A few weeks ago, Gianluca at the Sansone Smoking Store in Rome contacted me and asked if I’d like to see some photos of Sansone’s Peterson Rogha pipes from 2016, made especially for his shop, as he was preparing to put up a new 2017 small batch on his website. I said yes, of course, even though I had no idea what a Peterson “Rogha” was. The photographs arrived the next day, and as you can see, they’re natural virgin briars. The photos were so gorgeous that when our book designer saw them, she immediately asked if we could use one for the book (Gianluca said yes, by the way).
Natural Virgin briars aren’t something many pipemen here in the US know much about—what they are, why they’re special, or how they smoke. But ask an Italian smoker, or an aficionado of Castello or Radice, and you’ll get a warm and enthusiastic response. When Peterson releases a small batch of these, it’s something to talk about.
The first question incognoscenti (rookies) of this type of briar (like myself) may ask is simply, where did the idea of a natural briar come from? Gianluca says the commonly-circulated story in Italy is that pipe-smokers in the Castello workshop were the first to discover the smoking properties and beauty of the natural briar, which Castello has released as Natural Vergin or Natural Virgin. “It’s a really sweet smoke,” he says, “because the briar is very porous and untreated with any kind of lacquer, stain or polish, allowing them to season like meerschaums.”
In Irish, “Rogha” can mean “choice,” “pick” or “selection,” and all three are apt descriptions of the line. The Rogha, now in its third year, is an extremely limited-edition line made in collaboration with Mario Lubinski (Peterson’s renowned Italian distributor and a passionate advocate of the brand), comprising mostly System but some Classic Range shapes as well.The line came about through Gianluca’s friend and collaborator Giuseppe Balzano, who is passionate about virgin briar and about Peterson, and wanted to see if he couldn’t bring his two loves together. They went to Mario Lubinski with their plan, and he agreed to hand-select bowls for them on his annual trip to Dublin.
Mario writes, “I’ve never been able to find more than 12-18 bowls per visit suitable for this kind of project, they’re so few and so rare.” Gianluca says the bowls have to be very clean, without root marks or spots. They’re rare enough that while there was a Rogha edition in 2014 (19 pipes, actually), there wasn’t one in 2015, because Mario couldn’t find any bowls of the right quality. For 2016, Mario found only 12, and for 2017 another 12. The bowls must be absolutely flawless.
“The Rogha is similar in some respects to the Army Linseed oil finish we’ve done in the past,” says Mario. But the Rogha is totally virgin briar: no stain, no oils. Many Italians believe they’re the best smoking pipes in the world, but you’ll have to be the judge of that for yourself!”
Continues Gianluca: “When we saw the first Rogha pipes Mario brought back in 2014, they took our breath away. It was like looking at the soul of a Peterson pipe laid bare.”
So how does one companion such a pipe? “The natural virgin is a briar that has nothing to hide,” says Gianluca. “It acts like a sponge—the smoker should do nothing to clean the outer surface; just smoke it! This kind of pipe works in principle like a meerschaum; it absorbs impurities from the smoker’s fingers on the outside and tobaccos in the chamber inside and ever so slowly it becomes darker and darker. The smoke is sweet, because all the heavy tar residue is naturally absorbed into the wood like a meerschaum.”
In the right light, a natural virgin can seem to have a slight rose blush, as you would expect from naked wood. Sometimes it looks nearly white, and sometimes a very light blond. So, what does it look like as it ages? To my embarrassment, I can tell you—after a half-dozen or so smokes, the outside just begins to look a bit dirty. I know that because I lucked into a new Larrysson artisan lumberman a few years back, had no idea what it was, and as the outside begin to look, well, smudgy and grimy, I traded it off! Whoa. Bad idea. If I had persisted, as you can see in these pictures of Castello natural virgins, it would eventually have begun to color:
The Rogha 2017 pipes, like the earlier issues, are sterling mounted, with the tough new well-formed acrylic P-Lip mouthpieces (yes!). The blasting, which Gianluca says is done by Peterson’s regular provider, is more intense than we usually see on a Peterson. I’ve included both the color and black and white photos of all 12 pipes to give you an idea of their real color and of the contrast in the blast.
Like most recent Peterson high-grades, the bowls are hand-stamped with the classic forked-tail Peterson’s over Dublin stamp, and the hand-stamped shape number beneath. This year’s batch includes nine X220 / 312 Systems, a 150 bulldog, an 80s and a 999. Each pipe comes with a tamp special to the 2017 release. They’re priced at 220€, or about $270.
by Filippo Verova (and Francesco Castiglione*)
for Sansone Smoking Store
Many thanks to Gianluca at Sansone Smoking Store
and to Mario Lubinski, Lubinski.it
Castello photos courtesy Smokingpipes.com