L'histoire des pipes Ashton

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L' HISTOIRE DES PIPES ASHTON par R.D. Field

"Il s'agit sans doute de la seule chronique complète et véridique des pipes Ashton de leur débuts à nos jours".

(version inédite)

Commençons par le début – le vrai début. J'aime les pipes en bruyère depuis que je suis gosse- et pas nécessairement pour les fumer toutes ; mais pour les avoir et bosser avec, (ou perdre mon temps). J'avais douze ans quand je suis allé dans le drugstore d'à côté et j'ai regardé fixement quelque chose de particulier– deux boîtes de tabac Holiday et une pipe de bruyère, le tout pour 79 cents. Il me fallait cette pipe, donc j'achetais l'ensemble. J'ai fumé la pipe, bien sûr, mais je n'ai pas beaucoup aimé. Le goût était plutôt fort. Et je n'aimais pas vraiment la surface brillante de cette pipe. Aussi j'attrapais un peu de papier de verre et j'enlevais ce brillant. Ca semblait mieux comme cela,- mais pas encore assez. Après tout c'était ma pipe, et vu du haut de mes douze ans, une pipe devait avoir l'air vieille. Aussi je me remis au travail avec différents outils et je donnais à cette pipe un aspect … différent. Pas du tout satisfait de mon ouvrage, je sortis et achetais une autre pipe- cette fois là sans tabac. Je ne fumais même pas celle-là avant de commencer à changer son apparence. Et je pense que j'avais fait un sacré bon boulot. J'avais donné à cette pipe l'allure qu'elle aurait eue si elle était passée par toutes sortes de catastrophes et s'en était sortie saine et sauve. J'étais satisfait.

Mon goût pour la pipe connut des fluctuations au cours des années suivantes, mais n'alla jamais très loin. Je touchais beaucoup à la cigarette dans le secondaire et un peu à l'université, mais peu à peu je me tournais davantage vers la pipe jusqu'à ce que j'arrête complètement la cigarette. Celui qui m'a été d'une aide inestimable au cours de cette transition fut mon père qui, un mois avant que j'entame ma première année d'université, m'amena dans la boutique de John Middleton à Philadelphie et me fit choisir une Dunhill. A ce moment là, comme je l'ai dit, j'avais goûté à la pipe depuis assez longtemps et j'en possédais 10 ou 12, pour la plupart des Middleton Old Mariner’s et quelques Kaywoodie’s (made in London). Et donc je savais qu'une Dunhill était considéré à cette époque comme la meilleure. Et je l'ai vraiment trouvée meilleure, que ce soit en terme de qualité de fumage et de savoir faire absolu. Cette pipe m'aida à devenir non seulement un fumeur de pipes accompli, mais un fumeur de Dunhill. Quand je rentrais de l'université certains week-ends, j'allais voir la boutique Dunhill à Philadelphie (la boutique de John Middleton n'était plus assez bonne pour moi) et avec l'argent économisé sou à sou, je pouvais de temps en temps acheter une Dunhill J'étais devenu un connaisseur.

Je ne jurais plus que par Dunhill. J'avais mon propre mélange personnel fait spécialement pour moi dans la boutique Dunhill (-oui, mettez moi encore un petit peu de ce tabac cross-cut s'il vous plaît). J'ai eu des blagues à tabac Dunhill (-que vais-je prendre ce soir, la Rotator en tissus ou le cuir napa?) J'ai eu de l'eau de toilette Dunhill (et je ne mets pas d'eau de toilette). Tout était Dunhill. J'étais un homme Dunhill, par conséquent j'en avais le statut (le statut Dunhill). Pourtant j'étais encore à l'université et je n'avais pas d'argent (mais quelques sacré belles pipes et leurs accessoires).

Mais les pipes Dunhill étaient de bonne facture, aucune erreur. Oh, j'ai acheté d'autres marques (il faut tester les autres, pour ne rien manquer) mais aucune n'était aussi bonne à mes yeux que Dunhill – ni dans leur goût, ni dans les matériaux utilisés, ni dans la façon dont les pipes étaient fabriquées. Et comme le garçon de douze ans subsistait toujours en moi, (mais pas au point d'abîmer la finition des pipes), je devais étudier toutes les pipes de ma collection – en essayant de comprendre leurs secrets.

Durant toutes les années 60 et 70 mon intérêt alla croissant. Je commençais à me rendre compte que fabriquer une belle pipe de bruyère s'apparentait à un art, mais un art qu'on devrait pratiquer au lieu de le regarder seulement pour ses qualités esthétiques. Je devais en savoir plus. Mais comment? J'avais lu les quelques livres et magazines qui traitaient de la pipe de bruyère, le besoin d'en savoir plus n'en était que plus grand. A l'été 1978 je décidai de passer une annonce dans la rubrique Collections du Friday Philadelphia Inquirer :

Recherche pipes en bruyère,
Paiement en espèces
Telephone XXX-XXXX

Surprise – surprise, je reçus des réponses par téléphone et j'allais voir les gens chez eux (ça n'a jamais manqué de m'étonner la façon dont tant de gens ouvrent leur maison à un parfait inconnu). Je trouvais également quelques superbes bruyères, parmi d'autres bien moins belles. En quelques semaines j'avais amassé une jolie collection de quelques très grands noms, mais je me rendais également compte que j'étais allé voir trop de gens qui n'avaient rien d'autres que des Medico ou autres à me montrer. Aussi je modifiais mon annonce pour préciser que seules les Dunhill, Charatan et Barling m'intéressaient. Cela fit chuter le nombre de visites que j'avais à faire, et ma collection continua de s'agrandir.

Et maintenant, qu'allai-je faire de cette collection? J'étudiais les pipes minutieusement, essayant d'en apprendre le plus possible sur chaque aspect à prendre en compte – qui allaient des critères de base quant à la qualité des matériaux utilisés (de l'ébonite en feuille ou en rouleau plutôt que des tuyaux pré-moulés par exemple) jusqu'à des abstractions comme de savoir pourquoi de il y avait tant de variation entre les dessisns du grain ou du sablage. J'achetai également une machine à polir, n'ayant pas la patience de restaurer à la main un tuyau d'ébonite.

.Et je fumais ces bruyères. Toutes étant des pipes déjà (mais juste un peu) utilisées, je voulais savoir si l'une ou l'autre de ces différentes marques fumait mieux (à mon goût) ou si la saveur était déterminée par la personne qui avait culottée la pipe.

Davantage d'annonces (chaque vendredi, je m'en souviens), amenèrent davantage d'appels qui amenèrent davantage de visites qui engendrèrent davantage de pipes dans ma collection et ensuite…ALORS! Une illumination ! Je reçus un appel d'un collectionneur (je ne savais même pas qu'il existait des collectionneurs) qui m'invita à venir le voir. Ce fut au cours de cette visite que j'entrais en contact avec une publication qui a littéralement changé ma vie… THE PIPE SMOKER’S EPHEMERIS (l'almanach du fumeur de pipes). Non seulement je n'étais pas isolé (ainsi que ma visite à cet ancien collectionneur le démontrait) mais en lisant l'ouvrage je découvris qu'il existait une grande communauté de types partout dans le pays, peut-être dans le monde, qui s'intéressait aux pipes de bruyère. WOW!

Je découvris qu'avec une communauté de collectionneurs, on pouvait échanger des idées autant que des pipes. Aussi je continuais mon éducation, faisant de mon mieux pour trier le bon grain de l'ivraie Je découvris également que certains collectionneurs étaient prêts à payer pour des pipes de marque si la pipe était en bon état; c'est ainsi que commença le côté business de mon éducation.

In cultivating those pipe collectors with whom I’d spoken I found that I had to expand my horizons in terms of brands, as many thought highly of hand-crafted Italian pipes. So I sought out those brands also (Castello and Caminetto being two that come immediately to mind) and gleaned more knowledge concerning acrylic mouthpieces and hand rustication.

In time I had a little mailing list (never over forty names) of collectors to whom I would periodically mail what I guess would be called inventory sheets of the pipes I had to sell. And I was actually earning some money. Now, what to do with these $$. My ads were not producing a great deal at this point, and some of my collector pals had expressed interest in new pipes so…. As I knew the Dunhill pipe very well indeed I decided to become a Dunhill Principal Pipe Dealer. How to do this as I didn’t have a shop? Only one way- send ‘em money. I wrote a very nice letter to Alfred Dunhill Ltd. In New York expressing my keen interest in becoming a Dunhill Principal Pipe Dealer, and I enclosed a check for $3,000. Some time later I received twenty four Dunhill pipes in a Principal Pipe Dealer’s Cabinet… and change. I was in the new pipe business.

Now that I could sell new Dunhill pipes I again wanted to know more about the brand, but this time not from afar. So I wrote to Dunhill, London and asked if I could have a look round. As I received a positive response I left for London in the fall of 1979. During this trip I was to meet some fabulous folks who worked for Alfred Dunhill- the then archivist one Mr. Gomersall who, though he knew even more about Dunhill lighters, could and did certainly shed light on many aspects of the Dunhill pipe from its creation to the time of my visit; and one David Webb, then just starting his tenure as manager of the Cumberland Road pipe factory who taught me a thing or two about a world market when it came to Dunhill pipes.

Besides touring the Dunhill Cumberland Road pipe factory and having a look through the Dunhill archives I did quite a bit more. Spent days in the British Museum Patent Library going over all briar pipe patents filed from the mid 19th century onward; visited every pipe shop in the West End where I was able to speak with some very knowledgeable folks; hit the Bermondsey and Portobello Road Antiques Markets with an eye out for good briar. I returned home more fully equipped than when I started.

Now that I was a retailer of Dunhill briar pipes I wanted more, but only a little more… Castello. The brand was then distributed by Hollco-Rohr and so I wrote to them expressing interest. I was rebuffed. Stunned, I decided that if the normal channel is closed I would have to find an alternate. And so I did.

I packed myself off to Italy in search of Castello pipes. Not only did I want the pipes, but I wanted to meet the man. I landed in Milan, stopped at a small and rather dingy hotel by the train station (didn’t have money to spend on hotels- only pipes), and set off the next morning for Cantu- home of Castello.

At the train station I found the train for Cantu and boarded. Got off at the end of the line, Cantu Cermanente- not Cantu. Now, at this time I spoke not a word of Italian, and I was in a little village where no one spoke English. I thought I might die in that village because I couldn’t speak with anyone; I couldn’t even get lunch. An irrational fear? In this case yes, because through sign language and an address written down on a scrap of paper I found that I could board a bus and arrive in Cantu (the real Cantu) in ten minutes.

Once off the bus I found the correct address, knocked, and was admitted. It was here that I met Carlo Scotti, his daughter Savinella, and his son-in-law Franco Coppo. I wish to tell you all now- Carlo Scotti was a very imposing figure. Tall and lean with a mane of white hair and a hawk-like face here was someone not to be trifled with. This man radiated both ideals and stubbornness in the extreme. When he later found that I was going to shops throughout Italy purchasing Castello pipes he demanded of the shop owners that they not sell to me.

Returning home with loads of Castello pipes (but not purchased at the Castello workshop) I was now a Castello retailer. So what next?

The 1980 Dunhill Principal Pipe Dealer World Conference- it was here that I was able to meet many more fabulous folks in the pipe trade, including one William John Taylor (later to become William John Ashton-Taylor). Though I remember Bill at the conference I don’t think I ever spoke with him, and the same holds true for the 1982 Dunhill Principal Pipe Dealers World Conference which I also attended. I did finally get to meet Bill in early 1983 when I accidentally stumbled across a pipe making demonstration he was giving at one of the West End department stores. I had been importing and distributing pipes from 1980 (Radice, Becker) and I guess I always had my eye at least half open for something new. Watching Bill work that early winter’s day I thought- this man’s got real talent. I can put his work in any of the top pipe shops in our country and it’ll sell. When we had a chance to sit down and talk I found that he had a little business repairing antique pipes for Astley’s and a few other shops in London operating from his back shed. I then broached a question- would he be interested in making his own pipes for the U.S. market. After some hesitation Bill agreed to give it a go.

Our first extended conversations were by phone- trying to lay out what each expected of the other and what each could do for the other. First and foremost- what type of pipe was this new brand to be? I knew and loved Dunhill pipes; Bill was Dunhill trained. It was a natural, but neither of us wanted a knock-off of Dunhill pipes. They stood on their own. We both wanted conservative shaping and a majority to be in the sandblast finish, but we wanted something more. We both wanted a real oil curing process and more hand work- the way it was done in the 1930’s through the 1950’s. And we wanted the pipes to look like they had been hand-worked; perfection was not our goal, personality was.

What was this new brand to be called? Bill and I were on the phone one cold February day in ’83 going round and round trying different names on for size when, for whatever reason, we both started to put our focus on A… then As… Ashley? No- too much like Astley’s, the pipe shop. Asprey? Can’t use it either as it’s a jeweler. And then both of us, at the same time: Ashton! So that was it; the Ashton name was born.

We had a name. Now we needed pipes. Bill thought of the logo- a briar spot inside a silver circle- brilliant. He told me that he was having a hard time setting up the oil curing process in his shed because space was so limited, but he succeeded in the end and production (limited, very limited) was about to begin.

It was then that I again went to London to meet with Bill. I was a bit nervous, didn’t really know what to expect. Would we get on as well as we had during that short meeting six weeks earlier? And could we cooperate with one another? But I had to visit, had to show my support both spiritually and financially.

We met, and a very deep friendship took hold. We found that not only could we work together and exchange ideas together, but that we could also have fun together. Not that there haven’t been moments when one of us would have liked to have rung the other’s neck.

I well remember receiving the very first Ashton pipe- a sandblasted Canadian with primitive nomenclature (there was no finish PebbleGrain stamped on the pipe for instance). I must admit to you all that…I FREAKED! This was not what I wanted. Instead of the black sandblast showing off beautiful reddish highlights the pipe was jet black. And when I rubbed the bowl with alcohol to take off some of the stain it came off blue-black. At that moment I saw my dreams in ruins. He can’t do it, I thought. He can’t make a pipe like I envisage.

But he could, and did. I returned the pipe and it was soon put right. When I received it the second time reddish highlights radiated from the bowl- but how would it smoke? That the Ashton Pipe Company, born in 1983, is now into its eighteenth year answers that question.

That first year Bill made only 31 Ashton pipes. Something would have to change if we were to make an impact on the U.S. pipe market. I made the trip to London in January 1984 so Bill and I could discuss his future in the business. Should he go on his own or stay securely employed? A really difficult decision, this- as there was Irene, Bill’s wife, and two small children to consider, let alone a newly acquired mortgage. I wish to impart to you all that it is a very frightening thing to have another person trust you so much that he will leave his job on your word that you can sell his product. But that is what happened; Bill placed himself in my hands. And we’re both still around. HOORAY!

After handing in his notice and going on his own in 1984 Bill needed more capital. For one, he needed a damn good sandblaster as he had been having that work done elsewhere. Both of us had envisaged hands-on sandblasting as essential to the brand, and so it had to be. In Spring 1984, after Bill had done some preliminary research, I came over and off we went to a specialist in sandblasting machines. Bill brought some bowls and showed them to our assigned rep as to how he’d be using the machine. “No problem, guv.” And the guy leads us to this little dinky machine. “I don’t think this’ll do.” says Bill. And sure enough- it didn’t. Bill worked at the machine for ten minutes with no visible effect on the pipe bowl, and so we went through machine after machine, going up in size and capacity all the time until we came to the second largest in the range. Hands go into huge rubber gloves, gloved hands are pushed into slots in a giant cabinet, pipe bowl is held directly under the sand jet, foot hits the compressor treadle… and the shank of the bowl is totally blasted away in a split second. “Now that is a lovely sandblaster” says Bill. Deal done.

After securing the proper sandblaster we were off to Italy to buy wood. As Bill was familiar with a few of the sawmills there he made the arrangements and we arrived at a mill which was a short drive from Pisa, early on a Tuesday morning. The next three days were spent up to our eyeballs in briar, surrounded by mountains of the stuff. I can’t begin to describe the air in and around the outbuildings which were situated in a lonely region of Tuscany- only that it had a real tang, almost a stinging quality- which came from the briar in its various stages of preparation. After three days of sifting and sorting we came away with seven bags of wood- to be delivered. I later learned that fourteen bags had actually arrived and that the extra seven bags had wood of good quality but each block was much smaller in height though larger in width. In the end, rather than send them back, Bill and Frank were able to get fabulous cross grains by turning each block on its side before working it.

In preparation of the first full year of production I was introduced to some processes of which I had neither seen nor read. One process smelled so horrible that I readily recall it today: the boiling of foot-long pieces of rod vulcanite in a large kettle for three hours at a crack, so as to remove as much sulfur as possible before the mouthpiece was actually cut to fit the pipe. This, I was told, kept the vulcanite mouthpieces of all Ashton pipes from oxidizing for a much longer period of time than other brands

As we became better acquainted I learned more of Bill’s training at Dunhill Pipes Ltd. Hired as a capstan-lathe operator at the age of fifteen he did little more than sweep floors for quite some time. All the craftsmen on the floor in that era knew how to make a pipe from start to finish, and each had his own jealously guarded secrets. Gradually, Bill was taught all the general processes, and since he showed such keen interest in pipe making a few of the old guard actually shared their treasured secret knowledge with him. To become a pipe maker for Dunhill in those days the apprentice had to demonstrate his skill by making a usable pipe of Dunhill quality from start to finish. When Bill brought his finished pipe in to be critiqued the masters laughed at his work- until they examined the pipe closely and found it to be both flawless and usable. For the pipe he made was only one inch long.

From the very beginning Bill has tried to cater to the American Collector- not with series upon series of limited edition pipes, but by making the largest briar smoking pipes to come out of England. The first of these pipes were sized ELX and appeared in 1984, but these were soon to be dwarfed by the very limited series of MAGNUM pipes which first appeared in 1985. From 1985 till today no more than seventy-five MAGNUM pipes have been made, the zenith for this series being 1986 when twenty were produced. Low point was throughout the 1990’s with the scarcity of really large pieces (I won’t dare to call them blocks) of briar . A MAGNUM in any smooth finish has yet to make an appearance.

1984 saw the emergence of Ashton as a comer in the high grade pipe market. Very quickly the brand gained a reputation for fine smoking characteristics overall and the deeply sandblasted PebbleGrain finish in particular. Bill believed so much in the brand and what he was able to accomplish that he decided to add Ashton to his surname, and so in that year he became William John Ashton-Taylor. In the same period my friend Robby Levin decided to bring out a new cigar brand and had no idea of what to use for a name. I convinced him, based on the excellent reputation of the Ashton pipe in the U.S., to name his cigar brand Ashton. And so he did.

When I saw the enthusiastic acceptance of the Ashton pipe by the U.S. pipe smoking public in 1984 I decided that the newly formed Ashton Pipe Company needed an archive of its ongoing history. Not a paper archive, but a pipe archive. I already had two pipes from the thirty-one made in 1983 and so in 1984 I started to set aside representative examples of Bill’s work for each year. The Collection should provide visual clues to the ongoing development and changes in the pipe making process that would otherwise go unnoticed. The Ashton Collection now comprises nearly two hundred pipes, and it continues to slowly expand, year by year.

Bill and I have taken many trips together- to visit other pipe makers, to select briar, and to vacation with our families. On an early trip in 1985 we visited Radice, and I asked Gigi to show Bill what I thought was a really neat finish- a combination of rustication and sandblasting. We also bought cappuccino makers in Milan before we returned to England. And why are you mentioning that you both bought cappuccino makers you ask. Because Bill brought his to the workshop where it became an essential part in developing his PebbleShell process. After seeing what Radice had done Bill took it another step; he first steamed the outside of the oil cured bowl (using the steam jet of the cappuccino maker) raising the soft grain up just so, and then carving it away. Only after this process would the bowl be sandblasted- the result being the gnarled appearance that we in this country love. Bill applied for and received a British patent for the PebbleShell process, and each PebbleShell pipe sold today bears this patent number.

As an innovator on the English pipe making scene Bill has no peer. I may give him a suggestion which he will then take and run with, so that it goes far beyond what I originally conceived. A primary example is the Ashton quaint series. I well remembered Barling quaints and suggested that Ashton might want to try something in that line. In no time Bill was creating a masterly series of quaint shapes the like of which I had not seen before, and which are a backbone of the line today. But this innovation is also a two-edged sword. For when Bill is working the new he can sometimes forget the old. Not the most organized person I have ever met Bill will write processes on odd scraps of paper- and then lose them. The popular Brindle finish was absent for a period of five years because of the loss of the paper scrap bearing the Brindle stain formula. And that it was found again was just the purest luck.

The Ashtonite mouthpiece proved to be another innovation- this one taking place in the early 1990’s when Bill found a material that was somewhat of a cross between traditional vulcanite, used by English pipe makers from the beginning of the craft, and the acrylic material favored by Italian craftsmen. That this material would not tarnish yet was a bit softer on the teeth than acrylic was like having the best of both worlds. And, to be truthful, I didn’t know a thing about the impending change until the first pipes with Ashtonite mouthpieces arrived at my warehouse door.

From its inception the Ashton Pipe Company has never had more than two full time folks, plus a series of part-timers. Skilled pipe makers are a dying breed in the England of today and no one there seems to have the interest to apprentice. It really is no wonder as the trade in pipes is shrinking all the time- the irony being that there are more good hand made pipes being made today than ever before.

To begin with, Bill is an all-rounder; he is familiar with every part of the pipe making process and does it all. The first bowl-turner was Frank Lincoln, also ex-Dunhill and a wonderful man. Frank’s specialty was hand-turning on a lathe which he did for Ashton until health problems caught up with him. He died in 1991. The present bowl-turner is one Sid Cooper, all of seventy-eight (he looks fifty-four). Sid started at the original Hardcastle Pipe Co. (not Parker-Hardcastle, mind) in 1938, and he is a genius at setting up machinery in order to make one-off shapes. He also knows more stories of the English pipe trade than anyone I have ever met.

Personality, not perfection. Little did I know at the time of our first meeting that Bill Ashton-Taylor was superbly suited to injecting immense portions of his personality into the brand. His pipes are a reflection of the man- polished yet comfortable, warm and gentle, true friends.

The Ashton Pipe Company today is still evolving, and there is really no telling where it will go. One can easily see this evolvement when viewing the Ashton Collection in its totality; each year’s examples are different than the previous year’s- in shape, in finish, in feel. As long as William John Ashton-Taylor continues to make pipes I feel sure that we are all in for more pleasant surprises.