There were plenty of shops in Duke Street in the heart of London, but the one that had just opened at number thirty-one was as cozy as a club. The customers were welcomed and served with the utmost respect and courtesy, as they explored the wide range of tobaccos, cigars, cigarettes, pipes, lighters, cigarette holders and cigarette cases. There were three full-time assistants and Alfred Dunhill, the demanding, meticulous and wholly enthusiastic owner usually arrived in the afternoon. He would organize everything and was certainly not short of fresh ideas.
He had always been a creative person, ever since he had been “hired” by his father as an apprentice at the age of fifteen to help in the sack-making business, which then expanded to include everything connected to horse equipment, including accessories for carts, coaches and carriages. This was a busy, competitive, but profitable sector – apart from the odd pioneer in transport, the primary mode of transportation was still the horse. However, Alfred saw plenty of opportunities in the future for automobiles and would later be one of the first people in Great Britain to own one. Thus, when he took over his father’s business at the age of twenty-one, he soon expanded it to include accessories for the first owners of automobiles, establishing "Dunhill's Motorities", whose motto was "Everything but the Motor".
The average person at this point would have kept things running as they were, once initial problems of starting up and then expanding the business had been ironed out. But Alfred Dunhill was no average person. As early as 1905 he had already left others in charge of the business and in 1912 retired, selling his shares. Meanwhile, in 1907 he had opened a pipe and tobacco shop, which would eventually take up all of his time. Word went round of the new shop in Duke Street and soon there were plenty of new clients. Alfred no longer arrived just for the afternoon, but was soon constantly there, exploring his interest in the world of tobacco. He would chat with each individual smoker and choose and mix personal tobacco blends for them.
Back in 1904, when he was still working at "Motorities", Dunhill had invented (and then patented the following year) a special accessory for drivers, cyclists, yachtsmen and walkers: the "Shield pipe", whose bowl featured a “shield” designed to provide a good smoke “even in a gale”, preventing “all inconvenience”. This can be considered the start of his subsequent achievements in the world of pipes and tobacco. His inventions and brands were already a constant expression of Alfred’s drive which would last a long time. Furthermore, in 1906, he even established a specialized agency in order to register his products and those of others. Energetic, creative and restless, in the same years he also explored other interests, such as buildings, toys and even confectionaries. However, he finally decided to focus all his energy on number thirty-one Duke Street.
In addition to being brilliant at producing patents, he was also extremely good at marketing. Never satisfied, always paying attention to detail in his search for perfection and having plenty of previous experience, he decided from the beginning to go one better than other normal manufacturers of pipes and accessories. For each product he offered the best and the price reflected this. Each client had his own personal blend, which could be prepared instantly according to the precise indications written down in "My Mixture Book". Developed in late 1907, this precious aid that eventually ran to several volumes would record up to 36,700 different blends over time. During World War I many clients were called to the front, and so they had special prices, as well as a lot of sympathy if circumstances made payment difficult. In various cases Dunhill sent more pipes than those ordered suggesting that the clients sell the surplus ones in the trenches, thereby being able to pay their debts when they returned. In order to avoid unpleasant incidents the packet bore an unappealing label: “castor oil”! It was mostly officers who smoked pipes and the surplus pipes were bought by other officers, not only British, but also French, Belgian, American and Canadian. By the end of the war “Dunhill” had become an internationally renowned brand.
What pipes were sold in Duke Street? In the early 1900s the market was not at all on the increase, and pipes had to compete with cigars and cigarettes. Yet, many varieties of pipes were still manufactured, in clay, meerschaum and briar. Launched by the French in Saint Claude in the mid-nineteenth century, briar pipes were the most practical and modern, and the only ones that Alfred Dunhill considered. However, the models that were imported did not wholly satisfy him as regards quality, nor in terms of what he promised his clients: a pipe that could be spoken of “like an old friend”. There were few pipe manufacturers in Great Britain that matched his requirements, although in 1908 Alfred ordered a certain number of pipes from Frederick Charatan, a Russian immigrant in London, despite their high cost. Now at last there was something special on offer in Duke Street, but this was only a temporary solution. In 1910 Dunhill had already established his personal manufacture of pipes with two expert craftsmen “stolen” from Charatan and in a few years the manufacture cycle was complete, with top quality briar, ultra-modern machinery purchased directly from Saint Claude and a manager that came straight from Saint Claude as well.
This is how Alfred Dunhill acted, without hesitation, and without sparing himself, demanding the best above all from himself and constantly seeking fresh ideas and improvements. These ideas and experiments led to a variety of innovations in a few years, which made their mark in the history of pipe making, through technical solutions, innovative finishing processes, standards and categories of models that became a reference for all smokers. While the Dunhill brand spread throughout the world, the business expanded in London and elsewhere in Great Britain. The company structure became increasingly complex and other products were introduced, also thanks to a bureaucratic hitch in Paris.
When a shop in Paris in Rue de la Paix was bought in 1924, it was to recreate the same elegant atmosphere surrounding tobacco that was found in the shops in London and New York. However, things did not quire work out that way. Despite many attempts, including influencing people and contacting people in high places, the response of the French Monopoly on tobacco was drastic. Only a few, small stores in France were licensed to sell that type of product, and these could not increase. Thus, Dunhill could only sell their goods in France by shipping them overseas. But what would happen to their shop? In order to launch their products in Paris Alfred Dunhill had set up the Societé Anonyme Française Alfred Dunhill whose director general had previously had the same position at the Paris branch of Mappin & Webb's, which specialized in luxury goods. So a solution was found. The Dunhill shop in Paris lured clients seeking the best in a vast assortment of top-quality goods at the highest end of the market, thereby diversifying their products, and so this was the beginning of a new era, in which Dunhill shops throughout the world sold luxury goods as found in Paris, in addition to tobacco and its accessories.
An ordinary person would have stayed on to run these new enterprises, as they were so successful, but, as we have seen Alfred Dunhill did not think in this way. He had achieved success with tobacco, even more so than with his "Motorities"; he had accumulated companies and patents; he had amassed an extraordinary collection of pipes from all over the world and from diverse periods about which he wrote a book; he had gradually inserted members of his family in the business; he had become exceedingly wealthy and in 1929 he changed his life again when he handed over the business to his son. However, this time he did not throw himself into yet another business, but in something a bit quieter and probably more comfortable, without betraying his original, dynamic spirit. He lived long, until 1959.
First managed by Alfred Henry, then by other members of the family as well as valid partners, the Dunhill Group continued business through another world war and the heavy bombing and destruction of the original shop in Duke Street and also, unfortunately, the vast pipe collection. It continued the original wishes of its founder, but also made some necessary changes. Out of the original bureaucratic hitch in Paris arose new commercial enterprises concerning prestigious items and in the end the sale of tobacco and its accessories has became a minor (but still important) part of the business.
The adventure of a great entrepreneur which became the epic history of a family has continued until today, from the 1960s onwards, through the shrewd management of a brand by the multinational companies manufacturing luxury items. However, Dunhill is still Dunhill. The magic touch of a curious, restless and brilliantly creative man is recognizable in the lighters, watches, fragrances, pens, leather goods, clothing, toiletries, drinks, tobacco blends and of course, superior quality pipes and who knows what else. Ideas were important for Dunhill. He said: "Little ideas well worked bring fortunes".
Milano, May 2013