You, dear reader, will be unusual to say the least if you own one; your father probably didn’t have one, either; more likely your grandfather might have had one … or two or three. Take a look in your old family photo album and chances are there will be someone smoking a pipe and looking relaxed, studious and intellectual. For a hundred years, through to the nineteen-fifties, pipes figured among the accoutrements of the well-dressed man, at home and at work.
A pipe-smoker these days is as rare as a hand-knitted tank-top or a trilby hat; but if you can carry it off, it’s retro-stylish, maybe even a kind of cool. There is something aesthetically pleasing about the process of preparing and lighting up a pipe. The cultural significance and scarcity value of a pipe now merits a place in a museum; and in the town of Saint-Claude, France, there’s virtually an entire museum devoted to the pipe.
A site of pilgrimage
The idea of using a pipe to smoke leaves of the tobacco plant came to Europe via the early explorers of America, as smoking was a common practice among Native Americans. The habit caught on; by the eighteenth century pipes of all kinds were being produced in many parts of Europe. Meanwhile, in the Jura mountains of Eastern France, thanks to a plentiful supply of timber and water-power, and Saint-Claude being a holy site of pilgrimage, a particular woodworking skill had developed around the large-scale manufacture of souvenirs for pilgrims – prayer beads, rosaries and other religious items – as well as games and toys, in boxwood.
When the fire-resistant Briar wood from the south of France became available to these craftsmen in the mid-1800s, they turned their attention to the production of pipes, and a new industry was born in the region. The Musée de la Pipe & du Diamant (The Pipe and Diamond Museum – more on the precious stones in another article) is filled with a huge array of pipes made in the town, as well as from across the ages and around the world.
Figureheads and caricatures
A local speciality is to carve figureheads and caricatures into the bowl of the pipe. We see dozens of examples of presidents, politicians and cartoon favourites on display, from Charles de Gaulle to Obelix. The ingenious use of a unique pantograph copying machine dating from 1863, and built under a cloak of great secrecy, permitted one pipe-maker to ‘mass-produce’ fourteen carved pipe-bowls using a single wax template. There are also on display pipes of beautiful colours, elegant shapes, large and small. Look out for ‘the world’s smallest pipe’ which is actually smokeable!
There are now just half a dozen pipe makers (maîtres-Pipiers) in the area, but such is the enthusiasm among them and their pipe-smoking customers that there is a Brotherhood of Master Pipemakers based at the Museum. Videos take you through the ceremony in which a new member of the Confrérie, passionate about the pipe, is enrolled; although this is a ‘brotherhood’, one notes that there are women members, too.
Members are invited to take a pipeful of tobacco from the ornamental head of the pipestand in the centre of the room, but the Confrérie exists really to encourage the appreciation of the art and craftsmanship of the pipe-maker. An armoire at the back of the room holds drawer after drawer of patterns and one-off examples of the pipes produced by the honoured brethren of the town of Saint-Claude.
Musée de la Pipe & du Diamant
1 place Jacques Faizant
Pipes gleaming and tactile
A ten-minute walk from the Museum is the ancient workshop of one of those few remaining Master Pipe-makers. Pipes Genod-Viou is run by the youthful but highly talented Sébastien Beaud, himself a member of the Confrérie des maîtres-Pipiers. On the counter are row upon row of lovely, gleaming, tactile pipes in many styles and colours; in the back room stand the lathes, saws and polishing machines with which he deftly creates his trophies from unassuming blocks of briar. Watch as the bowl and then the stem are revealed, as if just hidden inside the block, waiting for him to strip away the rough outer shell.
If you have a yen to try a hand-made French briar pipe, or there’s someone at home who might be persuaded to give up cigarettes for the (slightly) more benign pipe, here’s a one-off, never-to-be-repeated, opportunity to indulge yourself!
13 Faubourg Marcel
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