In His Blood

If briar dust can flow through a person’s veins, it flows through Roberto Ascorti’s. His father was a famous carver, his brother worked by Roberto’s side making pipes, his wife Silvana has been involved in the pipe business since she was 16 or 17 and now runs the Ascorti pipe and cigar shop. Roberto has hand crafted innumerable pipes, breathing in the dust that inevitably escapes the dust collection systems, for many years.Roberto has been in pipes since his childhood. His father, Giuseppe "Peppino" Ascorti started work for Castello in 1959. Roberto remembers visiting the Castello factory when he was eight or nine to visit his father and play a little, and remembers having a good relationship with Carlo Scotti, who treated Roberto a bit like a grandson. With this kind of background, it may seem obvious that Roberto would end up making pipes, but his career path was somewhat circuitous.

In 1968 or 9, his father joined forces with another talented carver, Luigi Radice, and a businessman, Gianni Davoli, to form Caminetto. They were termed the “tre camini”, the three chimneys or fireplaces. "Caminetto" is the diminutive (smaller) singular version of "fireplace", a very apropos moniker for where we burn tobacco. The distinctive moustache logo on the stem doubtless comes from the fact that two of the three partners had large moustaches. The slogan for Caminetto is "La Pipa del Baffo", “the pipe of the mustache”, and was suggested by a pharmacist the three chatted early on. As a youngster, Roberto helped with the stamping and shipping of Caminetto pipes. Apparently, there was some disagreement among the three principles on whether it was a good idea to have a son directly involved in the company. Roberto didn’t particularly want to go to a university; instead, he went to an art school and served in the military. He served in the Como region, where the Caminetto business was located, and only in the mornings. He started helping with pipe repairs and making a very few pipes. Due to a variety of forces, both internal and external, the original Caminetto company disbanded in 1980. The Ascortis offered to buy the brand, but couldn’t afford it at the time. Therefore, Giuseppe formed the Ascorti company in 1980 making pipes under his own last name (Luigi Radice did exactly the same thing). His name was renowned enough to sell pipes from the beginning, as people were familiar with his work at Caminetto. Indeed, many of the positive characteristics people attributed to the original Caminetto pipes could now be found in Ascorti pipes.

In 1984, just four short years into the Ascorti business, Giuseppe died. At that point, Roberto took the reins; he also bought the rest of the Caminetto company so he could have the rights for the brand. This wasn’t so much a business decision, but a personal one (e.g.: he remembers his mother sewing the gloves for the pipes) and Roberto feels the Caminetto name is part of his family, part of him. Over the next two years, Roberto combined the two factories in the town of Cucciago, and starting making Caminetto pipes in house in 1986.

Also in 1984, Roberto’s brother Pierangelo joined the Ascorti company; he was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident in 1990. The loss of his father and brother, both of them also business partners, in such a short time was difficult on Roberto of course. He considered leaving the pipe business forever, going so far as to apply for a job in another industry in the region. He spoke with another noted Italian pipe maker, who told Roberto that there are rich people that no one knows or loves, but that while Roberto wasn’t rich, people knew him and loved his work. Silvana was also very supportive, and in the end Roberto decided that "there’s nothing else" for him except making pipes — it is his life’s calling.

Roberto certainly knows his briar, which he gets from Calabria, Liguria, and Toscana. He makes sure it is aged six months before he buys it, sometimes specifying additional aging at the factory. Then, it is aged at least three and a half years in Cucciago (while being treated "like a baby") before it is ready for making into a pipe. Roberto begins making an Ascorti pipe by examining a chunk of briar, picturing the pipe within. He pencils an outline on the wood and heads for the bandsaw, taking smaller and smaller pieces away. The boring of the bowl and shank are done. Roberto uses his fingers as a compass for the pencil and outlines the outside of the bowl. Next, it’s off for successively finer shaping and sanding machines, with calipers being used to assure everything is perfect.

The combined Ascorti and Caminetto production is between 2500 and 3000 pipes a year. About 70% are exported — 40% to Germany (with filters), and 30% to the US. The Caminetto brand typically has the more classic shapes while the Ascortis are more "free". About 15% of the pipes are left in "natural", with the rest having a variety of finishes. One of the most popular is the "New Dear", a finish only Roberto and his father before him can execute. Similar to its predecessor, the Castello Epoca (Epoch) finish, New Dear is executed using a chisel and takes a lot of hand strength to perform. The result looks like dripping wax, deep rustication, or even the shingles on a roof, depending on the pipe and who is describing it.

Interestingly, the pipes are not graded and stamped on the factory floor. Instead, they are taken up the exterior spiral staircase to the office for final inspection, grading, and marking. The office is large and well lit, and inspecting the pipes away from the manufacturing area may well help in removing any bias formed while struggling with a particular block, and certainly put all the pipes "in a different light". The office floor is scattered with large, uncut burls — unusual decoration as the wood usually arrives cut to near pipe-size pieces from the briar producers. An easel stands to one side, reminding one of Roberto’s strong background in art. During breaks in a conversation, he may well be somewhat absent-mindedly sketching a pipe design on a pad of paper, but when he talks with you, he looks you in the eye with a steady gaze, reminding one of his strong and steady hands.

When asked what makes his pipes smokable, Roberto has four necessary characteristics that combine to form the taste of a pipe.
1. The quality of the briar “of course”.
2. The drillings — done completely by hand — a marvel to watch as the two drillings must meet perfectly for a good smoke.
3. The shape, which typically are interpretations of classic shapes. There’s no denying that how a pipe looks and feels influences how one feels about, and interacts with, a pipe.
4. The stem and mouthpiece, which must feel good in the mouth. All of the stems are made from raw acrylic and shaped at the factory. They do all their own sandblasting, rustication and silverwork too. Roberto stated that sandblasting is easy, in direct opposition to what many others will tell you…

Roberto has strong family connections, having lunch and dinner every day with his mother who lives nearby. He has made three very special pipes from briar his father bought and he marks the best of his pipes with a stamp that is his father’s signature. The Ascorti family continues with a daughter and a son. Their daughter was in Philadelphia at the time we visited and her parents hoped she would stay for three months to gain some direct exposure to America. The Ascortis feel a close kinship to the United States — they both speak English quite well — and they even honeymooned in California in 1982. Immediately after the September 11th tragedy they phoned the James Norman company, who distributes the Caminetto line in the US and is located in New York City, to make sure everyone was all right. Their 13-year-old son has already started operating the stem-making machine off and on. He also has seen some success riding dirt track motorcycles, his parents being very understanding in the view of his the cause of his uncle’s demise. Not that Roberto is unfamiliar with motorcycles himself, having a noted American brand of motorcycle in his garage.

The company itself is a family too. Everyone has traveled to Germany together for example. Roberto echoes the sentiment of many pipe makers, stating it is difficult to find people willing and interested in making pipes for a living. He says, the process is ironically, "both creative and repetitive". Many workers stay for "only two to six years", a short tenure compared to the core group of Roberto, Cesare, and Silvana.

No description of the business would be complete without including Cesare Vigano. He has worked with Ascorti for thirty years in every aspect of pipe production. There are about ten powerful machines used to craft a pipe at the shop, none of which has a guard — this inherent danger shown directly in Cesare’s hands. They have scars from years of abuse in the creation of high-end pipes. Roberto considers Cesare a "brother, father, uncle" etc. — that the two have worked in so closely for so many years bespeaks of a special relationship. Cesare takes care of his own family too: his wife owns a nearby restaurant and he helps from 10 till 2 with the lunch crowd there.

Roberto wants to create something for everyone involved: for the workers, the distributors, and the customers. He likes to stay in Cucciago, but wants to have interactions with those whom his pipes come into contact with. A new venture is selling pipes into Russia, having sent 41 to Moscow.

Few people have the background and abilities Roberto has with pipes. His father was a famous pipe maker and Roberto was exposed to this at an early age. He now has many years of making pipes himself, keeping two pipe brands vital. He has a strong background in art. He has survived adversity in his professional and personal life. He states plainly that people can "taste my heart in my pipes" – he therefore must have a truly amazing heart.

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