Briar pipes have a fascinating history. They came on the scene at a time when there must have been great frustration over the smoking implements available to common man. Perhaps, pipe smoking would not have survived without their arrival.
The Beginning of Briar Pipes Records show that the ancients smoked pipes in various healing and religious ceremonies. However, it was not until tobacco was discovered in America at the end of the 15th century that pipe smoking became an everyday pastime of the ordinary people. From that time, tobacco pipes were fashioned from many materials from gold and silver, to corn cobs and clay. A popular material was meerschaum, an expensive, soft, white stone from Turkey.
It was time for a durable, reasonably price pipe and a happy accident produced it. A pipe maker from France went on a pilgrimage to Napoleon’s birthplace in Corsica. While there, he broke the bowl of his prized meerschaum pipe. He asked a local farmer to carve him a new one, hoping it would be at least adequate for a quiet smoke.
The farmer presented the pipe maker with an attractive pipe carved out of the wood from the growth on the root of a Mediterranean White Heath tree. This growth was called ‘bruyere’, now anglicized to ‘briar’ wood. The pipe maker was so impressed that he took samples of the wood back to France with him.
Development of Briar Pipes The development of the briar pipe was not without difficulties. The pipe maker had to develop his own process for preparing the briar burls. After careful cutting of the burl, he boiled it in water for several hours to remove sap and resins that were absorbed over the years. It took up to two years to dry thoroughly.
Today, variations on this process still produce the qualities for which the briar is famous:
• beautiful pale golden color
• extremely hard and close grained wood
• at least 50 years old before harvesting.
Then, the craftsmanship begins. Expert carvers follow the grain and size of the briar to uncover a unique shape. These days, of course, many briar pipes are made by machine or a combination of techniques.
Excellent Timing for Briar Pipes By the time the briar pipe started being produced in Europe and then North America, tobacco manufacturers were promoting cigars and cigarettes. However, the briar pipe allowed for a market resurgence for pipe makers. The timing was just right for a pipe that:
• was attractive
• cost relatively little
• provided a great smoking experience.
One of the most famous men of the 20th century loved his briar pipe. Even after his doctor ordered him not to smoke, Albert Einstein continued to hold his pipe in his mouth. This briar pipe now rests in the National Museum of American History.