Beyond Tsuge

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For decades, Tsuge was the only producer of Japanese pipes widely known to smokers outside Japan. But F. Sykes Wilford of is convinced that the international pipe community should be looking at Japan a bit harder. In an interview offering detailed insights into the global pipe business, Sykes tell us what's special about the Japanese.

You're making an obvious effort to introduce Japanese pipes to the rest of the smoking world. What's customer response been like?

FSW: Customer response has been extraordinary - far beyond what I would have imagined when we began working on the possibility of importing Japanese pipes almost two years ago. But before I talk about the makers, I do want to say that we've received enormous help from Barnabas Suzuki in making all of this possible. Suzuki-san is one of the truly great pipe historians in the world today and has a great love for pipes from all countries. To not mention his gracious and ongoing assistance in connecting with these pipe carvers would be a terrible oversight.

Currently, we represent three Japanese pipe carvers in the US aside from Tsuge.

Hiroyuki Tokutomi's work is brilliantly designed and beautifully engineered. From the perspective of aesthetics and artistry, I'd put him up there with the top three to four pipe carvers in the world. He has a truly extraordinary ability to reinterpret traditional Danish, German or English shapes in very original and very Japanese ways. He's been compared to the late George Nakashima, a celebrated Japanese-American furniture designer who came to typify Zen Moderne as an artistic movement.

Tokutomi-san spent a year in Denmark, studying with Sixten Ivarsson in the mid-1970s. Certainly, Tokutomi-san's work is an outgrowth of Danish pipe styling, but he's overlaid a clearly Japanese artistic and cultural tradition upon that framework. Without this becoming a treatise on Tokutomi-san's place in the great Japanese artistic tradition, I'll simply say that I think Tokutomi's pipes have significant artistic merit, even outside of the pipe collecting community. We currently sell about 175 Tokutomi pipes a year at prices between $400 and $1700 per pipe; almost all are in the $550 to $1000 range. The collectors are delighted with the pipes, as evidenced both by their vocal enthusiasm and by the fact that we sell as many as Tokutomi-san can make. Tokutomi, for the first time in his thirty-year career as a pipe maker, is producing at capacity and making great money doing something he loves.

Of course, it's been a great success for us also. Further, it's been very personally rewarding for me - I feel very lucky to be able to handle Tokutomi pipes. Tokutomi is probably the only make of pipes that causes the whole company to stop what we're doing when they arrive, and spend an hour gawking at and fondling fifteen pipes. Now I just have to figure out how to sell fewer so I have a shot at one, once in a while!

Smio Satou has seen much of the same success as Tokutomi during the past couple of years. Satou-san makes far less pipes, usually less than forty in a year selling for $500 to $1000, so our real limit is the small number of pipes available. Satou-san has a far more minimalist approach to pipe making than Tokutomi-san and frequently speaks of finding 'essential' shapes. Therefore, we frequently see a number of slight variations within a limited number of shape groupings. Satou is semi-retired now, having worked for Tsuge in the past, so he'll never make huge numbers of pipes. From unusual drilling techniques to his natural, traditional Japanese clear lacquer finish that he uses on his pipes, it is really his engineering and finishing details that set him apart.

Tsutomu Fukashiro is the one I know least well. His Tsutomu pipe brand is widely known and respected in Japan and he's far more prolific than Satou or Tokutomi, making a few hundred pipes a year - perhaps somewhat more than 600. Our relationship with him is newer (as of September 2003), so I don't yet have a complete sense of his style, nor a sense of his success in the United States. Certainly, his work is much more directly Danish than the other two carvers. His pipes cover a much broader price spectrum, from about $250 to $900, with the less expensive pipes predominating. Though he makes high-grade pipes, his methods, prices and production volume are more similar to that of, say, Kai Nielsen than of Jess Chonowitsch or S. Bang or Lars Ivarsson. I hesitate to make cross-country comparisons of makers (it's usually not really correct and often results in angry e-mail from various corners of the globe), but the comparisons can be made from a methods and production standpoint, though not from an aesthetic or quality standpoint. It's too early to gauge his success in the US market, but we have high hopes.

Japan is generally known as an Internet-savvy country. Why are these artisans not attempting to market their pipes directly, as many US carvers would?

FSW: Just as in other countries, it depends on the maker. Tokutomi-san is very focused on just making pipes - 175 or 200 pipes a year represent long hours, six or seven days a week. Further, he speaks only Japanese and purchased his first computer just last year. Certainly, from an economic division of labour perspective, it makes the most sense for him to sell pipes to those who specialize in selling pipes.

Satou sells some direct to good customers and friends, but he's semi-retired now, so volume and sales numbers are hardly what he's chasing. At this point, is Satou-san's only retailer; he doesn't currently sell to retailers in Japan.

Fukashiro-san's brother markets his pipes for him in Japan. At six or seven hundred pipes a year, it would be quite a task to both make and sell that many pipes. Further, his brother owns the second largest pipe distributor in Japan (representing Stanwell among others), so this is an obvious choice for him.

There are a handful of true amateur carvers that sell direct in Japan, but to my knowledge, none employ the Internet as a venue for their goods. Indeed, many of those give or trade away the pipes they make. For them, it is truly a hobby.

In recent years, there's been a flood of new American carvers. Some have succeeded, others have vanished again due to a host of different reasons. Many dealers say that a primary problem is pricing, with US carvers insisting on an entry level a vendor cannot afford to maintain without losing his own cut or risking customers' criticism. Are the Japanese artisans more modest, more realistic, or what?

FSW: I think there are a whole host of factors at work here - and there are definitely some cultural differences between American pipe makers and European or Japanese pipe makers. Perhaps the most striking thing is the speed at which many of the recent crop of American makers have come to master the craft. Often, also, the American makers are coming from other walks of life where they were financially successful. The advantages, as I see them, are that many American carvers have achieved a level of mastery in two years or three years that took their European counterparts five or ten years. That isn't to say that the great European makers aren't better (in very general terms), just that many of the new American carvers have sped along the learning curve. Witness someone like Todd Johnson, who is producing pipes that are the technical or engineering equals of pipes from some of the best of the best in Germany and Denmark. He's accomplished this in just four years under the tutelage of Tom Eltang and Lars Ivarsson. Todd is 24 years old. Extraordinarily bright and talented, Todd has accomplished remarkable things very quickly. But you could just as easily cite Mike Lindner or Jody Davis - we're seeing a whole crop of extremely talented young American pipe makers.

The flip side is that they need x-number of dollars per pipe in order for it to make financial sense to them. All three have highly marketable skills. Mike Lindner co-owns an Internet pipe retailer. Jody Davis is a phenomenally successful musician in Nashville. Todd Johnson is currently in the Divinity graduate program at Yale. These are gentlemen that would be successful in various careers. I don't think they're unrealistic. I think they're highly realistic. They know that if pipe making is to support them, it must be sufficiently lucrative to compete with other possible occupations. Given the limited production of both Todd and Mike, selling direct probably makes the most sense - especially for Mike, who owns a natural venue for his pipes. Todd has done a combination of direct sales and sales through retailers that seems to be working well for him.

That said, some collectors have commented that the prices are too high relative to Danish pipe makers. However, the most telling fact is that Mike, Todd and Jody all sell their entire production. Clearly, those purchasing the pipes aren't the ones balking at their high prices. Without delving too much into the economics of it: From the maker's perspective, the correct price for any goods - pipes or toasters or candy bars - is the highest price at which they can be sold (trading speed of sale against getting a higher price). From this perspective, they're clearly not overpriced. Obviously, if the collectors didn't value the pipes more highly than the amount on the price tag, they wouldn't buy them. To some collectors, at least, the prices must be appropriate and reasonable - otherwise the makers wouldn't continue to sell pipes at such a prodigious clip.

The big cultural difference is that these young American carvers aren't the sons and grandsons of artisans, let alone pipe makers. They're extremely bright, capable gentlemen that happen to love pipes and pipe making. There isn't a familial or cultural tradition that ties them to this lifestyle and career path. It's something they love and they find rewarding, financially and personally. If it ceases to be rewarding for them, they have less barriers to doing other things.

As an example of a very promising American maker who left pipe making to pursue another career, Joe Mariner was an incredibly celebrated pipe maker in the 1980s, who ultimately gave up pipe making in favor of database systems design. Though he enjoyed pipe making, he chose to pursue another career that he also enjoys, but which is also far more lucrative. Pipe makers can hardly be blamed for making the same career decisions we all make.

Kent Rasmussen and Cornelius Manz aside, the Danish and German high grade scenes aren't currently boasting much young talent. Many collectors say the focus is shifting to the US, where at least half a dozen world class carvers under 45 have emerged in recent years. Yet we have also seen several of them drift away again - sometimes due to financial pressure or to prospects in other fields of life.

FSW: Firstly, I think the situation with young talent in Germany and Denmark is likely to turn around. I don't really have any evidence to support this, but I'm optimistic.

The Danes pioneered the high grade pipe, so it's taken longer for other parts of the world to produce world-class pipe makers. The spread of the art is partly the result of the ease of communication brought on by the Internet.

I think the US is the first country outside of Europe to produce high-grade pipe makers in the Danish tradition. It's no coincidence, given that the United States was at the forefront of the digital revolution in the 1990s. Large percentages of Americans, generally, had Internet access before citizens of other countries. So, it's also not surprising given that the US has one of the most vibrant communities of pipe collectors of any country in the world. Similarly, the pipe shows that spawned have proved to be an ideal way for small, part-time pipe makers to display their wares.

I think we'll see similar things in other countries during the next twenty years - I can't predict where, but I'm quite sure that it will happen.

Japan has been a special case for a few reasons. There have been high grade pipe makers in Japan since the 1960s. This is largely the result of Tsuge's foresight in recognizing what was happening in Denmark and sending its carvers to learn how to make high grade pipes and to bring those skills back to teach others. The second unusual thing, and related to the first, is that Tsuge was (and is) the largest pipe manufacturer at all price bands and the largest pipe importer in Japan. Until recently, Tsuge overshadowed other pipe makers in terms of international presence. This kind of domination both fostered pipe making in Japan and made it difficult for outsiders to realize that there were Japanese pipe makers other than Tsuge. But, then again, the fact that Tsuge enjoys such a good reputation worldwide paves the way for other Japanese makers to establish an international reputation. So, in all, Tsuge has been good for Japanese pipe making.

Do you see a 'Japanese style' in pipe making? Or are we heading for some kind of world standard overriding the regional differences that used to make life exciting?

FSW: Without question, I see Japanese styling in Japanese pipes. Tokutomi is the most obvious example of this. Though he does make occasional Danish-style pipes, his pipes are Japanese, not Danish. Satou is the same way, but it's not quite so easy to spot. Satou's pipes are minimalist and while his shapes are generally simpler, I would even argue that he draws from Danes to a lesser degree than Tokutomi.

Tokutomi overlays Japanese styling on fundamentally Danish forms in many cases - the blowfish shape provides a springboard for much of his experimentation, for example. Satou starts from less developed premises - he talks of the 'essential' nature of a pipe as opposed to an existing stylistic set - and yields pipes that are very Japanese, but far less obviously so.

Tsuge is more Danish in styling. I think this is by design. Their goal was to compete with the high grade Danes both in the domestic Japanese market and overseas. However, from time to time, one sees a Tsuge that is extremely Japanese. I recently saw a series of pipes from 1992 and 1993 from Tsuge that were inspired by the traditional Japanese pipe, the Kiseru. This project was abandoned after just a handful of the pipes were made, but it certainly indicates that the Japanese aesthetic tradition plays a role for Tsuge's pipes, also. It must be remembered that Tsuge is most targeted at its home market and the Japanese don't seem to want Japanese pipes; they want Danish or English or Italian pipes;at least from what I can discern from Japanese pipe shops and from speaking to Japanese collectors.

Trying to define an American style is more difficult. Of course, given the regional and cultural diversity in the US, this is hardly surprising. To a much greater degree than any other country, there really isn't an American aesthetic that one can point to. Some makers, like Todd Johnson and Jody Davis, are very Danish in their styling. Mike Lindner draws on both English and Danish pipes for inspiration - and creates pipes that aren't obviously from either tradition. Trever Talbert is almost impossible to qualify. Seriously, how does one fit his Halloween pipes into an artistic tradition, except perhaps that of H. P. Lovecraft or Alfred Hitchcock?

I think JT Cooke or Lee Erck might strike some non-Americans as more American in their aesthetic, but I'm not sure that's the case. Certainly, Lee has an American backwoods-wilderness aspect to his pipes, but how is that more American than, say, the cosmopolitan cultural outlook of Charleston or New York or Chicago? Indeed, to confuse things further, how does one qualify Walt Cannoy's aesthetic as particularly American? 'Disturbed' might be a better appellation for his style - something Walt would relish.