We landed in Geneva where we were met by Antoine Grenard, owner of The Chacom Pipe Company. After the head of the excursion gathered all the troops up we exited the airport. First going through passport control on the French border and then driving for about an hour, before reaching Saint Claude. The town is situated in the Jura Mountains in Eastern France.
On our first day there, whilst having a stroll around the town, we were taken to The Smoking Pipe and Diamond Museum. The rich history of these subjects were explained to us in lengthy detail. One of the reasons that Saint Claude became the pipe and diamond capital was that displaced peoples who were persecuted for religious and political affiliations left Paris and ended up settling in this beautiful part of the world. Remember, this is well before electricity. The abundance of fresh streams and waterfalls in the region would have played a huge part in being a suitable location for these types of work.
Almost every French celebrity and politician who smoked, had a pipe personally carved for them and on show in the museum. There was also the ominous C.I.P.C (Committee, International Pipe Club) also known as “The Brotherhood”.
We were also shown how stems and bowls were crafted before the industrial revolution. This was followed by a home cinema viewing covering the extraction of the briar root and the drying process of the blocks that eventually become pipe bowls.
After a delicious lunch at La Bruyere restaurant, Antoine took us past one of the briar dryers. These are purpose built wooden cabins with gaps in between the wooden slats, something akin to a drying room for pipe bowls. In this four tier structure there were quarter blocks of briar everywhere, on every level and all separated according to age and quality. The highest grade of briar would make its way up to the top landing and be there for years, while all the blocks on the ground floor would probably never reach the pipe makers lathe. This gave us an idea of the rigorous selection process involved when making quality pipes such as Chacom.
Later on that afternoon we arrived at the ‘old’ Chapuis – Comoy & Co Factory, a massive four storey high building which has been closed for some time now but we were with Mr. Grenard, who had a key to the building and let us roam it freely. The facility shut down in 2016 and the company moved a few kilometres away to Villard-Saint-Sauveur.
Upon entering the factory I immediately noticed how many tools and accessories were left behind. Unfinished bowls, empty pipe boxes on the shelfs and cardboard adverts for Chacom & Comoy’s. We were allowed to go wander, so I did what every pipe lover would do and went through the building room by room.
This gave me a chance to take my time in seeing the old machinery, stem benders and the workshop of different pipe making stages. It’s hard to put into words really, it was abandoned but it had such an amazing vibe to it. It felt like a walk through the past. A peek behind the scenes. Even though it was empty it still had life in every corner.
On the second day we visited the new Chacom factory. Due to the lack of space in the van two members of staff from The Pipe Shop Ltd. traveled to the factory in back of this incredible pick up truck from the 1930’s. As soon as we took off the heavens opened up, drenching us by the time we arrived. The new factory, as it can be expected, is a much more modern design. It is spacious and has plenty of light. The main entrance leads you to the factory’s gift shop section. Hundreds of pipes in cabinets and mounted to walls alongside accessories and other novelties. A huge wall picture hangs and features very interesting information regarding the history of Chacom.
Our next stop was the actual factory. Antoine walked us through the process of making a pipe and showed us the different work stations that were dedicated to each part of the process. To start the briar is selected and inspected with great care. The first room is where the briar gets its shape and holes. Two or three people work there at any given time, splitting the work between themselves. If a pipe is meant to have a smooth finish, the bowl is transferred to the next room where the proper stem will be chosen and fitted. If a rusticated or a sandblast finish is required, the bowls are taken to a designated room with a sandblaster machine.
We were allowed to choose a carved pipe which already had the holes bored and sandblast it to our liking. It was harder than I would have thought. Pedal operated, you put your hands into gloves (similar to that of a surgeon performing an operation) and if you pressed the pedal for too long you not only blasted too much of the pipe but also got a small shock from the static build up. Quite a laborious process to tell you the truth, but it was great to experience.
Our last stop was the polishing/treatment room where the pipes got the signature branding on the shank, colouring and polishing. It was definitely an eye opener to see how lengthy the whole procedure is. The precision and attention to detail required from every employee is truly impressive.
The factory had a ‘guard dog’ who thoroughly enjoyed our presence. Instead of a regular stick, she had an unused raw bowl (that never made the grade) as her toy and this and our presence kept her very busy.
Our last night in Saint Claude was the summer solstice. We were invited to a dinner at Antoine’s mother’s house which, many years ago was the town monastery. A beautiful spacious building with a history one can sense just by being there. The dinner was beyond superb and we were honoured to meet Antoine’s family.
The food was delicious and after that we congregated in the back garden, testing out the pipes we had worked on that day. Antoine shared his Chacom pipe tobacco which was not available on the U.K market at the time, so it added to the unique experience.
On the last night, all the leading retailers had lengthy discussions regarding the trade and what we learned through the days we spent there. Towards to the end of the night an evening walk led to us a Festival held at the city celebrating the Solstice. The streets were filled with life, people everywhere danced to the music. Everybody was friendly and kind. It was a great finish to an amazing trip.
Thank you to Keith, Lynsey, Antoine and his family for giving us the opportunity to see, first hand, one of the most important places in pipe making history.
We would also like to thank our customers for supporting our family business. This enables us to keep trading as The No.1 Epicurean Retailer & Best Pipe Shop in the United Kingdom.