A Short History of The Italian Handmade Pipe
This article originally appeared in the Pipe Smoker, Spring 1984 issue, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.
A short History of The Italian Handmade Pipe, by R.D. Field
In 1953 a new, high-quality pipe made its debut in America- first in New York and gradually throughout the rest of the country. This pipe was very different from any other pipe of similar quality which was being sold at that time. It was made completely by hand instead of machine-made and hand finished. It had a mouthpiece made of Plexiglas rather than vulcanite, and the briar bowl and shank were carved into a deeply etched finish. This unique pipe was from Italy.
This new pipe was a radical change from what the American pipe smoker was used to buying, and the most surprising aspect of the pipe was its country of origin. Certainly, Italy was not known for producing excellent briar smoking pipes; that distinction belonged to two other European nations- France and England. After all, briar pipemaking began in St. Claude, France where many of today’s traditional shapes were designed. England’s pipe making industry was well established by the early 20th century with some of the most prestigious brands in the world- names such as Barling, Charatan, and Dunhill.
It was with some trepidation that American pipe smokers tried this new pipe- the Castello. The mouthpiece felt strange in the mouth, Plexiglas being somewhat harder than vulcanite; however, the material did not oxidize over a period of time, thus, did not produce that terrible look and taste so often associated with a pipe. The Castello shapes were very familiar because at that time they were modeled almost exclusively after the Dunhill (the most famous briar pipe in the world). The deeply etched finish, to the uninitiated, looked like the deep sandblast of the more familiar brands.
As a people, Americans are very utilitarian. Most demand true value for their money, and will not purchase a product simply because it is new or different. In America the Castello pipe was expensive, and the fact that it succeeded here proved that it was indeed a very good value for the price. The fact that the pipe was made completely by hand and was the product of one man, as opposed to a large factory, most people did not learn until much later.
In the following years the Castello became a widely respected name, and the supply of pipes sent to America was not enough to meet the growing demand of pipe smokers. In the 1970’s the Castello pipe became almost legendary as its attributes were widely acclaimed by all- but no one knew where to buy one. Tobacconists were fortunate to receive two or three per year, but these were most often in the shop for a day, or just an hour, before being purchased. Into this void stepped a new Italian handmade pipe- the Caminetto. Which looke very much like the famous Castello Sea Rock. The Caminetto Business came to these shores in the early 1970’s. The brand met with almost immediate success here, and with greater success when importation rights were assumed by Tinder Box International for sale exclusively through its franchised shops.
Less expensive and more readily available than the Castello, the Caminetto won many converts from those who could not find or could not afford the original Castello; while others, who had first tried the Caminetto, made all-out attempts to secure at least one Castello in order to compare.
It was also during this period that new shapes and carving styles emerged from within both marques. The new models of both Castello and Caminetto appeared less like traditional English shapes and had their own unique characteristics (later to be known here as Italian styling), though the carving styles of these two brands went in different directions. In the beginning the Castello Sea Rock Briar had a rather chunky carving style, which over the years changed to a more delicate look. The Caminetto Business began with an even and delicate carved finish which changed, over time, to a more deeply-etched uneven look.
In late 1979 the Castello was as popular and difficult to come by as ever. By this time a Castello “cult” had formed among some pipe collectors. They would telephone tobacco shops all over the United States in order to obtain one or more of these elusive pipes. Every now and again rumors would spread that one shop or another had a Castello Trademark or a Castello Collection for sale (smooth Castello pipes were as rare in America as pasta was plentiful in Italy), and that particular shop would be deluged with telephone calls for days afterward. In the same year (1979) rumors also circulated concerning the Caminetto marque… “the workshop had burnt to the ground; one of the partners of the firm had either died or gone insane; the partners had a disagreement and dissolved the firm.” No one knew the cause, but everyone knew that the Caminetto pipe was no longer coming into the United States.
Within three months, however, the Ascorti pipe appeared looking exactly like the Caminetto, except for an “A” on the mouthpiece where the moustache logo had been. As with Caminetto, the Ascorti was imported by Tinder Box International and sold exclusively through the Tinder Box shops.
The Ascorti has not yet gained the respect previously held by Caminetto; this will take time. Pipe smokers are most suspicious of any type of change, and when the Ascorti appeared looking exactly like the Caminetto many smokers swore that “it was not the same pipe- that a different type of briar was used; that the quality of craftsmanship was not the same; that the Ascorti did not taste as good as the Caminetto.”
In late 1981 the Radice entered the United States marketplace, followed by the Becker in early 1982. Both are sold on an exclusive basis by a limited number of some of the best pipe and tobacco shops in the nation. The fact that both have proved to be so successful is partly due to the outstanding craftsmanship of both marques, and to the superb reputation the Italian handmade pipes have developed in this country since the first ones appeared in 1953.