Olindo Guerrini, an Italian poet, writer, book-lover and rebel who lived in Italy in the late 19th and early 20th century, writing under the pseudonym Lorenzo Stecchetti, loved tobacco. Like every good rebel, he knew and appreciated good quality pipes, although he never turned up his nose at simpler models in use amongst the farmers, boatmen, sailors and “scariolanti” (who toiled the land) in Romagna, a historic Italian region. These pipes had bowls made of red clay and mouthpieces in Marasca cherry wood and were sometimes called caratene, a term which Guerrini used in some of his sonnets written in dialect in the late 1880s and early 1900s. But what is the origin of this term? Language scholars studying the Romagnolo language racked their brains for a long time over the original meaning of the word, until quite by chance one of them noticed a sign in a shop in London: Charatan Pipes. In fact, there was hardly any difference between the two words. Yet, knowledge of caratene pipes had never spread beyond the Romagna region. On the other hand, in the late 19th century, the wealthy upper classes were already familiar with this prestigious, expensive pipe produced in a small workshop not far from the River Thames. It is suggested that it is in this period that the term caratena, or "Charatina", “small Charatan” was coined, an affectionate and ironic name for the common pipe in red clay and Marasca. So why was a costly pipe produced in England being so much sought after by a few, discerning Italians in Romagna in the late 18th century?
According to some studies, the word “Charatan” is actually the surname of a Russian-Jewish immigrant, Frederick Charatan, who opened a pipe workshop in London in 1863. However, there seems to be problems with dates here, because at that time Frederick would have only been fourteen, old enough to work, but certainly too young to open his own business. The documents he provided in 1878 to apply for British citizenship state that he was born in 1849, and it is supposed that his arrival in London was relatively recent. Thus, it is likely he opened his workshop in Mansell Street in the early 1870s, when the young Russian was just over twenty. Moreover, an advertisement for Charatan pipes dated 1924 confirms this: “After fifty years – the perfect pipe”. So, the 1863 date should be pushed forward to the 1870s.
Frederick’s application to become a British citizen in 1878 also provides other important evidence: he did not go straight to London from Russia, but he went via Austria, which at the time was an important centre (especially Vienna) for the production of meerschaum and amber. Indeed, an account of the International Exposition in Paris (1867) praised the Austrian pavilion for its examples of the most refined pipes and mouthpieces made in these materials. It is highly likely that the young Charatan, during his travels between his homeland and Britain had by that time learnt the art of carving meerschaum pipes, and brought them with him to his small workshop in Mansell Street. These pipes became so popular that he had to move to larger premises in Prescot Street, just round the corner and close to Tower Bridge.
In London in the 1870s there were as many as thirty meerschaum importers and carvers, but the real innovation which would revolutionize the pipe smoker’s world would come in the shape of a marvelous wood root imported from France. Briar wood was more difficult to prepare and carve than meerschaum, but for a craftsman like Frederick these problems could be overcome. Very soon the first magnificent briar pipes stood out on his counter.
Frederick Charatan shared the values of traditional workshops. Craftsmen had to start serving their apprenticeships when young, and if they were skilled workers they could learn from their elders, and after completing the apprenticeship they had to fashion a masterpiece or “test piece”, which was obviously a pipe in this case. Switching to briar wood for the Russian only meant continuing to produce perfect, exquisite pieces as he had done with meerschaum. Painstaking work and attention to detail that at times bordered on the obsessive were the hallmark of the various stages of a task that literally started at the root, when choosing the block to be cut and treated. Unlike other manufacturers, Charatan did not just finish pre-turned bowls imported from France. The same went for the mouthpieces, as only the best materials were selected. The tools available at that time were simple, such as drills, grinders, files and sandpaper. More complex equipment that could have increased output was simply not considered. The briar was seasoned by alternating high-pressure steam jets with long drying-out periods in an oven, thus removing any trace of resins or tannins that could affect the smoke’s taste. The selection of the material and handcrafting were lengthy processes that meant a limited output, and thus prestigious. Indeed, these pipes were rare, but they were starting to get noticed abroad, even by people like Olindo Guerrini in distant Romagna. The atmosphere at the Charatan workshop was one of a close-knitted group of expert pipe makers proud of their craft, each one shaping a pipe from beginning to end adding their own personal touch. The work and shop areas were not clearly defined, the customers were warmly welcomed and allowed to watch so that in time some even became close friends. At a certain point, a curious, determined and observant young man visited the shop, who was in love with everything connected to the world of pipes, and who would be a frequent visitor in the future: Alfred Dunhill.
By the time Dunhill had established his shop in 1907, he had already been visiting Frederick Charatan in Prescot Street for some time. The old master was his model, but the fact that he himself was not able to sell such perfect pipes was frustrating for him. That is why, in spite of the cost, he began to buy pipes from Charatan and then resell them in Duke Street. This became an expensive proposition, and he had to find a way to start his own manufacturing. But how could he do this in a short time? One way was to convince Charatan to let him have two of his master craftsmen, or else he could try and convince two craftsment to leave Charatan and come to work for him. It is not really known what happened, but the fact remains that Dunhill managed to lure two of Charatan’s craftsmen. In 1910 the sixty-year-old Frederick retired, and his son Reuben took over, precisely at the same time that Dunhill’s production was getting underway, with the contribution of Joel Sasieni’s expertise and mastery, who had been one of Charatan’s best craftsmen. There are quite a few coincidences in this account, and they can be interpreted on several levels. We will not examine them in detail here, but suffice to say that from that moment on began a long history of competition and contrast between the two pipe manufacturers, and one of the two would have give way to the other, eventually.
Reuben had begun working in his father’s workshop when he was young and so was already an expert, and thus was soon promoted to master carver. When he took over his father’s business at the age of twenty-three, he still followed his father’s original mission, which was to produce quality pipes. Thus, no machines allowed, the finest selection of briar wood, and highly refined pipes produced in limited editions crafted by expert pipe makers, whom he himself had helped to train. Elsewhere, still in the heart of London, another entrepreneur was becoming successful, who would not stop at making quality pipes, but aimed at marketing and diversifying his products. Healthy competition between the two rival firms struck up, but it was the Charatans that felt the competition more keenly. They believed they were the aristocrats of pipe makers, and looked down on their rival who was increasing output at the expense of absolute perfection. It is certainly true that the two schools were different. For example, briar was seasoned in two different ways, and each firm believed their method was the best. However, a sharp difference above all could be seen in the approach to the final model. Alfred Dunhill and his successors expected the pipes to comply with strict standards, such as shape, size and finish for a certain model. This was inconceivable for the Charatans, where the chosen model could be modified. In this case there were no strict rules but two complementary factors that determined a good pipe: the expert pipe maker’s personality and the quality of the briar with its unique types of grain. Indeed, it is said that it was Charatan himself who appreciated and promoted the flame grain, way ahead of his time.
The rivalry between the two firms extended also to the clients themselves, always ready to discuss various features. Thus, while time passed the two firms strove to make even higher quality, exquisite pipes. However, WWII struck a terrible blow to both firms. Dunhill’s main shop in London was bombed, and so was Charatan’s only workshop and shop.
Herman Lane was a young German from Dresden, who already had experience in the running of his family’s business established by his grandfather in 1890, which dealt in tobacco and cigarettes. It was an important firm, but Herman was forced to leave it in 1937, as he was also Jewish. He emigrated to the USA together with his wife and hardly any money in his pockets, but he had great ideas, skills and experience, and a useful network of international contacts, to the extent that by the next year he had opened a shop in New York specializing in tobacco and pipes. In a few years he succeeded in recreating on American soil what he had lost in Europe, building up an empire with 150 employees. He also started importing pipes made in Europe, which were much sought-after in America. Thus, following the end of the war Lane and Charatan crossed paths. Charatan had managed to deal with the bomb damage and was trying to pick up his business again. In 1955 Lane became the sole distributor of Charatan’s pipes in the USA. He had already regularly visited the London shop that had moved to Grosvenor Street in Mayfair, as he recognised the enormous potential of Charatan’s brand. Now he spent even more time in the shop and would have a look at the firm’s paperwork. To his great surprise, he found piles of undelivered orders. How on earth did these marvelous craftsmen do business this way? He realized he had to teach them the principles of marketing and convince them to increase output, otherwise how would they perform in America? Lane’s influence grew further after 1962, when Reuben died and the family decided that it was preferable or inevitable to sell the business to Lane. The following years involved quite a few changes in the running of the business. Although Lane embraced Charatan’s general mission, he decided to diversify production introducing lower-grade models and following market trends by creating new models and variations. An example of the kind of models subsequently produced was the Double Comfort, which had a saddle stem with a stepped bit which tapered further the stem, which smokers even now either love or hate. In 1965 Lane bought Ben Wade, in addition to Charatan, a company based in Leeds that manufactured pipes using machines, and kept the company going until 1965. He then closed down the company and moved the machinery to Grosvenor Street. Some swear that Charatan never used these machines, but it is also true that the American market was expanding and so there was increased demand for these popular pipes. Thus, apart from the well-known workshop in Grosvenor Street, in London other workshops were set up in Camden Town (1969) and Holloway (1973).
Thus, Herman Lane saved Charatan’s struggling business from collapse. Thanks to his business acumen and marketing skills, he transformed a niche brand into an international phenomenon. The proud craftsmen dedicated to perfection had to accept quite a few compromises as a result, and it is thought that at a certain point marketing policies dominated all the rest. However, these were difficult times for pipes, to the extent that at a certain point Lane Ltd. sold off its business when faced with an extremely advantageous offer and then turned to other things.
It was in 1976 when a bombed dropped for a second time on the workshop in Grosvenor Street, this time in the shape of the news that not only had the firm been sold off, but also that the buyer was Dunhill! Not exactly the arch-rival of the past, but rather a multinational company merged with other companies in which the family played a minor role. Yet, this was quite a blow, and even more so the fact that from then on Charatan would no longer be independent, which at least under Lane’s management had existed to some extent. Thus, many of the expert craftsmen, such as Kenneth Barnes, Barry Jones, Dennis Marshall and Dan Tennison, felt that they could no longer work for a new firm. They did not, however, totally abandon their craft of pipe making, rather they decided to start their own activities. Of course, the new owner privileged the interests of the group, and after a phase of what seemed to be a continuation of the previous policies, closed the workshop in London in 1982, and moved all the manufacturing to Dunhill’s own factory in Walthamstow in the East End of London. Thus, the Charatan brand soon faded until it was no longer considered of interest and so changed hands again.
What was left of the famous group of close-knit impeccable craftsmen proud of their skills? The brand. This was sold off in 1988 to an important American tobacco import company, James B. Russel, and was stamped on pipes manufactured in Saint-Claude, France, probably at the Butz-Choquin factory. They were decent pipes, but only the name remained, nothing else. Smokers were either indifferent or nostalgic. Finally, when James B. Russel closed in 2002, it seemed that Charatan’s glorious history had reached the end. However, even the world of pipes may have happy endings, and in this case Dunhill once again would provide one.
In fact, in 2002, fourteen years after selling off the prestigious brand, the famous company, which by now had merged with a multinational luxury goods company, decided to repurchase the brand, for the simple reason that times had changed and companies tried to adapt to the increasingly discerning smoker. It was the right moment to enhance, repropose and relaunch a series of traditional, prestigious brands that smokers still held in high esteem and that could be revived. Thus, Charatan was once again in production in the workshop at Walthamstow for a short while, and then moved to Chatham in Kent where it is now revived by the Invicta workshop. This firm was established in 1974 by Colin Fromm and Colin Leeson, and has recently been called on by Dunhill with the aim to relaunch Charatan, and other brands. Colin Fromm, the most well-known skilled craftsman at Invicta and expert in freehands, is now at work.
Milano, April 2014