The following text has been copied from our Pipe Club of India Facebook Group, where it was given as a response to one of our members asking a question about briar grain / quality and pricing. We include it here as it may be a useful perspective for anyone considering this complicated price-quality question in relation to tobacco pipes.
The two pipes pictured demonstrate the question very well. Here we see two Dunhill pipes of exactly the same shape and size, both are 4-111 (Lovat). The only difference is the grain and the price. The upper pipe is a Dunhill Amber Flame - Three Flame, with a UK retail price (Jan 2022) of £1,850. The lower pipe is a Dunhill Bruyere retailing at £390.
The difference? The grain, and £1460 in price
Grain has negligible to no effect on how a tobacco pipe will smoke. There are some who assert that grain might impact on how well a pipe transmits moisture trough the wood, thereby having some effect regarding sweetness and lower rest time requirement. However, if there is any smoking advantage of ‘good’ grain, I’m sure that it’s minimal at best. To all intents and purposes, grain is purely a cosmetic consideration.
Of course some brands, especially higher end factory makers, like to underline that they select the highest quality briar, to help support their high price points, and to give the customer a feeling of a superior product. The truth is that some pipe smokers seek out or aspire to own pipes with stunning grain, simply because we appreciate the relative rarity of such pieces, and we appreciate the aesthetics - not because we expect good grain to translate to a better smoke.
In a discussion on quality, it’s also important to mention pits, and that’s definitely something that our pipe making friends will know all about. These can be uncovered when the maker is using even the finest possible briar. They either then work the shape to eliminate the area, rusticate the section, or fill the pit. High end makers will usually reject a smooth finish pipe with fills. Intermediate grade pipes will often have a couple. Pits on the outside surface have no impact on smoking quality or pipe lifespan. Pits on the interior could lead to early burnout, and makers will carefully check for this, but also warrant against it as a ‘defect’.
Even the highest grade pipe could show a small pit if it was sanded back a few mm. Makers can never know exactly what is under the surface.
The above doesn’t mean that all briar is equal. The terrain and conditions that the briar grew in will impact on the wood’s density and general quality. Good makers search for suppliers that they can trust, to deliver good quality briar on a regular basis. Articles have been written about where the best briar originates, for example, Greece / Italy / Algeria are often argued to be the best source. The problem is that there are so many variables beyond geography that reaching any real conclusion is virtually impossible.
A briar tobacco pipe from any mid-tier manufacturer, by which I mean a ‘standard’ grade pipe from, for example, Peterson or Savinelli, will have entirely purpose-worthy briar as a raw material. A high end piece from one of these brands, or one of the more expensive factory brands like Dunhill or Castello will offer, in the case of a blast or smooth pipe, prettier grain, but that’s not so say that the wood, and higher price point, will make for a better smoke. Artisan makers like Mike Couch and dädä buy briar in batches from known sources like Romeo Mimmo, paying premium rates for their raw materials in order to secure properly selected, harvested and seasoned briar.
The matter is altogether further complicated by the fact that how a tobacco pipe smokes is about much more than the raw materials used, though this is of course a key point. The engineering in terms of bowl and shank dimensions, air holes and drilling, mouthpiece design, and overall shaping, is critical. A well engineered pipe, made from a cheap piece of briar with an uninteresting grain pattern and a few surface pits, will smoke better than the highest grade piece of straight grain briar, carelessly made into a pipe.
A key to this issue is in understanding that there is not a direct and linear correlation between pipe price and smoking quality. Price is determined by the usual commercial forces: supply & demand, availability versus desirability. If something is in limited supply, and (relatively) lots of people want it, the price will be high. Pipe manufacturers well know that collectors are prepared to pay much more for rare and exceptional grain, purely for the aesthetics, and the pleasure of owning something scarce.
Price is a reflection of perceived value on the part of the buyer, i.e. how much someone is prepared to pay. A variety of factors will impact this, as it is ultimately an emotional decision. Successful brands recognise this, and deploy carefully considered marketing strategies to appeal to their target buyers. Dunhill, for example, will always be able to ask a higher price, simply due to the kudos and desirability of their brand name. If you have two identical pipes side by side, one with a Dunhill stamp, and one with a Savinelli stamp, 9/10 customers will likely be prepared to pay more for the Dunhill.
You can see the same dynamic in many commercial areas, from watches to clothing. (In my opinion) Rolex are the kings of artificially inflated prices, by deliberately limiting supply. Their steel watches retail at ~40% more than an equivalent Omega. In some respects the Omega is arguably technically superior, but two critical factors create the price difference: 1) Rolex is a more recognised brand, with more kudos, and therefore people will pay more for it, regardless of technical or quality aspects. 2) Rolex limit manufacture to create scarcity, Omega manufacture enough to cover demand.
What does all of this mean in relation to tobacco pipe quality? Well, first think about what quality really means. To me, it means that something is fabricated to a high standard, with good attention to detail, good raw materials, and that the maker does this on a consistent basis. To be good quality, a pipe doesn't need to be made from the top 1% of 'nice looking' briar. If you are buying from one of the mid-tier companies (if we consider the bulk of their manufacture) such as Peterson, Savinelli, Chacom, etc. etc. you will be getting a 'good quality' pipe. Moreover, I will suggest that it will likely smoke just as well as most pipes at two or three times the price. As with any manufactured item, there will be the occasional dud; a pipe which has crept through the quality control process for some reason. This can happen with any factory made pipe, though of course consistency should be better at higher price points. Even artisan makers sometimes get returns due to an unseen flaw in the briar or an issue with drilling, though this is also very rare. Naturally one can expect any respectable brand, whether a big factory, or an artisan, to stand by their work and look after a customer experiencing problems. I have returned a pipe to Paronelli due an issue, and they looked after me very well, with no quibbles. Morgan pipes seem to offer legendary customer service from what I've seen in other forums.
If you are trying to understand how you can get the best price/quality balance overall, then I'm inclined to mention Northern Briars, and of course our friends Mike Couch and dädä Pipes. Pipes from these artisan makers cost more than a mid-tier Peterson, but much less than a Dunhill or Castello. I have pipes by all three, and can note that they definitely offer better grain for their price versus the big name factory brands. Of course, this is not to say that artisan pipes are always better value than high end factory pipes, when considering only price vs quality. As an artisan becomes more recognised, and more desirable to collectors, their prices naturally increase in line with demand. Pieces by the most sought after artisans like Nana Ivarsson or Romeo Mimmo command very high prices due to their rarity and desirability. The beautiful 360 degree flame grain Dublin with silver band that I have from Northern Briars (photo) cost around £170. The cheapest Dunhill of a similar size would be a sandblast with non-descript grain costing around £225. The Dunhill will not be a better smoker, in fact my own Dunhill Bruyere cost more than twice the price of my Northern Briars pipe and I promise you, there is no difference in smoking quality. If you're looking for the best value pipe on a lower budget, Blakemar Briars deserve a mention. Their maker Mike Billington is very well respected for their price/quality balance. Their Litchbruyere series offers excellent quality briar for <£100.
Dunhill, Castello, Savinelli Giubilio Oro pipes with a nice grain are very expensive. 'Regular' grade Dunhill etc. have surprisingly plain grain. I have a Ser Jacopo with absolutely stunning grain, and perhaps the best finishing of any pipe I own, including some silver embellishment, yet it cost the same as my standard Dunhill Bruyere Lovat. If my Ser Jacopo had Dunhill branding it would likely have cost at least 3x what it did. This underlines that price is driven by brand positioning and perceived value, not the actual physical aspects that impact smoking. The Ser Jacopo is easily one of the best smoking pipes I own, possibly the best.
Now, it is often asked in relation to Dunhill's price. Will it smoke 3 or 4 times better than a mid-tier pipe, given the price difference? The answer, from an objective standpoint is - certainly not. However, smoking pleasure is about more than the grain of the briar or even the engineering of the pipe. When we hold a pipe we have saved up for, or one whos rarity we appreciate, we naturally enjoy the smoke more. For many, smoking a >$400 Dunhill 'feels' more special than a <$100 Savinelli. Sometimes I personally get more pleasure from smoking a beautifully grained pipe than one of my relatively inexpensive rusticated Blakemars. On other occasions I get just as much pleasure, in a different way, from having a great smoke with a fairly low cost piece. In truth there is little if any difference in how they actually smoke.
A long response I know, but hopefully it helps. The big factory brands want you to think that their more expensive offerings are somehow better so that you will pay much more, for something which took minimal additional effort on their part. The Dunhill Lovat example that I shared above demonstrates this very well. (£1460) ~Rs1.5 Lakh price difference for exactly the same manufacturing effort, size and shape, made by the same people, with exactly the same tools. Only the grain is different, and you can be sure that, as Dunhill buy in bulk, the price difference they paid for the blocks of raw briar was likely minimal.
In summary, don't fall into the trap of assuming that price is a fair way to rank the quality of pipes. Hopefully the above explains that price is not necessarily the key indicator. Brand recognition and desirability play a bigger factor than the actual unit quality.
(The response above was given by our founding member Iain, to a question raised in our Pipe Club of India Facebook Group, January 2022)
A silver banded 'Premiere' Dublin with flame grain, by Northern Briars of England