While out hunting, the Prince of Wales had lost some pipes and wanted to know if anyone had found them. What was their distinguishing feature? A white spot inserted on the upper side of the dark stem. The announcement, which was placed in London newspapers in 1921, did not specify the name of the pipe manufacturer, but this was in fact not necessary as most people were already familiar with the trademark. Now the pipe had an eminent, new testimonial.
Alfred Dunhill first had the idea of inserting a white spot on pipe stems in 1912 for practical reasons. The hand-made, vulcanite stems were so perfect that clients often had trouble knowing which way to insert them into the shank, so Dunhill solved this problem by placing a mark, a white spot at the end of the stem to show which way was “up”. Although Dunhill was brilliant at marketing his products, he certainly did not think of this as a possible trademark. Indeed, in 1923 he had to go to court to defend his original creation. In Dunhill pipes at that time the white spot was a thin, round ivory circle inserted into the stem, but today this is made of high-grade acrylic.
Introducing the white spot was just one way Alfred Dunhill revealed his special knack for inventing things. Going from a harness business to pipe maker in a few years meant that he not only tried to glean all he could in pipe making, but he also tested his ideas. It is not known how many trials were carried out, or whether any were unsuccessful, but the successful results contributed to the birth of the legendary Dunhill pipes.
At the turn of the twentieth century most pipes were set aside after a few years because their insides got clogged up. In 1911 Dunhill found the solution to this problem by inventing an aluminium inner tube that could be inserted into the pipe and replaced when necessary. Thus, a pipe could last a lifetime and stay clean. This method was in use up to the 1930s, when pipe cleaners were introduced.
In the early years of his business in London Alfred Dunhill produced only vulcanite stems. He bought semi-manufactured bowls from Saint-Claude in France which were then finished by his craftsmen. However, the briarwood had to be “refinished” first. When the piece came from France the briar still contained some sap which would have made the smoke taste of tannin and would have made breaking in difficult. Curing it in oil could solve the problem, as the oil would eliminate the sap, but on the other hand it would clog up the pores and when smoked the oil would seep through the wood, which would produce unpleasant effects. What could be done to remedy this? Dunhill must have already been thinking about this in 1910 if it is true that by 1913 he had already patented (No. 2157) a process to cure and refinish pipes with oil. His machinery reproduced in a certain way the conditions of the “first smoke”, which also removed the oil as it gradually seeped through. A lot has been said on oil curing. In the first place the details of the patented process (and preliminary oil bath) have always been jealously guarded. Moreover, they have evolved over time. Secondly, whereas according to Dunhill this process could only be positive, not everyone fully appreciated (or appreciates) this process. This is especially true in more recent times, with the gradual change in techniques and smoking tastes, and there is a growing number of people who prefer other, more natural ways to expel the sap. However, the fact remains that oil curing is typical of classic British pipes in all their variations (and also by producers in other countries) and there are still a substantial number of faithful clients.
Once the pores in the briarwood were cleared, the pipe’s shape had to be improved, especially concerning the continuity between stem and shank and all the fine details, which would contribute to an overall balance of the components. The final process was to “finish” the surface of the wood, which determined (and still determines) the aspect and character of the pipe as object. In the early years when pipes were still supplied by the French, apart from some Charatan models, Dunhill noticed that the heavily varnished pipes were unaesthetic and not practical. As soon as the firm started to produce its own pipes (1910), different methods were sought.
The first method that was developed produced a light and effective finish called Bruyere, the French name for briar. Instead of varnishing the wood, the wood’s grain was enhanced by applying coats of a deep red stain and light waxing. The second method was introduced later, after many trials. Sandblasting had been used since 1870 to make glass opaque, thoroughly clean iron parts or the facades of buildings. However, no one would have dreamed of adopting this process to finish pipes in such a drastic manner, except Alfred Dunhill, of course. Thus, in 1917 he was ready to launch a new amazing finish: the Shell. By blasting high speed microparticles onto the surface of the briarwood, the relatively softer parts of the wood were removed, leaving the harder parts of the wood and a beautiful, craggy, chiaroscuro pattern, which enhanced the grain much more than mere staining. The name Shell was used to describe the type of relief pattern which is present on shells, but it can also mean “shriveled”. It is suspected that pipes of inferior quality were treated in this way, as the imperfections in the briar wood were removed. But this is certainly not the case as far as Dunhill is concerned. A Shell was designed right from the beginning in the choice of briar, which in this case was Algerian as it was softer and more suitable for obtaining a pitted surface. It was prepared for sandblasting by first being treated with oil which strengthened the wood. The models from the early years had some problems relating to variations in their shapes, although collectors say these are now a distinguishing feature of the pipes.
Right from the beginning Alfred Dunhill’s scientific mind and attention to competitors imposed a system of classification, which evolved over time and was later standardized. On the pipes (on the shanks to be more precise) this was expressed in letters and numbers. A detailed analysis would call for an expert in this subject and new discoveries have further complicated matters. Here is just a brief sketch of the classification. Until 1975, the Bruyere bore the letter “A”. The phrase “Inner tube” was stamped until 1934. H.W. stood for "hand worked", in other words entirely hand-crafted pipes made up to the 1930s. O.D. stood for “own design”, which means that the pipe was made on the client’s own personal specifications and these can be dated back to the later 1920s and early 1930s.
Special attention deserves to be paid to the initials D.R. which appeared from the beginning until 1930 on a few, in fact very few Bruyere pipes, which stand for "dead root". It should be pointed out that these names and the ones that followed were primarily a question of marketing. However, quite a few people have been excited about the real meaning of "dead root". In addition, the D.R pipes are flawless, straight grain models that are extremely rare and sold at a premium. Over the years Dunhill even established a grading system based on the aesthetic aspect of his products, by using letters of the alphabet and a varying number of stars. But why the term “dead”? It is said that this is because such an exceptional grain can only be obtained from ancient burls belonging to ancient, dead shrubs. It is even suggested that the briar’s “cure” and all the rest takes place as a natural process in the soil. However, experts of Radica Arborea object to this arguing that as soon as the shrub dies it immediately starts decomposing, and so is completely unusable. Anyway, there are still some doubts, but despite the gloomy name, the pipes are quite exceptional.
Other codes appeared from around 1915 which allowed to date the year in which the pipe was manufactured. Later on the dating became more explicit. It was a means to avoid people trying to use their warranty after one year had elapsed. Nowadays this system greatly helps those who wish to date a Dunhill pipe.
The year 1928 is crucial to the history of the company, as it was the year in which its founder decided to retire. Above all, it is important for collectors, who distinguish between pre- and post-Alfred models. However, there are those that do not notice a great difference, rather a continuation of quality when other members of the family took over.
Still on the subject of classification, the shape and size of the pipe was expressed using a precise code, which had already been present at the beginning, but soon became consolidated in the 1930s. The need to limit the types of products had already been present in remote times, but with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and expansion of the market this need became pressing. Fewer people went straight to the source to buy a product, and so the chain of intermediaries became longer. In the late nineteenth century mail order became popular and the descriptions of the product in the catalogue had to be brief and to the point, with a small picture included. In 1910 Alfred Dunhill himself developed his first "About Smoke", carefully designed so that distant clients could immediately grasp the features of the pipe, accessories and blends. However, from the 1920s, starting from the American market, increasing prosperity together with developing industry and trade led to what would later be defined as the “consumer society”. The tendency to reduce the range of models whose features were nevertheless distinctive was not invented by Dunhill, but in any case the company was in tune with the spirit of the times. The client immediately understood the characteristics of a pipe through a series of established initials for shape and size. Through this type of classification the company greatly influenced the pipe market, thus other companies soon adopted it (and still do so now).
Following Alfred Dunhill’s retirement the finish on the pipes constantly changed, due to both external circumstances and market demands. Here are some examples:
In 1930 (or 1931) appeared the Root or Root Briar. The name "Root" was given to the most authentic briar pipes with exceptional grain, smooth, simple light-brown finish. In short, the colour of briar wood. The "D.R." models, hitherto treated with the Bruyere method, would have this new type of finish. As they are extremely rare, Root pipes are at the top end of the company’s quality products and their price reflects this.
No other finishes were developed until after WWII during which it was difficult to replensih the supplies of briar. Europe had suffered greatly during the war and the market was depressed. For this reason the Dunhill firm turned its attention to the American market and produced the Dunhill 800 OD series, recycling the old Own Design stamp without the type actually being designed by the client. These were simply lovely large, traditional pipes.
The Tanshell finish came out in 1952, sandblasted with a light tan colour using Sardinian briar, which is much denser and harder than Algerian briar. The resulting grain was more regular and even.
There were some problems for Dunhill in the 1960s. Events in Algeria following independence meant that Algerian briar was impossible to acquire, and Italy had decided to keep the precious wood for national manufacturers. Supplies had to be found elsewhere, in particular in Greece. This meant that the different features of the briar dictated a change both in technique and final aspect of the finished product.
In 1972 (1973) the new Redbark finish was introduced, sandblasted briar with a medium red stain, which two years later became lighter and was unsuccessful, so in 1976 the pipes were once again a medium red. Production was interrupted in 1987, but now there has been a revival with the name Rubybark. Redbark can be considered the most famous finish among those developed “after Alfred”.
The Dress came out in 1973. Why "Dress"? Simply because its smooth, black finish recalled an elegant dress, perfectly reflecting the Dunhill outlook.
In 1978 the special Collector series was introduced, hand-made pipes using the plateau part of the burl, which offers the best grain pattern.
The Cumberland finish was introduced in 1979 (1980). The pipes were sandblasted with a brown stain and had a brindled, vulcanite stem. There are also some variations. The name "Cumberland" derives from the fact that the finish was inspired by old Root Briar pipes found in a warehouse in London in Cumberland Road.
In 1983 the Chestnut came out, having the same features as the Cumberland, but with a smooth bowl.
The County was introduced in 1986, sandblasted with a light brown finish and brindled stem similar to the Cumberland. This production was retired the following year, but has been taken up again more recently.
In 1988 the Russet appeared, reddish brown pipes that were short-lived.
A warm orange colour characterises the Amber Root, introduced in 1995. It recalls the Root Briar finish, and sometimes has brindled stems like the Cumberland.
It is a limited edition, and is also available in the flame grainversion, in which case it is called Amber Flame.
The last to be introduced (1996) is an extremely rare series, the Ring Grain pipes. These are high-quality flame grain pipes which are sandblasted and sport different colours. The Cumberland type is called the Shilling.
The Dunhill company currently produces Dress, Chestnut , Root Briar, Bruyere, Amber Root, Amber Flame, Shell, Cumberland, County, Ring Grain, and Rubybark pipes.
However, there is also another feature that should not be overlooked, and we mention it here because it is the icing on the cake, being an important part of the pipe smoking process: the bit at the end of the stem that goes into the mouth. Initially this tended to be quite thick, but in the 1920s a thinner, Comfy version was introduced, and then in the 1930s the F/T or Fishtail was developed. The stems were always hand-made, right up to 1976 , but from then on they were manufactured industrially and so tended to be thick. However, this was not successful as clients were dissatisfied, and so stems returned to being hand-made. Today’s stems are a cross between the initial thick ones and the Comfy versions.
The history of the Dunhill company consists of men, solutions and more or less small details as described here. However, what really counts is the general picture that emerges. We could speak of genius and moderation, of perfect, unforgettable objects and a quiet, refined sophistication, which is a considerable achievement.
Milano, June 2013