100 Year Old Briar?

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100 Year Old Briar?, a collection of references from several sources, by Bill Unger

From the NASPC website, and used here by permission. It's a great organization--consider joining.

I don’t know what this means, but lately I’ve encountered several references to 100-year-old briar. I’ll simply reproduce them as I found them, without comment, since I don’t know enough to debate the subject. However, if you’re interested, I encourage you to submit your thoughts and opinions to Bill Unger at bill@naspc.org.

The June, 2001, Universal Coterie of Pipe Smokers Collectors Directory contains one of Rich Esserman’s long and fascinating letters. Rich first discusses the six-pipe set of Comoy pipes made in 1977 and quotes the April 17, 1977 letter from Comoy to the original owner: "The briar used for these pipes was specially selected and cut in the mountains of Greece and had grown there for over a hundred years" (p.35).

Later in his letter (p. 41), Rich discusses Rick Hacker’s latest book, Pipesmoking-A 21st Century Guide. Rich writes, "Rick stated that in the early days, briar 250 years old was sometimes used, then 100 years, then 50 to 75 years, down to 25 years, and now on low-end pipes, 15 years."

Then in the mail came the First Semester 2001 edition of Pipe magazine (the English edition) from The Netherlands, containing a column by famed pipe maker Rainer Barbi. Part of Barbi’s column (pp. 31-32) is called "The hundred-year-old myth." I’ll quote it in full.

"One of the classic stories almost impossible to eradicate is the tale of the 100 year-old briar. It has been copied by many self-appointed experts, none of whom have done any serious research. It’s a fairy tale indeed, a story which makes every expert’s hair curl. All wood is a product of nature and nature does not get better with age. Rather, it deteriorates as it gets older. We only need to look at the trunks of old oak trees, cracked by lightning over the years or decayed from within. Even the famous olive tree splits its trunk at a relatively young age, and is forced to submit to the influences of nature.

"The best age for processing the root of the erica arborea is, and always will be, 30 to 50 years and no more. If the burl is younger, it will be too small and the yield will not justify its expense. And if it’s older the core will probably be decayed, it will have seen too many forest fires, and it will have cracked due to stresses occurring inside the wood. No sensible human being would think of digging up this kind of material if not for the purpose of a demonstration.

"Why does briar have to be one hundred years old anyway? Is anyone suggesting that the quality of the material improves by the year once it’s over 50? Quality is determined by the climate and the condition of the soil. If these two circumstances are good, the burl will grow at the ideal rate. The soil should be neither too fertile nor to [sic] dry, and it should contain a lot of sand as well as some clay. There must not be too much rain since this would make the burl grow in an explosive manner, and not too much drought either. Only then will it achieve the proper balance between structural wood and filling, and that’s the only thing that matters."