tobacco magazines. In addition to point-of-purchase displays, Savinelli provides in-store tastings and sample promotions, depending on retailer commitment to the line. Ysidron expects to expand these promotions, as sales grow and they introduce new cigars: a new Cameroon and a Super Fuerte are forthcoming.

Savinelli's perennial line of Corona lighters, which has been joined by their Corona double-guillotine briar-trimmed cigar cutters, remains popular, notes Ysidron. The most recent addition to the company's pipe line is an RTDA-launched pipe ensemble: a small pipe that fits in its own pouch, pipe cleaners and a 3-in-1 tool, and a complete set of instructions to teach the art to tyros.

A dedicated core of pipe smokers and collectors helps Savinelli enjoy a stable and substantial share of total pipe sales, but overall, this business has not grown for a number of years. "Considering we've been in the U.S. pipe market for 35 years," says Ysidron, "we're excited about the rapid growth of our cigars. With 125 years of pipe excellence behind us, and an equally outstanding - if shorter - reputation for cigar quality, the future promises even greater success."

Savinelli Pipes, Inc., 1002 Morrisville Parkway, P.O. Box 526, Morrisville, NC 27560, Tel: (919) 481-0511, Fax: (919) 481-1948, Web: www.savinelliusa.com.

SMOKESHOP - December, 2004