Whisky drinkers have Scotland, Cigar smokers have Cuba and Pipe smokers have Saint Claude. This small, rather dishevelled town, nestling in the Jura mountains has been famous for 2 things: Diamonds & Briar Pipes. In 1850 a number of craftsmen & women began using briar to make pipes. This small institution began to grow rapidly and by the turn of the 20th century St Claude was producing upwards of 30,000,000 pipes a year. These ranged from the classic shapes we are all familiar with, up to the beautiful free hands & fleur shaped masterpieces. In the 1960s around 200 pipes a day where sold through the shops of St. Claude. During these times men & women, young and old turned out the finest pipes and brokered briar woods worldwide. Artisans shared their skills to pipe makers the world over and these can be seen in the Italian & Danish pipes produced today. To accommodate the popularity and thriving trade, a large number of Tobacconists populated the main streets. Almost any Tobacco, Pipe and other accessories from around the world could be brought in St Claude. For a town this size its high street is surprisingly long.
With the decline in pipe smoking worldwide, the home of the briar has declined too, out of a population of 12,000 the trade now employs about 200 people, most work for the remaining factories including Butz Choquin, Chacom & Comoys. The long high street shows the remnants of a once thriving scene but now restricted to a few tobacconists. The grimy windows and old empty pipe racks paint a gloomy picture for this once thriving, culturally important place. The back streets used to be full of workshop & factories producing pipes, many are now derelict and empty; others have been converted into flats or are storage warehouses. Walking the streets and looking at the buildings, it is rather sad to reflect that this was once a bustling, beautiful town.
Out of the 200 tradesmen still making pipes in Saint Claude, Pierre Morel is alone as the last Artisan. His family have been producing pipes here for generations and the Morels have always produced some of finest pipes in St Claude. We went to visit Pierre in his small workshop, nestled on a backstreet opposite the Comoys factory. We had spent a while looking round for this place and after no one answered the door a slight sense of a foreboding set in. Eventually the door opened and one of the funniest conversations occurred: “Bonjour”. “Hi”. “Pierre, no English” “Glynn, no French...., John help!” …
Behind the little hobbit-like door of No1 Rue des Etapes is a rabbit warren of rooms , low narrow corridors and an incredible array of specialist wood working tools. When I was young I spent a lot of my time in my extended families workshops. I loved these places: the sawdust, tools, the sounds, the smell of the dust filled electric motors. Many a happy school holiday was spent in workshops such as Pierre’s
Everywhere you look you can see pipes, half cut bowls, loose stems, yet more sawdust and even the occasional discarded pipe on the floor! The machinery is custom built for each pipe making process- the machine which cuts the mouthpieces looking the most complex. Inside this workshop Pierre uses a combination of traditional techniques with a few of his own adaptations to produce a large collection of unique and hand made pipes.
Pierre’s grandfather went to Savinelli & taught them the skills needed to create the flower & free hand techniques, now Savinelli produces some of the finest free hands that I have seen. His grandmother & auntie worked polishing pipes for a number of factories; all this led to only one conclusion, that Pierre would become a pipe maker. His life has seen him work with W O Larsen & Sixten Ivarsson , friends of his Father, and other world renowned artisans. Chacom also employed Pierre until his “retirement”. Pierre now happily creates his hand-made masterpieces ‘alone’ and ‘in his own time’. His sons are involved in professional motor cross and, so there is no one to pass on his skills. Pierre really is the last artisan In St Claude!
During our visit Pierre allowed us to film him creating one of his iconic Fleur Freehand. The process if drilling, cutting, sanding & shaping is amazing to watch.