Memories of Charatan Pipes and Notes on their Dating
This article was originally published in 1998 in The Pipe Collector, the North American Society of Pipe Collectors newsletter (NASPC), and is reprinted here by permission. It's a great group--consider joining.
I joined the Women's Army Corps in 1963 and went through advanced training at Fort Monmouth from late 1963 to early 1964. I spent 20 years in the WAC and then the regular Army after the WAC was closed out. I had never smoked, though my parents did, and my father had smoked a pipe before I was born. What changed was that I was put into a barracks at Monmouth in which all the gals smoked. I have always found cigarettes to be irritating, but I decided to try fighting smoke with smoke. I went off-post to the Eatontown News and Smokes to check my options. A really nice old Italian man ran the place-named Luigi, I think-who was a bit confused by my mission. As far as he was concerned, women just didn't smoke cigars, and a pipe was out of the question. On the other hand, he was adaptable, and it was the early 60s: If I wanted to buy a pipe and learn to smoke it, that was my business. My first pipe was a GBD Collector Apple with fantastic birds-eye. Big for me, though I am a big woman, but it was SO beautiful.
My second pipe was a Dunhill-a group 3 Dublin Bruyere that I bought myself as a congratulation present for graduating my advanced training. Unfortunately, it burned through at Fort Dix. I was devastated. But I had to go through New York to get to my first overseas assignment in Turkey, so I figured I'd get it replaced in the Big Apple. Worked fine, except for the clerk insisting that my boyfriend shouldn't smoke so hard. Then the new pipe burned out on the flight to London! I was planning on a week's leave in London, so I decided to take the pipe to Dunhill's home office. This I did, only to be told, "Dunhill only replaces a pipe once." When I objected, the clerk told me, "You are obviously NOT the type of person who should smoke a Dunhill." That really made me feel good, as one can guess, so I left the pipe behind and stormed out.
Finding myself back to one pipe again, I decided to look in the phone book to see if any other pipe dealers were located near my hotel. I found a listing on nearby Prescott Street for a pipe called Charatan, so I dropped over because the place was still open. At this time, my only knowledge of pipe brands covered GBD and a lot of junk-including Dunhill. I had no idea of the history behind Charatan. I just wanted a pipe.
I visited the shop, which turned out to be the factory, to see what they had. There I met a very nice, very British gentleman who, on hearing my story, took me inside to see the factory and find a pipe. I had told him about the fracas with Dunhill, and he agreed that that just wasn't a nice way to do business. In fact, he assured me that Charatan stood behind their pipes for the life of the owner. I got to see the whole shop, from the wood kilns to the turning, and I met a lot of the men who worked there, too. I was, and still am, almost overwhelmed by the beautiful pieces those men turned out. Their attitude was, "If it isn't perfect, then it's either a Belvedere, a rough, or firewood."
Anyway, I bought a Charatan that evening, and I still have it. It is, like my GBD, a bit big for me, but it never burned out. I did crack the shank once, but a silver band fixed that real well. I got into the habit of taking leaves in London after that, and I'd always stop in to get a new Charatan when I did. I also got into some gab sessions with the workers at the local pub after work. We would talk pipes, armies (most of the workers had served in WW II) and philosophies. They all believed in a good day's work to earn a good day's pay, and some of the older master carvers made very good money for the day, too. This was back when the US dollar was a big silver coin, and inflation was almost nil. But they all agreed that their reputation rode on the quality of their pipes. I really wish I could remember their names so that I could put names to the faces I do remember. I have never been that good at names, though, and, to be truthful, I wasn't doing research. I was enjoying myself and these craftsmen and their ideas.
One thing that I remember coming up from one of those sessions was the idea of tiers of pipe makers. This has nothing to do with the grade of the pipe but, rather, with the grade of the manufacturer. According to the Charatan carvers, the tiers went thusly.
Tier One, the top. This was a manufacturer all of whose pipes were completely made by hand (using tools such as grinders, files, drill presses and such), and the pipe was generally made, start to finish, by one man. No fills or pits were allowed, and the grain had to be excellent. At the time, only Charatan was Tier One. Now a lot of people fit there, from Bo Nordh to David Jones and Mark Tinsky.
Tier Two. Any manufacturer who hand made their pipes but in which the pipes were made by a team instead of a single expert making each pipe. Tier 2 pipes often have minor pits also but never any fills. Ser Jacopo, Don Carlos, Caminetto and most other Italian manufacturers are in this tier.
Tier Three. A manufacturer who rough machined their own pipes, then hand finished them. These makers made their own stems, bands (if used) and the lot. The pipes were often made by more than one person. Pre-transition Barlings, early Comoys, and GBDs generally exemplified this tier. Grain didn't matter too much, though it was appreciated, but pits or fills were not allowed.
Tier Four. A maker who machined the stummel but made their own bit and did their own coloring. This tier of maker often bought bowls from other makers. No pits or fills were allowed, but grain wasn't even figured into the design. Dunhill exemplifies this tier. Dunhill also wasn't as picky about quality as they claim-after all, sandblasting covers all sins.
Tier Five and below. These we didn't care to talk about, as they weren't worth the pence they cost. These would have fills and pits and featured cheap and dirty construction-Kaywoodie, Medico, Dr. Grabow, Peterson and that lot. Now, lower tier makers could make a higher tier pipe, but it wasn't their forte. They were much happier doing what they did best. An example of a lower-tier company making a first-tier pipe is my husband's Peterson Gold Spigot: no fills, good wood, very good workmanship. Definitely a second-tier pipe from a fourth-tier company.
Charatan's Make has been my favorite brand ever since I bought that first pipe in April, 1964. Every time I was transferred to a new duty station from 1964 through 1973, I made sure to stop off in London and visit the Charatan shops and factory. I would wait until the guys really got going, then ask them questions about quality and such. I remember the oldest guy (I think he was called Auld Eddy) sitting there one time with his pint in one hand and his pipe in the other (the one he had made to graduate from apprenticeship, and you should have seen that pipe-indescribable and beautiful, for all that it had been smoked for 5 decades by then!) fulminating about "the cheap, crude lumber knock-offs" made by their competition. He could verbally dismantle any Dunhill, Comoy, Barling or any other maker's brand in a few pungent phrases. He especially disliked Dunhill's practice of buying bowls from other makers and selling them as Dunhill's make. He was nearly as upset by Dunhill's claims to buy only the "A and AA" grades when "We all know that all they want is certain shapes and sizes. They don't care about flaws because those are sandblasted out, so quality is nil indeed."
He once told of a time, back when he was an apprentice (c. 1910 or so) when he was "scutting" (cleaning and arranging stock) at "the old store" (Charatan's first store in London, I think) and found himself taken to the Palace to carry, load and unload for Mr. Charatan himself while Mr. Charatan showed the King a selection of pipes. (He said that the King took most of them because the problem of deciding which were the best was too difficult.) Anyway, his moral was that "I learned that if you made the very best of something, then the best would buy from you. So I decided to become the very best pipe carver that Charatan's Make had ever hired. I did it, too." He told us this about mid-1967, and he'd been there since around 1908 at that time, I'd guess.
Charatan's Make was started and first run in London in 1863 by Frederick Charatan, a Russian immigrant to London. His son Reuben took over the business when his father retired circa 1910, and Reuben's wife had to sell it when he died. They started out making their own briar pipes from ebuchauns or complete burls, and they continued doing just that for 97 years, until 1960, wholly owned by the Charatan family. Their boast was that Charatan's Make was the mark of the best pipes in the world. For some of us, this is a simple statement of fact. There was a saying in the 1960s that Dunhill, Comoy, Barling and the rest always tried to make perfect shapes and didn't worry about the looks of the grain, while Charatan went for perfect grain and didn't mind the shape as much. This saying was true. Charatan's pipe makers always went for the absolute best grain they could get from the briar at hand. Charatan did not make their pipes like anyone else at the time. Every other pipe company used various specialized pipe-making automatic machines to shape their pipes, so they got whatever the machine made. Charatan's Make pipes were hand made from the first and continued to be hand made as long as the Prescott Street factory was in service. Charatan had no way to do anything else, actually. They didn't have the required machines to make "machine-made" pipes until Ben Wade was purchased in 1965, and, as of 1973, they still hadn't put that type of machine in the Prescott Street factory. In the case of pipes with the CP, shape charts were an approximation, not a promise. Their master pipe makers were good enough to come very close to duplicating a previously made pipe, but never exactly. The only way to get a pipe made that way now is to buy from people like Mark Tinsky, David Jones, Bo Nordh or the few other masters who do it all by hand. The masters at Charatan's Make didn't even use lathes, drill presses, grinders or sanding wheels. Files and sandpaper sufficed for most of their work,
Charatan did not cure their briar like any other pipe company either. Like the supreme wood workers of England's past, Charatan steamed the sap from the briar under pressure and then kiln dried the briar over an extended period of time. This gave them the least wastage of any technique. It also left their wood with completely open pores and no odd tastes from oil or sap left in the wood. The reason for this extra work on Charatan's part was not to hurry the curing of the briar but instead to rid the wood of all leftover sap and resins that otherwise would flavor the smoke. Most other companies simply air dry their burls (after they are boiled by the first processors, of course), so there is always some taste left from the sap and resins. In fact, Dunhill came up with their "oil curing" originally to get rid of those same saps and their noticeable taste. The oils that Dunhill used left their own taste, but it wasn't as objectionable as the sappy taste to some buyers.
In 1960, Charatan was sold to Lane Limited. Except for the introduction of the Double Comfort bit, Lane left the company alone, run by its original people, until about 1965. By the end of 1965, Lane had "made some changes," as noted below, which gave rise to the mythos of "pre-Lane" and "post-Lane" pipes. In 1978 or 1979, Dunhill bought Lane Limited, and that was the end for Charatan's Make as an independent firm. For just over a century, however, Charatan made the best pipes in the world.
By 1982, Dunhill had closed the Prescott Street factory, and all Charatans were actually Dunhills. Between 1978 or 1979 and 1982, Charatans were made at Prescott Street but were marked with the Dunhill-ordered D.C markings. They were the same quality as the older Charatans in most cases. I have a strong suspicion that Dunhill took some of the last Selected- and Supreme-grade pipes and put their own markings on them. This comes from having seen a Dunhill marked "Great Grain" with a distinctly Charatan shape. It's hard to miss the shapes that emerge when the grain is the important thing.
After 1988, the Charatan name became the property of the J. B. Russell company, and I have to admit that I know nothing at all about the J. B. Russell "Charatans." I have not seen any of the New Charatan middle to high grades to find out.
Charatans are difficult to date in that Charatan's guarantee was open ended. Unlike Dunhill, which dated its pipes so as to enforce its one-year guarantee, Charatan refused to worry about when a particular pipe was made. A Charatan pipe was replaced if it failed-no matter how old it was or how it had been treated-so there was no need to date the pipes. The way to date Charatan pipes is to be aware of the minor changes that were made during the years that Charatan was in business. With a bit of information as to the dates of some markings and stem changes, I introduce this approximate dating guide. A lot of these dates are going to be "about" or "approximately," and I am only able to cover the times from the mid 1950s to the sale by Dunhill to J.B. Russell circa 1988. My information is approximate because I do not have access to factory records. I am working from memory, stories I heard at the Prescott Street factory, and pipes I have owned over the years.
The keys for dating post-war to 1960-era Charatan pipes are the presence or absence of serifs (i.e., short lines stemming from and at an angle to the upper and lower ends of a letter) on the CP stamp, the presence or absence of the Lane "L" on tapered and early saddle bit stems, and the presence or absence of the renowned Double Comfort bit. After 1960, the dates may be determined by the stamping on the right side of the pipe. (Note: I was a 20-odd-year-old, pipe-smoking woman when I hung around Charatans. I was not a researcher, though I sure wish I had been. I have been told since that all pre-WW II records went up when the "old" factory was destroyed in the bombing, but I was just not interested. I really regret that now. I let a lot of history go, but all I can say is that I was younger then.)
The Lane Limited florid "L" is on almost all Charatans imported into the United States from somewhere after WW II until 1988. (Lane bought Charatan in 1960, but it began importing Charatan pipes in 1955, when it got the contract from Wally Frank, who had been importing them.) If the pipe in question has a tapered or saddle bit without the "L," then it is probably very old, possibly pre-war. Or it may not have been stamped. This did happen, and no one knows how often, but I think it was fairly infrequent.
Pre-1955 Charatans-possibly back to the beginning-had pronounced serifs on the CP stamp and either a taper or saddle bit. Pipes made in 1955 or later had the same types of bits but without the serifs on the CP. The block letter "FH" marking, for "Free Hand," on either side of the stem was used from the 1940s or so until about 1958. The problem is that all pipes were not stamped "FH," even though all the pipes were actually hand made.
The block letter "MADE BY HAND" stamp on the right side or bottom of the shank came into use in early 1958 to replace the "FH" stamp and was used until late 1965. The letters were about one millimeter tall.
The Double Comfort bit came into use in 1960 and is still in use. The Double Comfort bit looks like a fairly thick saddle bit, with another saddle cut into it about 3/4 of an inch from the button, which is the technical term for the raised and rounded end of a stem. The original design was supposed to produce a strong stem with a thin bite. It was also supposed to be a distinctive point about the brand, giving instant product recognition. The Double Comfort bit was probably the largest mistake that Charatan could have made. Bit shape and bite comfort ranged from excellent to terrible, with nothing to base a buyer's choice on but the width of the bit. The narrow versions were generally very comfortable, but the wide versions varied from thin enough to be comfortable to thick as a plank. This bit design probably led to the company's failure, because a person could no longer count on Charatan for a comfortable pipe to smoke. A consumer once bitten by a poor bit will be twice shy of buying another.
After 1960, Charatan didn't make any taper bits unless for special orders. They did make pipes with "normal" saddle bits. These pipes will have an "X"-with or without a line under or beside it-to indicate that the pipe in question was "supposed" to have a saddle bit and not a Double Comfort bit. I refer to this marking as the "X line" mark. That mark will look like this:
- X (with the #### being some number, such as 4025).
In late 1965, the right-side stamping changed to a three-line set of stamps. The first and second lines read "MADE BY HAND" and "IN" respectively in block letters a bit larger (2 millimeters) than the earlier version. The third line reads "City of London" in script. This marking was only used for about six months and looked like this:
MADE BY HAND
City of London
The next stamp used was the all-script, three-line "Made by Hand" "in" "City of London." This stamp was used from near the end of 1965 up until Dunhill took control of the company in 1979. It looked like this:
Made by Hand
City of London
After Dunhill bought Lane, thereby gaining control of Charatan, it kept the old Prescott Street factory open for a while, then merged all pipe production into its old Parker-Hardcastle plant. While the Prescott factory was open, it still made pipes, but these, to go along with the other pipes made for the Charatan name by the Parker-Hardcastle factory, were all marked with a number and "D.C." This stamp was supposed to be on the right side of the pipe. A pipe made at the Prescott Street factory will have the D.C and the number on any old way-unaligned, very light, uneven, or even on the left side or upside down. That "sloppiness" was intentional, I think. The workers at Charatan really didn't like the Dunhill mob and so weren't that cooperative, or so it seems to me at this remove in time. I have an example in my collection marked 2502 D.C. It is a size 2 (or so) that really does grade out as a Supreme. However, it was finished not long after the Dunhill takeover, so the other three numbers, 502 (imposed by the new Dunhill regime) are a bit off the line of the first two, and the "D.C." (another imposition) is off that line yet again, along with the stamping depths being different in each case. To make it more odd indeed, the pipe was graded "Special" instead of "Supreme." That probably cost Dunhill some serious money right there.
A "Charatan" made in the Parker-Hardcastle factory will have the number and the D.C neatly stamped. The pipes marked with the D.C from the old Charatan factory were made between 1978 or 1979 and 1982. Pipes made at the Parker-Hardcastle plant continued to use the D.C stamp until Dunhill sold the Charatan name in 1988.
The D.C has several meanings. On a Parker-Hardcastle-made pipe, it means "Fit with a Double Comfort bit," while on pipes made at Prescott, it has another meaning. That other meaning, which was told to me by a Dunhill executive, was "Dunhill's Charatan." The old rivalry was finished, and Dunhill had come out on top. Of course, Dunhill was a small part of a conglomerate by then, but...The marking looks like this: 2092 D.C
Charatan grades were simple until the crazy years of late 1965 to 1979. Up til then, they had, in order of increasing value:
The Rough These pipes had a rusticated shank and a sandblasted bowl finish dating from about 1930. This treatment was used to save the time and work in a pipe gone truly bad.
The Rarity These were pipes with otherwise good grain but some tiny flaws. These tiny flaws were carved over with pretty designs to save the work invested.
The Perfection These pipes were always cross-grained and were so named because Dunhills were most always cross-grained. Dunhill claimed to make "perfect pipes," so Charatan's Make were having their little joke. These were sometimes dyed walnut to bring out weak grain.
The Belvedere These had straightish but weak grain. This was Charatan's lowest class of smooth pipes. They were dyed plum color to bring out the grain.
Note: The "Perfections" were the lowest of the upper grades-smooth, dyed generally, and grained like a Dunhill Root, i.e., not much to speak of. The Perfection was the grade below Special and was basically mixed and weak grained. It seems to have been simply an insult to all the other pipe makers, especially to Dunhill. The rivalry was real, and as the first Mr. Charatan was an immigrant and a Jew, the rivalry got a bit vicious at times. The Belvederes were apprentice pipes, made to a simple numbered shape and, for Charatan, cheaply made. I rarely count them into Charatan's grades at all. They were, to Charatan, the equivalent of Dunhill's Bruyere grade, except that, for Charatan's Make, it was a practice grade for apprentices. The apprentice had a numbered form to copy, finish, make a bit for and then to stamp the form number on. Good ones would be graded and sold smooth, while ones with pits or small marks would be made into roughs."
The Special These were generally unstained or lightly stained. They had better grain, but it was not perfect by any means.
The Distinction Better grain than the Specials but not that good yet. These pipes were often given a light stain to bring out the grain.
The Executive Named for the executives in "The City" around the turn of the century, these unstained pipes had better grain than the Distinction. After 1965, some of this grade had a carved top to resemble plateau briar.
After Hours This unstained pipe was a grade when it first came out, with Selected-quality grain. The design of the After Hours allowed the use of smaller ebuchauns due to the horn (later plastic) section screwed to the truncated shank.
The Selected This grade had almost good enough grain to be the best, but not quite. These were not stained but were well finished, by which I mean, take the very best pipe by anyone else whose work you have ever seen. Imagine it even better. The pipe isn't stained but polished (inside and out) to a glassy, creamy briar-wood finish. Beautiful-though not perfect-grain and a hand-made stem with hand stamping and all. Not quite a Supreme but so close.
The Supreme These pipes had the best straight grains they made at that time. These were always by comparison with other recently made pipes, so a Supreme may not be as good as an earlier Selected. These weren't stained either.
The difference between a Selected and a Supreme was usually decided by the master pipe makers on the work floor. The decision was sometimes a bit heated, but often everyone agreed from the last coarse sanding on. Woe was palpable when a bowl showed an irreparable flaw in the last sanding. I have seen a pipe get thrown across the work-room into the waste when a sudden flaw turned a Supreme into a Special. I still have the pipe, in fact, and I'll never forget the anguished curses.
The start of the Crazy Years of late 1965 to the Dunhill buyout in 1979 saw the addition of the Coronation, Achievement, Crown Achievement, Royal Achievement and Summa Cum Laude high grades, the addition of the Freehand Relief, and the rearrangement of the lower grades. The new arrangement went Belvedere, Special, Freehand Relief and After Hours. The Perfection was dropped in this mix. The new "high-grades" were simply an attempt to cut the small Supreme pie into more-and more expensive-chunks.
Sandblasted pipes stamped Charatan's Make over London England and a number are one version of the famous "Rough" grade. These were apprentice pipes that didn't come out well enough to be graded but were still eminently smokable. To save the wood and give the less-well-off a quality smoke, Charatan would first hand rusticate the pipe gently, then sandblast it. (Due to Dunhill's patent, they couldn't simply blast the pipe, and the rustication made for a very different blast.) Other Roughs will turn up with any of the other markings mentioned previously, but they were still roughed because the grain was pitted or severely marred. For example, I have an Extra Large Made by Hand that has a bad flaw up the side; otherwise, it is a great Oom Paul shape. So it was roughed and stemmed by an apprentice and sold much cheaper than it would have gone as a Special or higher grade. Roughs were the absolute bottom of the old (pre-Dunhill) Charatan line. They sold them simply to recoup some of the time and wood invested.
The following information on the "Authentic" Charatan and Charatan seconds is all my best guess. I had gotten out of Charatans before Lane sold out Charatan to Dunhill and thereby delivered Dunhill's only superior, and its real competition, into Dunhill's ungraceful hands.
At one time, smooth Charatan seconds were sold in the Columbus, OH, area and perhaps elsewhere. In the old days, Charatan didn't have smooth seconds to sell. If a pipe wasn't good enough for a grade (Belvedere or better) it was rusticated and sandblasted and sold as a "Rough." These Charatan seconds are smooth and machine made, neither of which Charatan did. I think this can be explained by keeping a couple of facts in mind. When Ben Wade went out of business in 1965, Charatan bought what was left. At this time, Charatan acquired the machinery necessary to machine make pipes. Charatan didn't use this machinery, but when Dunhill acquired the Charatan firm, they also got the ancient machinery. Not being a company to miss a profit and a chance to "stick one in Charatan's historical eye," the Dunhill company turned out a huge number of third-rate pipes (even for them) and sold them as Charatan seconds.
I have also been asked about the "Authentic" marked Charatans. They are obviously of Perfection grade, and, from the markings of the ones I have seen, they were turned out after Dunhill bought Lane and thereby acquired Charatan. Keep that in mind and remember the reason for the Perfection grading by the old Charatan firm-that is, Charatan's Perfection was their lowest smooth grade, and yet the pipes had as good a grain as the Dunhill Root Briar grade. Dunhill always "claimed" that their pipes were perfect, so Charatan made a bit of a quality statement there. Of course, after Dunhill bought Charatan, they dropped the Perfection grade and had to replace it with something.
This article was originally published in 1998 in The Pipe Collector, the North American Society of Pipe Collectors newsletter (NASPC), and is reprinted here by permission. It's a great group--consider joining.