Rob Cooper (coopersark)

There seem to be two camps of pipe collectors, both seeking the same thing--exclusivity. The first camp likes the high-grade, factory-made pipes of yesteryear. This is the camp that wants to own what is no longer available--exclusivity. The second camp consists of those who like to collect high-end, artisan-made pieces of briar art, many of which have dense straight or cross grain the likes of which has never been seen before, either by the shape (sculpture is more like it!) or density of grain. This camp has exclusivity of ownership by the sheer low numbers of the hand-made pieces of briar artwork by a particular revered pipe carver.

How many times at a pipe show have you witnessed the following: A pipe collector takes out of his bag a pipe that he shares with his fellow friends/collectors, and he receives the ooohs and ahhhs and favorable comments from the group? In this "show-and-tell" scene, which I have witnessed countless times, this scene has not only justified the "showing" pipe collector's purchase but in many cases has "elevated" his stature among his pipe-collecting buddies. I seriously believe that, if it were not for those "fellow collectors," most of us would not be collecting as high a grade or as rarified of an old pipe as we do. We all crave acceptance by the "group," and, by possessing what other fellow collectors would like to have, we believe that we truly are in possession of something special. There is also a lot of personal gratification that comes from owning the best of anything, whether of recent production or of yesteryear.

There is a controversy brewing today about fills in high-grade artisan pipes that are currently produced. The whole notion of a "flawless" pipe--that is, one with no fills--was started as a marketing "gimmick" by Dunhill, which is, in reality, a factory producer of pipes. To use the term "flawless" was another way to differentiate them from the competition of the day. I am in no way dissing any manufacturer or collector. As the leading seller of high-grade pipes on the eBay site, I would only be hurting myself!

High-grade straight grain and cross grain pipes of today's vintage are carved using some of the very best-grained briar that has ever been available to the carvers. Most of this wood comes from Corsica, Sardinia, or Morocco. According to Lars Ivarsson, who is widely accepted as one of the very top-tier pipe carvers today, this densely grained wood is also the oldest and hardest wood and therefore is the most likely to have sand spots, as this is the wood that has withstood the ravages of both time and very arid weather. In fact, at a recent seminar in Chicago, Lars admitted that only about five percent of his blocks are free of sandpits. Lars also told us that these sandpits are negligible in their size and are not to be confused with the blatant craters that are filled with mastic by some factories. Lars was asked what his annual production was. He told the group that it was 60 pipes per year. Lars' pipes carry a retail of about $2,500 each.

Here is the point: Do the math. Five percent (the percentage of blocks without sandpits) of 60 pipes is three. That is three pipes per year. Now multiply $2,500 times 60 (the number of pipes carved per year). The result is $150,000. Divide $150,000 by three and you have a suggested retail of $50,000 per pipe. As it is, our group of pipe aficionados is a small one. How many of us could afford a $50,000 pipe? Perhaps a few. How many could justify it? No one. Now I didn't use sandblasting as a way to salvage sand spots in my equation, but it really does not make a difference, as the market for sandblasted pipes is limited, and no artist (with the possible exception of Jim Cooke) wants to produce just sandblasted pipes, and certainly the collectors' market for straight-grain high grades wants to see the grain and not just feel it.

You can apply this scenario to other products, for example automobiles, whether it be Ford or Ferrari, Buick or Bentley, Pontiac or Porsche, Mazda or Maserati. All of these marques are made in factories by humans. Granted, the latter in each category are considered either of a higher performance or fit and finish, but, in all cases, the purchaser does not know if the auto was in fact damaged on the line and then repaired. Could that Bentley have suffered some sheet metal damage and then been repaired before it was painted? You can bet on it! Why? To trash the car and rebuild it is not an economic reality.

Thirty years ago, my statistics professor, Dr. Shapour Saami (a fellow pipe smoker!) told my class in a profound lecture that all things that were and are manufactured by man are by their very natured flawed and that there was a 100% probability of them measuring differently from one another. He used the example of mil-spec ball bearings. He said that while they may look the same and perform about the same, if you blow them up in size large enough, you would then be able to see the differences very clearly. He used our earth as another example. The highest point on earth is Mt. Everest, with an altitude of 29,028 feet above sea level. The lowest point is the Mariana trench, with a depth of 36,198 feet below sea level. This is a total variance of 65,226 feet or 12.35 miles. When compared to our earth's diameter of 7,928 miles, this is insignificant, and it is why, when viewed from space, our planet looks as smooth as a ball bearing. Everything in nature is flawed. Everything. It just depends on the standards used for measurement.

My own standard is the "naked eye." If I can't see it, then it doesn't exist. Many collectors would prefer some form of magnification. This is why, as a seller on eBay, I show many blown-up photos of the pipes that I am offering for sale as a way to magnify any flaws or defects. I have yet to see any pipe under magnification that is perfect. Not a one. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, be it the perfect lines of a very well-made factory pipe or the harmony of the shape and the grain of an artisan-made pipe. There is room for both in our hobby, and both have merit AS THEY CURRENTLY EXIST without making a big deal out of nothing, which I truly believe the notion of flaws or fills in high-grade, hand-made pipes truly is. NOTHING! I truly believe in beauty for beauty's sake without picking it apart. Even the most beautiful woman has flaws. I want to see a continued environment where we can all afford to own and enjoy the very best pipes that man can possibly create.