Sunday, March 18, 2007
Reflections on the Classics
Biz Stuff - I've just posted two new new pipes to the website catalog for direct sale, following up on my promise to try and keep more pipe available on the site this year. Freshly available are a beautiful, HUGE Morta Signature Grade, and the Talbert Briar Billiard above.
Are high grade pipes in classical shapes a dying breed?
It's a serious question. More and more, "high grade" seems to suggest freehand, Danish-ey sculptures with organic shapes, fancy lines, and dramatic colors. I enjoy making exotic freehands as much as the next fellow, but I also prize making my own examples of the classics - the bulldogs, billiard, dublins, and others. I'm a little worried, though, that these forms may be starting to be considered passé. In a world of Ballerinas and Rameses shapes, can a simple billiard impress the discerning collector? Pipemakers balk at the restrictions of having to produce such specific shapes, but I believe two things - One, it's excellent practice and good for building skill, and Two, classical designs offer plenty of room for putting one's individual stamp on a design IF one really focuses on the "maneuvering room" with a shape's parameters.
But wow, those parameters can be strict sometimes! Ask a group of collectors who makes the best straight billiard and you'll spark an argument roughly equivalent to locking a bunch of Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken fans in a broom closet together (with cricket bats!). About all that ever seems to be agreed on is that the bowl should be as tall as the shank is long, and billiard walls are supposed to be straight up and down. Not that my Dunhill is, mind - It has a rounded bowl just like my pipe above, and I like them better that way. When it comes to good design, though, it's hard to beat the straight billiard. Set out to make one, and you're like a conductor looking at a Mozart symphony and a fresh orchestra. You're both starting with an established masterpiece, and it's up to you to interpret that outline in such a way as to not totally screw it up.
What makes it good? The straight billiard is a perfect example of the Golden Ratio in use. Artists, designers, architects, and mathematicians through the Renaissance have long realized that the ratio of 1:1.618 is pleasing to the human eye - For whatever unknown reason, it triggers our aesthetic sense of harmony, balance, and beauty. Use of the golden ratio abounds in the artwork of the masters. In many cases, a knowledge of, and use of, the golden ratio can help elevate one's craft or art to a higher level. Some of us see it naturally, others need to measure to get it. A lot of that is just practice, though, because I've been working with the golden ratio in my pipes since the 90's.
But let's get back to the fun of making classical shapes. And it is fun. There is more room to "be yourself" than one might guess - I can usually pick out my own billiard "look" from among other examples, just as different conductors and orchestras will produce radically different performances of the same symphony. Traits I like - a very, very tight join of shank to bowl. It is a secret weight saver, and helps sharpen the form. My billiard above was not turned on the lathe, it was shaped entirely by hand, all to better incorporate two other details I like - a slight forward tilt to the bowl, and a top that's just a tiny bit canted from the bowl tilt. My bowl walls are usually a little more "plump" than normal, because I like thick walls, and my shank airhole actually angles slightly upwards down the length of the shank to allow more briar under the heel of the bowl for long-term (think decades) durability. Also, my shanks are never round! I know some folks consider it a sign of craftsmanship to be able to rotate the stem in place, but that comes at the expense of line balancing in side views and top views. I like my stems to flow fluidly, perfectly smoothly, from the shank - with no distinct separating point between stem line and shank line. With the side view of the lines sloping down (to the thin bit) and the top view of the lines curving out (to the bit which is wider than the stem body), it doesn't produce a perfect circle, but rather an oval.
There are so many little details to play with, from button size and curve to shank thickness to degree of bowl wall curve, that it's a shame such classical shapes seem to be fading from interest in today's high grade market.
Regarding my posting about my money tracking database, I do intend to post it. But, it will require some work and lots of explanation to get it presentable, so it probably won't be happening immediately. Keep an eye on the blog, though, it will be here eventually.