The man who had just entered the bar spotted the thirteen-year-old playing table football and asked him: “Hey, who’s your dad?” When the boy answered, he exclaimed: “Right, so your grandad is the one who breeds pigeons, and your nickname is Picc, as in Piccione [Italian for pigeon]. So, by 1952 Luigi “Gigi” Radice had a nickname that would last a lifetime, but what he did not know was that his surname would be even more important, almost a sort of premonition, for “Radice” in Italian means “root”.
Having finished vocational school at sixteen, Luigi found a job as a lathe-tuner and toolmaker in a metal workshop in his home town, Cucciago. He then went to a nearby town, Cantù, to work for a furniture factory, working on metal tubes and as a bronze craftsman. In the evenings, he would top up his wages with other jobs, such as polishing and varnishing.
Cucciago lies on the north-western border of Brianza, which is hill country to the north of Milan, a district made up of small businesses where the owner works alongside his/her employees, and where a new company can be established just by having a chat at the local bar, jobs are found through networking with lucky encounters in the town square, at a wedding or even a funeral.
One evening in 1960 Radice’s cousin, Peppino Ascorti, dropped in. He had been working for several months in the same workshop as another relative, Renzo, who had worked there up to the time of his death. In fact, Peppino had been hired unofficially by Signor Carlo at Renzo’s funeral. “Signor Carlo needs another craftsman”, said Peppino that evening, and as the terms and conditions seemed good, Gigi accepted the offer. Thus, the 21-year-old lathe-turner, tool maker and bronze craftsman called Radice, highly skilled in shaping metal but wholly ignorant of working with wood, suddenly found himself having to deal with his surname: in Carlo Scotti’s workshop in Cantù the roots of Erica Arborea were fashioned into pipes.
Carlo Scotti was a pioneer in the field of pipes. Dissatisfied with just selling them in his shop in Chiasso, he had decided to make models in 1947 that would be so perfect they would compete with pipes on an international basis. Following a rather slow start, by 1960 the Castello brand was firmly established, and demand on the American market outstripped supply, which is why Peppino and then Gigi Radice were called to contribute to production. It did not take long for Gigi to master the art of carving wood instead of working with metal, and his knowledge of toolmaking meant that he could also modify the machines in the workshop and create tools that were designed for specific stages in the pipe making process. Signor Carlo did not intervene directly in the carving process, but was consulted for all the technical and aesthetic choices to be made during production, choices that were discussed together as a team. In such an environment, the true university of pipe making, it was inevitable that production would not stop at mere technical excellence, but would strive to attain a sensitivity and feeling for these unique objects. However, in the late 1960s Ascorti and Radice had learnt all they could, and the need to start up their own business became pressing.
Therefore, in 1968 the two cousins joined together and set up a workshop in Cucciago, and distribution was handed over to Gianni Davoli, who had a shop in Milan. Following an initial trial period, the Caminetto brand started to gain popularity first in Italy and later abroad. However, while Davoli required an increasing number of pipes, the two craftsmen refused to compromise the quality of their work, which led to some internal decision-making problems. Picc Radice began to find this situation intolerable and dreamed of freedom. In November 1979 he flapped his wings and took off.
After just one week he was busy working in the basement of his house where he had worked in the evening when he was young. He assembled and altered salvaged parts of machinery with the help of a friend who was a mechanic, so that eventually he had the basic equipment to set up his own pipe making business. He designed tools, stocked briar and other materials and in January 1980 he registered as a craftsman with the Chamber of Commerce. He started work and by June already had pipes ready to be delivered. However, the equipment needed to be improved. His younger son, thirteen-year-old Gianluca, helped to turn the lucite stems after school. His father, who was a carpenter, also helped to carve and rusticate the pipes. Pipe smokers were gradually becoming aware of Radice pipes, and in June 1981 it was decided that the time was ripe to open up to the American market. Now both Gianluca and Marzio, the eldest who resigned from a metal furnishing company, were involved in the manufacturing of high quality pipes. Now the workshop was well-equipped and Gigi had most of his family working with him, for the pipes were sought after and times were less hard.
Let’s go back to late January 1980 in Cucciago, when Gino Menegazzi called Gigi to handle the distribution of Radice pipes. Gino had just bought the Milanese shop from Davoli. However, Radice felt that he was still unready for selling his products, as he was just at the beginning of pipe manufacturing. So Gino waited until June. They worked closely together, a business partnership that was also a fruitful exchange of ideas and inspiration, based on a solid friendship. “These pipes are lovely”, Gino observed, “but they look just like the Caminetto model!” “Well, that’s hardly surprising – who do you think made them?” retorted Gigi. However, he knew that something had to be done. The same thing had happened initially when he was setting up business with Ascorti and having to make pipes that were different from the Castello model. The solution was to develop and modify certain features of his pipes: to lengthen, widen, pare down or expand, work on the decorative features, surface finish, the stem and the mouthpiece. Thus, in a short time Gigi managed to produce his own original line and distinctive features. The brand was self-evident, as the name Radice already recalled the briar root, so there was no point in finding a new name. On the other hand, it took time to define the physical logo of the brand on the pipe, as Gino was less than happy with some of Gig’s ideas. Eventually, Gigi came up with the idea of two dots placed on the shank. In order to make them an extremely fine cylinder of wood was turned and then “sliced” to make the small dots that were then fitted into the shank. Then Gigi discovered that toothpicks of a certain brand inspired by the Samurai were made of wood and were the perfect size for the pipes. So there was no longer any need to turn thin cylinders of wood. If a client asked about the two dots, Gigi would say they were made of Japanese wood.
Menegazzi died in 1990 and in 1997 Marzio and Gianluca took over the business, even if Gigi the “pensioner” was still producing pipes. The Radice brand is still synonymous with the search for innovation and constant development also inspired by market trends, the belief that even mistakes may turn out to be positive. Carlo Scotti’s teachings lie at the root of their inspiration: the traditional models of the British school combined with the magnificent Italian crafts tradition. This has often led to the production of pipes of a generous size, in a range that goes from the classics to more creative shapes, to innovative and original designs.
There is a wide range of pipe finishes. Rind: Shallow rustication using natural colour or plum. Silk Cut: light or dark sandblasting. Underwood (originally Epoca) rugged hand-carved shapes with the typical “wax drip” feature. Smooth finish in dark colours - Rubino, Nut, Brown, Dark. Clear: smooth finish in natural colours. Clear F: Flame grain natural finish. Clear OP: Straight grain finish with bird’s-eye grain.
Not only does Radice pay great attention to detail, but the variations in detail are infinite, going from outsize models to colourful mouthpieces, to attractive wooden inlay in the stem, or models finished off with horn, boxwood, silver or copper inlay. The hand-chiseled silver ferrules are unique, as is the astonishing bamboo-effect sculpted shank. There are even double-bowl pipes carved out of one block of briar, designed so that the smoker can smoke two different types of tobacco either alternating or even smoking both simultaneously. An unusual product is the walking stick that incorporates a pipe. Unique and fascinating free-style models make up the Collect range, while the Zodiac range can only be ordered online, featuring a round plaque with the owner’s zodiac sign engraved.
Radice pipes have always featured the two typical dots on the stem, which change position according to the type of filter: on the side of the stem for models with filters, or else on top of the stem for pipes without filters. Another logo (crescent moon encircling a star as in the Turkish flag) was used from the mid-1980s to the mid ‘90s, but only for the Collect range.
In the late 1990s an oil-cured briar pipe was created for the American market with two airways drilled into the stem, called the Twin-Bore pipe, but this met with limited success and after twenty years ceased to be manufactured. Since 2008 by the stamp “Hand Made in Italy” a digit indicates the number of years since the Radice brand’s foundation in 1980. Another recent innovation that has been introduced is the fact that the bowls are left untreated so as to allow the smoker to get the most out of the tobacco taste and aroma. The hand-made mouthpieces up to recently were made of lucite, but recently some models have been fitted with the classic ebonite mouthpiece, either black or else multicoloured for the Cumberland model.
It is hard to tell whether these gems provide more pleasure just by looking at them or smoking them. Indeed, Radice pipes are becoming popular among collectors.
Special thanks to the Radice family for their precious contribution
Milan, April 2017