Consummate Craftsmen

"Fatto a mano" is Italian for "made by hand", properly translated "handmade". The Radice family is all about hands. They have firm handshakes and look you in the eye when talking with you. They make long-term business deals with nothing but handshakes. They use their hands to emphasize points of discussion, setting down whatever is in hand or letting go of the steering wheel of a fast-moving car if need be. And of course they craft world-famous pipes by hand.
The Radice workshop about an hour north of Milan near lake Como. We took the train to Como San Giovanni and were picked up by Marzio who drove around the lake, through seven tunnels carved into the side of the mountains that surround the lake. No doubt the spectacular scenery has an influence on those who make their living carving pipes from briar, a substance not quite as unremitting as the mountains. When we arrived, the whole company turned out in a smallish room for morning coffee — luckily the whole company is three people, a father and two sons. Luigi Radice, the patriarch, who created the company having a wealth of pipe-making experience. Marzio, whose concern for the business side of the company has extended the brand’s visibility on the world scene. Gianluca, the strong but mostly silent one of the group (though when he does speak it is with great authority and insight.) The three share much, including gray-green eyes.

Luigi started when he was 20 or 21 working for Castello in nearby Cantù — an experience shared by many pipe makers in the region. He left Castello in 1968, and with Peppino Ascorti and a business partner, formed Caminetto; he struck out on his own in 1979. Luigi has been in the same location since that time and he and his wife live on the top floor of the workshop in the way of a “bottega artigiana”, a “craftsman’s shop”. The term bottega artigiana dates back to Middle-Ages, when a one’s house was also their place of business, when one’s personal life was completely intertwined with one’s vocation; those words decorate the boxes Radice pipes are shipped in today.

The tools Luigi required could not be bought off the shelf, so he created them – a process that took between six months and a year to complete. He did not have any help in 1980, and his distributors were calling often as ask where their pipes were. This tradition continues to this day due to the popularity of Radice pipes. There were other difficulties for the fledgling company of course, but with encouragement from his wife and distributors, Luigi stayed the course. He was able to make between 500 and 600 pipes a year then, making the job somewhat secure.

At first, Luigi’s father helped in the workshop. Then one of his sons helped in the afternoons while working another job; in 1982 he came on full-time, the other joined full-time in 1984. These days, the three create between 2300 and 2500 pipes a year and could not make any more and about 90% of the pipes are already sold when made. They do occasionally make complimentary products such as ashtrays in support of their pipe sales.

Radice pipes were first marketed in the United Stated in 1981. Luigi states that, to a certain degree, the US "rescued" the Italian pipe market. It cannot be denied that there is a strong market in the US for fine Italian briar, but there wouldn’t be a market if the pipes were not high quality. Interestingly, they believe that the Radice brand is better known in the US and in some smaller Italian villages that in the larger Italian cities. Luigi did state that it is difficult to enter the US market from overseas due both to the sensitivity of quality and pricing, and to the typical trans-Atlantic communication and coordination issues.

These days, approximately 50% of Radice pipes are sent to the US, with 30% staying in Italy. They deal directly with some shops in Germany, and also with a shop in Switzerland — a small place that has sustained a 200-Radice-pipe-a-year sales rate for the last 15 years. The classic shapes do well in Germany, with those shapes showing a resurgence in the US, along with a trend toward smaller pipes here. They are now in a brand-new market: Taiwan. Only a few pipes have gone there but it shows Radice’s eagerness to address the needs of pipe smokers everywhere.

About 70% of Radice pipe are finished in what they term "soft rustication", the "Rind" finish. They do not use that name in Germany as it means, politely, "cow" or "ox"; instead the term "Bark" is used. They have heard from customers who have, for whatever unknowable reason, sanded off the rustication and find flawless, if unremarkable grain. This humors the Radices, and of course comes as no surprise to them as this is the purpose of rustication in the first place: to make a good, but not gorgeous, piece of briar attractive. They do coat the bowls of some of their pipes, but this is only for shop display purposes, not to hide flaws. Luigi states there is no particular reason behind the two dots that adorn Radice pipes stems though the pattern certainly is timeless.

The Radices are rightfully proud of their work, and replace any pipe that burns out. They have a small rack of those they have received back with burnouts; it has maybe ten pipes, each obviously horribly abused. Luigi recommends no particular break-in method for his pipes, fill them up and smoke them is his recommendation. He is certainly familiar with the 1/3, 2/3, full method but believes there is no need; indeed he believes that Radice pipes are meant to be smoked with a full load and smoke best that way from the very beginning.

They build their own stems from raw materials, liking to be independent for their production; this also allows them to make custom-designed pipes when needed. Radice uses all-natural products: only alcohol-based dyes (not stains) are used and wax is the only finish.

The briar originates in Riviera Ligure and Toscana, and they visit producers in both locations to assure that they receive excellent briar. The briar is aged for 3 – 4 years, and the Radices feel that longer is not necessary. Indeed, they believe it might be counter productive to age longer: "after 10 – 12 years the briar has lost some important characteristics, it tastes of nothing." The wood is air-dried, "slowly and smoothly", having about 10,000 pieces currently drying.

When queried about what makes a Radice pipe unique, three characteristics are agreed on.

1) The briar, from which they choose the central part of the plateau.
2) The stem, which must be comfortable.
3) Their shapes, which are typically interpretations of the classics.

The details and construction techniques are varied, but the correct balance and proportions are always maintained. They value feedback from their distributors and customers about likes and dislikes, and they continuously tries new interpretations on established shapes and styles feeling that the market responds positively to these.

In the office, an amazing museum is brought out. The amount and quality of the pieces become overwhelming. A pipe that can either be smoked as a straight or bent. A pair that match, cut perfectly from the same piece of briar. A pipe inlaid into a hippopotamus’ tooth. Several with external tubes in loops that carry the smoke. Several that appear to be made from where the bush portion of the heath enters the burl, providing an incredible sunburst pattern on the top, with bird’s eye graining all around. Not all pieces are created as the ultimate solemn expression — there is a whimsical figural pipe that blows smoke out of its nostrils… The pipes in the museum are sadly not for sale.

In the end, Luigi states "the only secret is hard work". To that we must add that it takes many years of hard work, along with a lot of creativity to reach the level of craftsmanship that Radice pipes exemplify. "Fatto a mano" seems almost trite when one sees what the Radice family hands are capable of producing.

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