Proud heritage : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Proud heritage

St. Claude, France, birthplace of the briar pipe, continues to celebrate its legacy

by Stephen A. Ross

Nestled in a remote valley in the Jura Mountains in eastern France, St. Claude, a town of approximately 11,000 people, once was considered the pipe capital of the world. It’s almost impossible to overstate St. Claude’s importance in the development of the pipe industry. It was, after all, the pipemakers of St. Claude who first carved smoking pipes from briar in the 1850s, creating a cooler-smoking, more durable pipe than those made from other woods, such as cherry, or from materials such as clay, meerschaum, horn and porcelain, which were the most popular at the time.

At its peak in 1920, the St. Claude pipe industry employed roughly a quarter of the town’s population at between 60 and 70 factories. As Ben Rapaport discusses in his article “The briar trade,” (P&T Summer 2013), it’s hard to pin down the peak figure of annual production; estimates vary to as much as 43 million pipes in 1920, which

Swift currents from the rivers La Bienne and Le Tacon powered St. Claude’s lathes before electricity, allowing the town to develop a strong tradition of pipemaking and precious-stone cutting.

Swift currents from the rivers La Bienne
and Le Tacon powered St. Claude’s
lathes before electricity, allowing the
town to develop a strong tradition of
pipemaking and precious-stone cutting.

seems extraordinarily high. However many were actually produced, we can all agree that it was a lot, and pipes made in St. Claude at one time accounted for approximately 95 percent of French pipe sales. St. Claude’s pipemakers also supplied much of the English market.

With the popularity of pipe smoking beginning a slow decline in the last quarter of the 20th century, the number of people working in the St. Claude industry has waned as well. While pipe production and pipe factory jobs have dwindled, the strong historic connection between St. Claude and pipes is still very much alive. There are three factories that remain—Butz-Choquin, Chapuis Comoy (Chacom) and Genod—which, between them, continue to produce tens of thousands of pipes each year and employ approximately 70 people. (A full-length feature article on Chacom, “Preserving tradition,” appears in the Fall 2013 edition of P&T; full-length feature articles on Butz-Choquin and Genod, “Labor of love” and “Continuing a legacy,” respectively, appear in the Winter 2014 edition of P&T.)

There are at least three independent pipemakers—Pierre Morel, Roger Vincent and Gaël Coulon—still making pipes. There are four pipe shops, and then there’s the museum that tells St. Claude’s pipemaking story and hosts the international pipe brotherhood, Confrerie des Maîtres Pipiers, for its chapter meetings and initiations.

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Category: Feature Article, Pipe Articles, Summer 2014

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