In keeping with my recent theme of looking at the history of pipe smoking and its associated parts I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some briar and then describe how this most common of pipe materials became synonymous with the pastime of pipe smoking…
Some years after the introduction of the meerschaum pipe, smokers began to realize that the best material for pipe bowls was by far the most straightforward – wood. Clay, porcelain and meerschaum were too fragile in an ever more industrialised world despite their admirable qualities and metal pipes, while sturdy, heated rapidly and were too heavy. Pipes carved from cherry and willow however met with little success despite having the prerequisites of plentiful supply and heat resistance. The creation of the ideal pipe – the universal pipe – had to await the discovery of briar.
The introduction of briar as a pipe material was quite accidental. It was linked to the cult of hero worship which sprang up shortly after the death in 1821 of the French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. One of those who glorified the emperor’s memory was a French pipe maker, who decided to honour his hero by making a pilgrimage to the Mediterranean island of Corsica, Napoleon’s birthplace. Being a passionate smoker, the pipe maker took one of his most beautiful meerschaum pipes with him but in an unlucky moment he broke the bowl of his pipe, and was left without means of smoking. Fortunately, in that same Corsican village there lived a farmer known for his skill in carving. The Frenchman promptly commissioned the farmer to carve a new pipe for him out of any suitable wood.
The farmer soon presented the pipe maker with an attractive pipe, made of a hard, close-grained, pale golden wood. The pipe had so many fine qualities that its owner brought back to France several specimens of the wood from which it was made – the burl of the heath tree, or bruyere, as it is called in French. Eventually the name “bruyere” was anglicised, first into “bruyer” then “brier”, and later “briar”.
Enthusiastic about his discovery, the pipe maker brought his briar wood samples to St. Claude, a small French town from whose factory he usually bought his wooden pipe stems. This town, located in a remote valley of the Jura mountains, had a remarkable history as a centre of wood-carving. The craft had been introduced to St. Claude during the Middle Ages by monks to while away the long winter months when heavy mountain snowfalls kept both people and livestock indoors. At the great Abbey the monks carved rosaries, crucifixes, and ordinary household goods out of boxwood, which grew abundantly in the neighborhood. The peasants began to imitate the monks, and wood-carving soon became the chief occupation of the inhabitants. However, the artisans soon found that the briar presented some problems. The wood had to pass through a complex seasoning process before it could be fashioned into satisfactory pipes, whilst the knotted and gnarled briar burls were all different, and contained many flaws. It took a good deal of experience to learn to make the proper cuts so as to carve the blocks to advantage.
Despite these difficulties, the briar pipe industry developed and took hold in St. Claude, eventually superceding all the other carved goods manufactured in that town. A century after the discovery of the briar root, 5,000 inhabitants of St. Claude were busy turning out some 30,000,000 pipes a year. Thus the broken meerschaum pipe bowl in Corsica led to the foundation of a new and thriving business. Briar pipe making spread from France to England and then to America, and the briar root quickly eclipsed all other pipe materials.
The briar plant is a tough little tree which the botanists call Erica Arborea, a member of the heather family. It closely resembles a dwarf tree, since it grows to no more than fifteen to twenty feet high. Found chiefly on the shores of the Mediterranean basin, its development depends on climate and soil and until quite recently, most briar wood was obtained from the rocky deserts of Algeria. Today, however, much of the high-quality briar comes from Spain, Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, Greece, and Asia Minor. Unlike most other plants which flourish under abundant rainfall and in fertile soil, the briar most suitable for use in pipes is that which has to fight for its survival high in mountainous country. There the soil is barren and rocky, rainfall is sparse, and growing conditions are among the worst in the world. Harsh winds tear at the hardy plant whilst the rocky soil resists its efforts to grow. In these regions a mild winter with occasional showers is usually followed by a hot, dry summer. In trying to survive the period of drought, the briar develops its characteristic close, hard grain. It drives its roots into the smallest crevices, forcing the soil or rock apart bit by bit and in fighting for a foothold in the arid soil the little shrub develops a tight, hard-grained knob of wood just above its roots. This toughest portion of the plant, the briar burl, makes the briar plant unique in the plant kingdom, at least insofar as briar pipe smokers are concerned. The burl found in most fully-grown briar bushes lies just below the surface of the earth, barely covered with dirt. Neither stem nor root, the burl is the meeting place of the roots which grow downward from it, and the trunk which grows upward from it.
The frail looking briar plant hardly seems like a promising candidate for hard, fire-resistant pipe bowls. The bush boasts little foliage, and its branches tend to cluster around the spindly trunk, seemingly for protection against the elements. But its sparse foliage and feeble branches encourage the growth of the burl just under the ground. If the climate were more temperate, the foliage might be more beautiful, but the burls from which briar wood pipes are made would be smaller and less desirable.
Good briar wood burls are difficult to find. The large heath shrubs take a long time to mature and therefore the most suitable root may be sixty to one hundred years old. Some of the finest briar burls ever found may have been growing for as long as 250 years, and due to this long growth period, it is somewhat easier to seek out natural briar than to try and cultivate it. Large areas of virgin 100-year-old briar forests have been opened up in Greece in recent years, and in areas where the briar bushes are carefully cultivated sections of young burls may be removed every three or four years, leaving enough of the plant alive for another cutting, three or four years later.
There is no doubting that the briar root made its entry at a crucial moment in the history of pipe smoking. At the time, the pipe faced two increasingly powerful competitors – the cigar and the cigarette – and as a result was declining in popularity. But the introduction of briar wood allowed pipe manufacturers to produce a small, hard-wearing pipe that was in parts handy, attractive, and relatively inexpensive. The briar wood pipe put the luxury of fine meerschaum pipe smoking within the reach of every man’s wallet, and the briar pipe has now become as popular as the clay pipe once was.