The French maverick : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

The French maverick

•By Erwin Van Hove•

What is it about pipes that makes university students give up their academic aspirations and architects and designers, musicians and educators, stone masons and farmers alike quit their jobs and end their careers? It can’t be denied: Pipes are femmes fatales, seductive yet dangerous sirens whose call is irresistible to some of us mortals. And that fascinating chant resonates not only in the renowned contemporary breeding grounds of new pipemaking talent like the U.S. or Germany. As it happens, it managed to captivate a young computer technologist living in a tiny village in Alsace, on the eastern border of France adjacent to Germany.

In 2004, at age 23, David Enrique stumbles upon a pedestrian pipe in a flea market. It’s love at first sight and the beginning of a life-changing passion. Soon he discovers through the Internet the overwhelming diversity of tobacco blends and the jaw-dropping work of master carvers. He’s particularly impressed with Danish legend Tom Eltang and with Trever Talbert, whom he meets in the American expatriate’s Breton workshop. Simultaneously, Enrique discovers he’s not exactly alone in his enthusiasm for pipes when he becomes an active member of Fumeurs de Pipe, the leading online pipe-related newsgroup in the French-speaking part of the world. It’s in this forum that he presents his very first clumsy attempt at pipemaking in 2004. He shapes two more pipes with his Dremel and is hooked. Enrique senses he has found his vocation, especially after a short stay in Saint-Claude during which he is given the opportunity to visit the Genod workshop and to extensively watch Paul Lanier, one of the most skillful Sanclaudian old-timers, at work.

In April 2005 the young Alsatian crosses the Rubicon: He quits his job as a programmer and moves to Saint-Claude, hoping to find an apprentice job in one of the pipe factories of the town that once was considered the pipe capital of the world. A few days later he is hired by Chacom as a monteur, a worker who assembles the stummels and the stems. “When I look back on my Chacom days, I have mixed feelings,” Enrique remembers. “The whole learning process was more about speed and productivity than about achieving precision and excellence. Moreover, the working conditions could get really tough at times. During the long and harsh winter in the Jura mountains, I looked like the famous Michelin Man because I had to wear several layers of clothing in order to endure the cold in the almost unheated workshop. On the other hand, I managed to learn a lot of the basics because although I was supposed to concentrate exclusively on the craft of mounting pipes, I observed the routines of all my co-workers. That was extremely important to me, because by then I knew I wanted to establish myself as an independent pipemaker.” That’s why Enrique starts to spend his hard-earned money on tools that allow him to produce some pipes during his spare time made from stummels and modified blanks. And they sell immediately.

A year later, the aspiring young pipemaker gets one step closer to the realization of his dream: He is invited by Marco Biagini, who manufactures Moretti pipes, to spend a week in his company. “A fantastic week,” an enthused Enrique recalls. “Marco was a great tutor from whom I learned by doing rather than by watching: how to read a briar block and how to shape a pipe freehand style. It was a pleasure and a revelation.” And the education is immediately evident in his work. A few months later, Enrique attends his first pipe show, organized in Rheinbach by German pipe dealer Achim Frank. He brings a few handmade pipes that are examined by Bertram Safferling, Heiner Nonnenbroich, Frank Axmacher and Cornelius Mänz. When they learn these are his very first pipes made by hand, they are genuinely amazed. At the end of the day, Enrique leaves with half a dozen telephone numbers of prominent German carvers in his pocket and an invitation to study in Nonnenbroich’s workshop. “Heiner and his family were so welcoming. I’ll never forget their kindness. And it was with Heiner that I learned a lot about Scandinavian- and German-style shaping and, even more important, about the way of turning an Ebonite rod into one of those remarkably comfortable German stems.” The short training in Nonnenbroich’s workshop is a revelation: Enrique now understands that in the Chacom factory it is impossible for him to grow, so he quits. In July 2007, he sets up his own workshop in Saint-Claude and starts selling his work through the Internet. At last he’s an artisan pipemaker. Two years later he leaves the center of the French pipe industry and establishes himself in Le Vermont, a tiny village of 50 souls in the Vosges mountains surrounded by forests and grasslands. When Enrique comments on his move, he sounds rather bitter: “Why should I have stayed? It’s a Sanclaudian tradition to try to smother the emergence of new pipemakers. In Germany, Rainer Barbi never saw the upcoming generation of artisans as a threat. On the contrary, he shared all his knowledge and experience with whomever asked for his help. In America, young pipemakers get the opportunity to visit the workshops of established carvers, to ask for advice and to get some training. Take Trever Talbert or Todd Johnson, for example: They really share their skills. Actually, when I have a problem, I can contact Trever or Rad Davis. But in Saint-Claude there’s this omerta mentality: Everybody keeps their little secrets to themselves and hardly any experienced pipemaker will share his craft with a potential competitor. Pierre Morel seems to be the only exception.”

Today, four years later, Enrique is a respected and successful pipemaker. His order book is filled, and he sells his work to pipe enthusiasts all over the world. Although he has received proposals from several prestigious American and Asian retailers, he continues to prefer a business plan based on direct sales. “I work quite slowly, so I don’t manage to produce enough pipes to make a decent living if I have to sell them at wholesale prices. Of course I could raise my prices, but that’s something I’m not eager to do. Right now I have loyal customers who appreciate my price-quality ratio, and I won’t risk alienating them. Moreover, I really like the contact with my clients. I love to try to satisfy their requests and to take into account their feedback. That’s what allows me to grow and to get better.”

Please read the rest of this article in the pages of P&T magazine or in our online digital edition).

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Category: Feature Article, Spring 2012

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