Ultimately, it was all a question of the vultures, and interpreting their flight. Romulus won and started to dig trenches for the city walls with his plough. However, Remus leapt over the trench and Romulus, outraged, killed him with his sword. This is why Rome is called Rome and not Remuria, according to Titus Livius, the Roman historian.
We are often unaware of the importance of an event at the time it occurs, and as at that time there was nobody to report what really occurred, everything becomes shrouded in myth. An indistinct, pivotal moment flies by in an instant and History is replaced by a legend that is more or less an artfully woven tale. The same can be said when it comes to the “invention” of the briar pipe, as there is no clear written evidence that chronicles the development of the briar pipe, only various kinds of fragmentary information. There are plenty of legends also surrounding the “invention” of the briar pipe.
When enquiring into how briar pipes developed, numerous mythical tales emerge, which are mostly generic and reduced to some bare facts. They are often set in the South of France, including Corsica, where Erica Arborea grows, where someone from the North accidentally comes into contact with a “new type of wood” and brings it back home to Saint-Claude. Alternatively, people from the South travel North to Saint-Claude, bringing with them the “strange wood that does not burn”. There is always some hint of truth in these legends, numerous variations according to traditional oral culture, in which each time something is added, removed or altered to someone else’s version. However, the real truth (in brief) is that in the South of France the wood of the briar burl had already been known for some time. Indeed, even roughly fashioned pipes were in use, and these were eventually mass produced at Saint Claude. The dates range between 1850 and 1860, apart from some brief forays in this field between 1800 and 1830. Some of the stories seem to be company biased, such as the information that appears on the French Courrieu website: by 1802 Ulysse Courrieu, a farmer in the region [Cogolin, Var] had already started making the first briar pipes and then went on to establish the Courrieu manufacturing company. Other less well-known companies offer a slightly different version.
The first account is to be found in the chapter “Les industries de Saint-Paul”, written by Louis Abram, from the book “L'industrie dans les Pyrénées-Orientales (Enquête du journal L'indépendant des Pyrénées-Orientales”) published in 1923.
Before referring to the company manufacturer that produces this item, I think it is worthwhile mentioning to our fellow countrymen, who may be unaware, that the briar pipe was invented in Saint-Paul [de Fenouillet], around eighty years ago. Prior to that, terracotta, olive wood, hard tropical wood, and meerschaum were the only materials used to make pipes.
It is Mr Bougnol, known as Andrivet, of an enquiring and inventive mind, who is the creator of the turnery in Saint-Paul, and briar pipes. This is how it happened:
On one of his travels, while strolling in the Landes, near Dax, he met a shepherd watching his flock and smoking a huge, deformed pipe with a serious look on his face. As Mr Bougnol was also a keen pipe smoker, this aroused his curiosity and with his usual boldness he asked the shepherd: “What material did you use to make this pipe?” The fellow from the Landes replied between one puff and another: “It’s a briar root”. - “Is it good?” - “Sure; want to try it?”… And the shepherd, who saw that Bougnol was an adept of Nicot’s herb, passed Bougnol his pipe, who, being a connoisseur, inhaled the fragrant smoke contentedly. He had a brainwave as soon as he started puffing. All of a sudden, he had a vision of how to use the profusion of briar roots in our regions, hitherto ignored up to that time, and taking out his splendid meerschaum pipe, he said to the shepherd: “Why don’t we exchange pipes?”
The astonished shepherd, thinking that he was conversing with a mad man, accepted the offer enthusiastically and Bougnol returned to Saint-Paul with the pipe… and his idea.
The next day the first ebauchons were sawn and a few days later the first briar pipes saw the light of day. Alas! Birth is always complicated; the same evening they were delivered the pipes died of congestion, namely they exploded. It was the local water that caused the disaster, but a solution was swiftly found. Bougnol had the idea of treating the root by boiling it in water, and when he did so the result was perfect this time – the briar pipe was created. The sawmills immediately organised themselves and the ebauchons, that is to say the rough blocks of briar from which pipes are fashioned, were sent to Saint-Claude where the manufacturers of the town proceeded to finish them.
It was not long before the briar of that region was no longer sufficient for the ever-increasing sales, and the sons of Saint-Paul emigrated to Provence, Italy, Corsica and to Africa in order to establish this new branch of manufacturing. These bold pioneers were the Vassas, Billès, Lacombe Marius, Salvat and Meunier, Foulquier, whose descendants still trade in briar pipes around the world.
It should be pointed out that the ebauchons already existed before the advent of the briar pipe: they were blocks of wood that had already been treated and cut into the appropriate sizes that the clients or head of the workshop delivered to the turners in Saint-Claude and other centres. The turners then shaped the objects as required. However, briar was much more than “another type of wood”: the production of specific ebauchons was more complex, including the boiling phase that was supposedly invented by Bougnol. As the book was written in 1923 and there is mention of “eighty years ago”, the facts as narrated would date back to 1843 or a few years later. Dax is a town in the South of France near the Atlantic Ocean. Louis Abram, born in Saint-Paul de Fenouillet, was an important entrepreneur, being one of the pioneers for electricity in the department of the Eastern Pyranees, on the border with Spain and overlooking the Mediterranean.
The second less well-known account is drawn from an article written by Paul Émile Poitras which appeared in issue no. 13, 26th July 1923 of the weekly magazine in New York, Tobacco – A weekly trade review:
The discovery of the actual species of briar root used in the making of smoking pipes is due to a French gentleman , F. Vassas. In 1849, then in his youth, while travelling for pleasure he discovered that the natives in the Pyrenees were making a crude bowl out of a species of briar called scaparia of the ericaceae family or heath family which is composed of scrubby plants or small trees of over 1,200 different species. This crude pipe was obtained first by drying thoroughly the trunk of the tree, then the bowl was roughly carved in the wood, and a hole bored at the bottom. Then they added a tube, also roughly bored, and made to fit in the hole at the base of the bowl with one end small enough to be held in the mouth.
Going further in his experiments, Mr. Vassas discovered in the Mediterranean basin that one of the species of briar (bruyére) called arbutus or arborea of the Ericaceae family, contained in its root a great quantity of tannin, while the root itself proved to be a wood of very fine grain with close fiber, having the peculiarity, as well, of being porous and very resistant to fire, and instead of burning, taking a deposit of carbon, this deposit having the advantage of rendering sweet the bitter taste of the tobacco.
Mr. Vassas, visualizing that a new industry would be the result of his discovery, decided to devote his life to it. He started production on a small scale and began to introduce this wood known as Racine de Bruyére (Briar root).
The fact that the names A. & J. Vassas are associated with Paul E. Poitras’ signature suggests that the article was commissioned A. & J. Vassas, a well-known company in the field of pipe ebauchons, the same company that sponsored that particular issue of the weekly magazine, a monograph on pipes. Poitras, who was probably Canadian, was an eclectic man, being a journalist but also a manager in the tobacco field. Thus, although the account is biased, we still need to take it into consideration, albeit with some reservation.
In order to get a better picture and understand other aspects of the sequence of events, it is worth flanking the two less well-known accounts with one that seems to be the least legendary, providing recorded evidence. It is taken from the written account by the well-respected pipe wholesaler, Jules Ligier (an apprentice at the age of sixteen to François Gay’s maison de chincaglierie in Saint-Claude) in the chapter entitled “Le passé de la pipe et Saint-Claude” (written by Bernard Mermet-Maréshal) in “La pipe de bruyère/ Saint-Claude1856 - 1956” published in Saint-Claude in 1956.
It was early October in 1858. A rather lively person with a marked accent from the South appeared one day on the ground floor of the Gay Aîné warehouse, Place de l'Abbaye, Maison Mallet. He came to sell his blocks of boxwood, called “broussin”, which the vendor purchased in large quantities to make his tobacco boxes. After ordering ten thousand kilos of boxwood to be delivered in November, after talking about the rain, fine weather and the harvest in the South, Mr Taffanel [sic], the traveller, mysteriously took a piece of wood out of his pocket. It was sawn six sides, in the shape of a candle snuffer, the larger end roughly bored with a drill, the thinner end having a hole fitted with a bamboo stem, shaped into a mouthpiece. “Now”, he said, “this is a pipe that a friend of mine, the village shepherd, swears he used to smoke tobacco for over a year, and that, as you can see for yourself, is neither burnt nor damaged. It was cut from a block of Erica, similar to the boxwood blocks that you have just ordered, and it is found in abundance in our region”. Being extremely interested in everything concerning items from Saint-Claude, Mr Gay asked him a lot of questions. He had Mr Raffanel [sic] give him other five similar pieces of Erica that he kept in his pocket, and also ordered two sacksful, namely ten gross of similar ebauchons, to be delivered swiftly by the end of the month. He asked the Saintoyant-Burdet company to produce some tubes made out of horn with a flat curved end that could be fitted to the pipes, and he set out with these samples. The ten gross of ebauchons arrived before the end of October as promised and the company finished and assembled the pipes in its factory located in Plan du Moulin under the suspension bridge. In the last week of October the pipes left for Paris, Northern France and Belgium. Thus, it was precisely at that moment and in that manner that the first briar pipes were manufactured at Saint-Claude.
In this case everything happens at Saint-Claude, but one of the protagonists, the one who offers the briar, comes from the South of France. Mr Gay orders ten gross of ebauchons in early October and receives them before the end of the month. Dating back to the sixteenth century, a gross was the equivalent of twelve dozen or 144 pieces. Ten gross meant 1440 ebauchons. Not too much by today’s standards, but certainly evidence that by that time a basic manufacturing system was already in place, which delivered fairly punctually, considering that in less than a month the order was placed, the company got started on the 1440 ebauchons, which were cut, boiled, cured (or perhaps were already treated or being prepared) and were shipped from the South of France to the North and Saint-Claude.
In the 1956 book, the lively traveller’s surname varies between Taffanel and Raffanel in a couple of sentences. This was probably a typo, but which was the correct surname? An article by Gauthier Langlois published in 2019 on the Bulletin de la Societé d’Ètudes Scientifiques de l’Aude and entitled “Autour de l’industrie de la pipe et de la tabatiere. Innovations et échanges dans la tournerie entre l’Est des Pyrenées et le Jura” suggests that the surname was “Raffanel”, more precisely Jean François Raffanel, o Raphanel, born in Carcassonne (department of Aude, near the Western Pyrenees and overlooking the Mediterranean) on 27 January 1802.
Thus, was it in Aude that the first ebauchons of briar were prepared (a few years before 1858)? This cannot be excluded, but it is to Saint-Paul de Fenouillet (Eastern Pyrenees) that Louis Abram attributes this honour (in 1923) and is not the only one to do so: many years before, on 19 November 1896, a member of Parliament from Marseilles, Auguste Bouge, introducing a draft law to the Chamber of Deputies, had claimed that
The manufacture of briar ebauchons for pipes originated in 1854 in Saint-Paul de Fenouillet (Eastern Pyrenees).
Similarly, the oral tradition of sawyers also mentions the area of Perpignan, the regional capital of Saint-Paul, as the original location for the ebauchons.
To complete the picture, we can add Theofile Laurent’s statement in his book “Saint-Claude et son College”, 1926.
Trained to turn stems made out of wood or horn for clay or porcelain pipes, the workers in Saint-Claude were qualified to manufacture wooden pipes the day when they were introduced to a raw material that was sufficiently hard and resistant. Some attempts to use wood roots had been disappointing when, in 1854, the first briar roots appeared on the scene in Saint-Claude. The first tests were a failure: the wood would crack or split apart. The right method was discovered when the ebauchons were boiled in water and then dried slowly. Manufacturing was gradually refined, the machinery was improved, the various stages in the process increased and the workers became even more specialised. We believe that the factories expanded due to manufacturing needs. It was in 1857 that the first briar pipes from Saint-Claude were produced commercially.
Laurent was principal of the College de Saint-Claude from 1918 to 1925: in that period he had the opportunity to refer to the best sources and interview people who had first-hand experience of these events. Like Louis Abram, he highlights the need to boil the ebauchons, albeit in a more precise way, also including the drying stage.
This was the problem: as soon as the burls of Erica Arborea were considered a possible raw material for pipes, there was the question of making them suitable for production. This was an aspect that the forest dwellers had not been so bothered about, as they had fashioned rough pipe bowls out of briar for who knows how long in the Pyrenees, Corsica, Sardinia and perhaps also elsewhere. Nor would it have been a problem for the Celts, who in Northern Spain had used the wood to make tools, or the Spanish artisans in the Pyrenees that had carved statuettes of saints for centuries. It was no problem in Italy either, where whole burls were carved into vessels, as we can read in the 1724 edition of Trattato dell’Agricoltura (Treatise on Agriculture), a highly popular treatise written by Piero de’ Crescenzi in the fourteenth century that produced numerous revised editions in the following centuries:
The Broom is a very small shrub, almost resembling juniper, whose root is round and so hard and gnarled that excellent vessels are made out of it when hard enough.
Incidentally, the type of vessel was a deep drinking cup, sometimes quite precious and artistically carved.
In addition, studies on archaeological finds in Follonica (Grossetto), from the 6th to the 7th century BC, and also elsewhere in Italy, have revealed that charcoal from Erica Arborea was the most commonly used fuel by the Etruscans in furnaces for the reduction of iron ore. This charcoal was also used in furnaces for ironmaking in Elba in ancient Roman times. Moreover, in more recent times charcoal made from the branches of Erica Arborea was appreciated for its high calorific power, and excellent results were achieved with the charcoal from the burl used by smiths in their furnaces, although given its particular characteristics the charcoal required special production methods. The wood from the Erica Arborea plant itself was known for its calorific power, but also for the difficulties to light it, evidence of its resistance to heat that would later be indispensable for pipes. Another use was to place silkworms on the branches of Erica Arborea to obtain the cocoons.
Thus, in the mid-1800s, nobody had really “discovered” briar, but rather a new and important way to employ it was gradually emerging. Everything had begun slowly and by chance, in different places and on different occasions, thanks to the forest dwellers who were familiar with the plant in their lives and work, and with the more or less irregular burls that were hidden under the soil. Charcoal burners, woodcutters, shepherds, all manually skilled, were able to invent their own pipe and then make others for friends and acquaintances. Alternatively, they came across experts in pipes or crafting wood in the constant quest for the right ingredient, possessing the necessary resources, imagination and entrepreneurial skills.
The introduction of the briar burl in the magic world of pipes was a joint effort, especially when seeking the right method in order to transform a deformed, moist vegetable mass into a hard, tough, workable and fine material with which we are all familiar. The “Saint-Paul de Fenouillet” hypothesis is quite solid, but it is also likely that similar developments, even only partial, occurred in other places.
The term “Erica” comes from the Greek word eréikò, meaning “to break”, as its roots can spread through rocks and eventually split them. Erica Arborea is one of many species of the Erica genus, which in turn is one of many kinds in the Ericaceae family. Here, we are referring to the Arborea species, the only one suitable for pipe making, and all the accounts mentioned here refer to this type, also where other names are mistakenly given. The species that we are normally familiar with is heather, small shrubs with small, mauve flowers, whereas the Arborea shrubs can grow to a height of six or seven metres and has white flowers. Plants of this kind, with different characteristics, grow in many parts of the Mediterranean, at different altitudes but quite near the sea, and are an integral part of Mediterranean vegetation. However, for pipe makers or rather those who produce the briar ebauchons for pipes, the visible part of the plant is completely useless, for they are seeking the burl: a generally spherical growth that has various sizes according to its age and is not always evident, which is just below the ground, or else a small part may be visible above ground, lying between the branches and roots. Not everyone agrees on the fact that it is caused by some external, traumatic interference, rather like a pearl in an oyster. It certainly serves as a filter and in case of critical situations such as a drought it is an excellent store for nutrients. When the burl is cut in half, there is a light part (sapwood) on the edge and a reddish part in the centre (heartwood). Pipes are made with the light part, which is the more recent growth. Not all burls are equal, and only the round ones are suitable for making pipes, the deformed and gnarled ones being discarded.
Nowadays, the way has already been paved: once the most suitable burls have been extracted and stripped, they are taken to a sawmill, where they are cut into ebauchons, and the many flawed parts discarded. They are then boiled, slowly dried and supplied to the pipe makers. However, the question is how this procedure was achieved, which is neither simple nor obvious.
One can imagine that at the beginning any kind of burl was extracted and removed. Even when it became clearer which burls to keep or discard, all the burls were first extracted and then it was decided which to take away and which to leave. It would have been easier just to extract the best burls, but in order to do this it was necessary to recognise the right plant on the basis of the visible plant’s features, its exposure, the direction of the wind, the type of soil and surrounding environment. It took time, tenacity and experience to develop this set of skills and knowledge, which would eventually become a culture to hand down from generation to generation.
Initially, tools already at hand were used to extract the burl. Subsequently, other tools were designed that were suitable for the task, so as to make both the extraction and cleaning of the burl easier on site. Having been dug out and roughly cleaned of dirt and impurities, the burls were carried on the men’s shoulders, on a mule or cart. However, when the burls arrived at the processing site (at the beginning) they often arrived frequently already useless, being ruined, split or cracked. Once it was realised that as soon as the burls were extracted, they started to dry out, it was inevitable that simple but effective methods were found to keep the burls moist until they were cut. To make things easier, small sawmills were established near the extraction sites.
As for the cutting tools, not all of them were new. Some were already suitable, including mechanical saws used for cutting the ebauchons of other types of wood. Improved machinery and a better organisation of the workplace were gradually achieved, and subsequently further improvements were made. The motive power used was also important. Initially, the ideal was hydraulic power, converting old water mills or installing new water wheels along streams, rivers and canals. The rest would only come later.
As for the burl, initially it was unclear whether the lighter or darker part was preferable. Sometimes the latter was chosen when intact, considering that it is the internal part of the tree trunk that is hard and workable. However, it was soon clear that the heart of the burl was problematic and split more easily even after being boiled.
For a long time now the sawyer has no longer cut the burl in a haphazard way, but now follows a consolidated sequence of procedures according to the various types of pipes and is careful to exploit the material to the full, highlighting the aesthetic features. How did the proto-sawyers manage in the mid-nineteenth century? Cutting the briar was an art that was gradually refined through dedication and sheer hard work, from generation to generation. Fine-tuning the boiling process was not so simple, either. Indeed, it was the most difficult part of the process. It is possible that the idea originally came from Spain, where the briar had already been used for religious objects, or in Germany and also in other countries where wood was already used in pipe making.
However, another hypothesis is more plausible. In the Eastern Pyrenees (also in Saint-Paul) traditional cork bottle stoppers were manufactured, and those who worked in this production were familiar with the Erica Arborea bushes, which proliferated amongst the cork oaks. In order to make the cork more elastic and easier to work with, it was necessary to boil it in copper-bottomed vats, a metal that is a good heat conductor and leaves the water unclouded. It seems reasonable to suggest that at a certain point somebody tried to apply the same process to the briar blocks. Another partially alternative, but complementary version is that the purpose of boiling in the early trials was to remove the tannin content, but when it was realised that boiling also helped to reduce cracking, the methods to obtain the briar became more interesting and further tests were carried out.
Over time it was discovered that the length of time for boiling needed to be increased compared to that used for cork, and so practical methods were designed to keep the ebauchons completely immersed. Through constant trial and error the right moment (the right temperature) was achieved to remove the material from the water once the boiler had been switched off, as were the methods and length of time for drying and curing that had to be extremely slow and in conditions of ever-decreasing humidity to ensure that everything went well. Furthermore, it was also unclear whether it was better to boil the whole burls first and then cut them or cut them up first and then boil them. The first solution makes no sense for many reasons, yet, at least in some places the ideas concerning this were still confused for a certain period of time. Even today not all the standards for boiling are the same, and in fact more than one manufacturer guards well his secrets and methods.
To sum up, the pioneers of the briar burls started almost from scratch. Nothing is known about the extent of perfection of their methods of cutting, boiling and curing in the early days of delivery to the first pipe manufacturers, but it is likely that there was still much to learn. Nevertheless, a system had been established. Initially, the whole process, from burl to finished pipe took place in small batches and in one place. However, as soon as larger industries came onto the scene, such as the GBD factory in Paris (Ganneval, Bondier, Donninger) and above all the factories in Saint-Claude, which were both far from the Pyrenees, a division ensued as a result. One hundred kilograms of briar burl would yield only a few tens of kilograms of ebauchons; a raw burl needed to be kept moist to avoid splitting, while a boiled and partially cured ebauchon would have few transport problems. Thus, it was a question of rationalising, especially in terms of cost-effectiveness, which determined the split between pipe production and the suppliers of the semi-treated product, the ebauchon. Over the years there were still some who chose to continue to combine burl supply and production, but they were the exception. In general the suppliers of ebauchons had a separate, different history to their pipe making clients. The fact that they were mere suppliers means that they have been completely overshadowed by the pipe manufacturers, which they frankly do not deserve. While a considerable number of enthusiasts are dedicated to reconstructing the history of the briar pipe companies, almost nobody has thought of preserving the memory of those without whom the pipes would have never even existed. This interesting but neglected theme should be reconsidered.
A special thanks to:
Gauthier Langlois (Société d’Ètudes Scientifiques de l’Aude);
Biblioteca Comunale Centrale Sormani, Milano;
Biblioteca Accademia Italiana di Scienze Forestali, Firenze;
Bibliothèque nationale de France;
Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon;
Bibliothèque de Lettres S.C.D. de l'université de Nantes;
Mediateque haut-Jura Saint-Claude;
Mediateque de Perpignan;
Service Commun de la Documentation - Université de Perpignan