Italian Pipe Production Panorama

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Shall we lend a hand to this small, but significant portion of our trade balance? We are obviously talking about the prestigious, national pipe production which is primarily destined to foreign markets. Setting aside economical reasons (and, if you like, patriotic ones), the superiority of good quality Italian pipes is an undeniable fact, which remains unrecognized only by incompetent, foreign-product-loving Italians. In order to present a precise picture of the situation, we went directly to the workshops of the main industries and artisans. There we talked with them, observed their production methods, and admired their most recent creations. Inevitably, some producers have not been included in this panorama; this does not necessarily mean that they do not deserve attention, but rather that we did not have enough time to make a complete tour of Italy in the month of June.
Let's start out from the Marche, where Giancarlo Guidi's Ser Jacopo immediately commands attention (we have already talked at length about the renewed Mastro de Paja workshop in previous issues). Here one immediately understands what the entire Italian pipe production could be like if its main criteria were innovation. The search for new shapes, carefully conducted by Guidi, is bringing a host of novelties- similar, in a way, to those that the best Danish pipe makers introduced after the last world war- capable of regenerating the often stagnant creativity which has relied either on repetitively unoriginal classics or reproductions of Mastro de Paja's first models. Giancarlo Guidi and- let's not forget him- Paolo Battistelli (the sandblasting master, among other qualities) are bringing forth new shapes, some of which have clearly broken free from the original "Mastro" influence. The renewal of shapes and finishes is also the winning card of the two artisans who have taken up the reins of the new Ceppo, abandoning the more commercial models and veering resolutely towards interesting novelties. Massimo Palazzi and Franco Rossi, along with the wife of Giorgio Imperatori (the prestigious and timid teacher of many of this region's pipe makers), are bringing new life to this old name. Unfortunately for us, however, we fear that these effects will be more visible abroad rather than in Italy. Just as in the Ser Jacopo workshop, here we not only noticed true creative fervour based on a precise notion about the models to be made (something which not all artisans know photo 2
how to or want to do, preferring to shape briar block according to their whims), but also the variety of possible shapes that can be made due to the number of partially hewn pipes waiting to be finished in different baskets.
photo 3 The master craftsmen in Lombardy created the Italian tradition by ignoring the lures of overseas requests and were able to impose their style on the world. Inevitably we begin with Savinelli, just as they are celebrating their one hundred and twenty years of activity with an extraordinary commemorative pipe, shaped from old briar blocks that have been cut underneath due to the model's shape. The history of this firm is summarized in the splendid collection of antique pipes, in meerschaum and other materials, as well as those of their own production: milestones of pipe making evolution.
Considering the present three hundred pieces of this antique pipe collection housed in the Milan office (which was begun by Achille Savinelli in the thirties and has been developing ever since the end of the war), we can see how the search for and acquisition of the most precious pipes derives from genuine love for this object. It is the same love that one discovers in a visit to the factory near Varese. I will not conceal the fact that we noticed this with a certain surprise, as we thought that the sheer size of the Savinelli enterprise could induce a certain element of laxity. On the contrary, we were impressed by the merciless checks carried out during the production, the careful selection process by which a pipe becomes part of a given series, the cruelty- we are tempted to say- with which certain pipes that have reached the final stages are scrapped due to a more or less relevant defect. An example: I have been smoking Giubileo Oros for years, but I would never have guessed that only one in a thousand (on average) of all Savinelli pipes acquire the right to become one. I saw the statistics on the tables of those responsible for this selection and I can assure you that in some cases this proportion can be even lower. Yes, Savinelli pipes: isn't it surprising, yet reassuring, that only forty percent of the pipes produced in the Savinelli factory receive the prestigious emblem? The remaining sixty percent are sent around the world with other names, often imbued with "Britishness"! If you are looking for someone to symbolize the pride of having spread the prestige of Italian pipes throughout the world through years of perseverance and creative effort, it is Mario Vettoruzzo, eighty-two years old, with the firm since the fifties and among pipes since his youth. He is now in charge of the final inspection, but not only this: he is still an innovator (the idea of balsa wood filters was his) and advisor; a real "pillar" of the company, every single day with his pipe in his mouth, as careful and determined as an immensely ambitious youth.
Last but not least, we must not forget Amedeo Bogni who produces almost all of the completely handmade Autographs.
photo 5 And now, the craftsmen's old guard, all coming from the Castello experience. Luigi (Gigi to his friends) Radice's great moustache is now completely white, but his spirit is untainted. Lively, witty and still young (he is only fifty-seven years old), he continues, with his two sons (Marzio, thirty-two, and Gianluca, twenty-nine), to create beautiful, oddly-shaped pipes in the old Castello tradition which surprised the world many years ago. He certainly acts as the celebrity he is, but his skill in creating new models is extraordinary. With his limited production, he too feels the lure of the American market, but an eye to the changes in the Italian market, which now demands smaller pipes, could lead him to deserved success. Roberto Ascorti, the heir of Peppino, was quick to notice this shift and readily adapted to the Italian market, but without losing the important position he had attained in America. Closely observing the preferences of pipe smokers and always open to new ideas, he is one of the top pipe makers of the new generation who have learnt to "ride the tiger".
The ability to move in tune with the demands of the market whilst regaining the trust which accompanied the birth of Ascorti pipes, has brought a new impetus to the sale of his products in Italy (they have always done very well abroad). Here, too, there is a master craftsman at work: "Cesarino" Viganò, with the firm since 1970. Someone who was unable to keep up the pace, due to bad advisors and wrong choices, is Dorelio Rovera, who had continued making his father's Ardor pipes. Though specialized in the production of exquisitely carved briar pipes, he hesitatingly chose to move toward the production of a more "normal" style. A family with a long "pipe" history, the Roveras found themselves making excellent, and often unique, pipes without being as well-known on the Italian market as they were, for instance, in Germany. It is the usual problem of small artisans who fall into the hands of shop keepers determined to lay down all the rules and decide where and for how much an artisan's pipes must sell. Finally, we come to the "legendary" Castello. Although it could rest on its laurels, earned over the years through wise business politics and ignoring compromises, its manager Franco Coppo relentlessly develops interesting new ideas such as endowing pipes with precious stones (about seventy pipes a year) or inventing little silver feet to help pipes stand (about 150 pieces a year). photo 6
He has created a close team of artisans- six plus himself- who work at keeping the "nobility" of Castello pipes created by Carlo Scotti untarnished. Abroad his pipes have become legendary, although in Italy their high prices seem to keep buyers away. In reality, however, sixty percent of the production is sold in Italy. Autumn will bring some surprises: first of all, the number of series produced will be cut down; secondly, a new "Castello" tobacco blend (in 50 gram pouches, as well as an elegant 100 gram tin), introduced at the Dortmund Fair, might make it to Italy by the end of the year. The biggest surprises, however, will come next year during the fiftieth birthday celebrations of Castello's first pipe. It came into the world on May 17, 1947 and having taken seven months to make due to the inexperience of the workers, who also signed their names in pencil on the bowl! All considered this is a positive panorama. Through all our ups and downs, despite over-valued foreign products and our own fondness for them, the Italian pipe industry manages to keep its head well above water... and even at times to spoil the fun of some over-inflated foreign manufacturers.