182. The New Dark Smooth and Sandblasted De Luxe Systems in Historical Context
When Charles Peterson’s patent expired in 1916, K&P was faced with a marketing dilemma: what were they going to call the Patent System Pipes? As Stephanie Rains relates in her blog post from Irish Media History, advertising as we know it today was just in its infancy. The success of Kapp & Peterson is in itself an example of how branded goods had become the norm for most Irish (and other) commodities—the thinking man smoking not just any pipe, but a Peterson pipe, of course.
To transition the re-branding of the Patent System, K&P contracted McConnell’s, one of Ireland’s legendary advertising agencies, for some help. McConnell’s was just past its start-up, having been founded during Easter Week 1916, the week of the Uprising. The firm came up with a great slogan: “A Chip of the Old Block,” as a banner for one of my favorite K&P posters, which I had seen many years ago but thought lost until just a few weeks before the Peterson book went to press.
By 1917 the De Luxe designation was instated as the highest line in Peterson production for System and Classic Range pipes until the advent of the Supreme c. 1950 or so. Notice in the poster that the Classic Range De Luxe features not a P-Lip but a traditional-style mouthpiece—also signaling a sea change in the company’s production. I also love the “at least 150-year old briar” myth—one that was still circulating widely when I first took up the pipe, not dissimilar in its intent to Dunhill’s early claims for the Dead Root bruyere. As if.
The first example of the De Luxe stamp I’ve been able to find in the Peterson catalogs is from 1937, stamped on only one bowl in the whole catalog, an 8B:
The first mention of a sandblast De Luxe is in the c. 1945 catalog. I’ve seen only a handful of these early blasts and can only show you one, a 4s from the 1950s:
As you can see, the blasting technique was far different then, the blast media creating a pointillistic effect reminiscent of Seurat and Signac. I especially like the pains the artisan took for blasting the rim, which you can see if you right-click to enlarge the image. There is no effort to follow the grain of the bowl (if it even had one) but it does possess a marvelous tactility.
While the catalogs subsequent to 1945 refer to the availability of De Luxe System blast pipes, the next illustration I come across is in the 1978-79 Peterson-Glass catalog, which looks remarkably similar to the 1940s technique (Peterson’s motto for so long being, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”):
The photo from the 1979 catalog update is quite similar, as is the one in the 1983 catalog. But Peterson lost its bowl-turning and sandblasting capabilities and almost its existence with the downturn in pipe smoking in 1984. Sandblasting would not return to the De Luxe System until the Dublin era’s first catalog in 1997:
It’s a poor imitation of what had gone before and would be dropped before the next catalog was issued in 2000.
The new De Luxe blast is therefore the first in 20 years, the last of any comparable quality being 35 years ago. But “that was then, this is now,” as my Okie-writer friend S. E. Hinton entitled one of her novels, and there’s really no comparison between the two. I would second Peterson sales director Glen Whelan’s opinion: “I just love the aesthetics of the classic black sandblast boldly contrasted against a shiny silver band. A simple, but timeless combination.” Indeed.
It should also be noted that the black blast is a first for the De Luxe System. Josh Burgess, managing director at Peterson, writes that “the grain is not quite as craggy in most cases as what you’ll see on some of our special editions—like the Smokingpipes.com 20th Anniversary pipe—but it’s a step up from what’s found on the Standard System or Dracula lines.”
As for the new Dark Smooth De Luxe, what we’re seeing unfold is a new-found emphasis and wider marketing of the entire System line. I say this based on the Dublin era’s gradual marginalization of the line and to the new direction we’ve already seen from Laudisi with the release of the 2019 St. Patrick’s Day System and the Standard System Dark back in March. Josh confirmed my hunch: “I’m pleased that we’re now able to offer them in a wider range of finishes. For the past several years, De Luxes have mostly been available only as Naturals, which has meant that they’re pretty hard to come by. Now with Dark Smooth and Sandblasted options, Peterson fans will have a lot more opportunities to add a De Luxe System to their rotation.”
In natural light and in person, the stain color seems to me to have the greenish undertone of Peterson’s Hand Made oak finish, although in the photo I took for the banner and in the SPC photos it looks brown. Josh comments: “You’re correct that it’s the same as the Oak finish in the House Pipe line. In the factory, we refer to this as the Black and White finish—it’s really a dark brown contrast. The grade of briar is the same we use for the Sherlock Holmes smooth finish, so there should be ample grain on each pipe.”
The last time the De Luxe line was seen in similar stain was back in the third Dublin era catalog of 2005. De Luxe Naturals were coming out by 2006, as can be seen in this well-smoked 4s hallmarked from that year and found in the old Grafton Street shop:
By the the next catalog in 2010, the Natural finish had replaced the old brown. The Natural is of course wonderful, but certainly resulted in far fewer De Luxe pipes being made.
Not that I’m against the Natural finish—far from it. In fact, I’m hoping that this new expansion of System pipes might mean we’ll even see a few Supreme Systems at some point. But from a historical point of view, De Luxe Systems were in the brown color family from the 1890s through 2010, so it’s nice to see the return of this finish.*
The two new finishes will be welcomed by many, I know. The opportunity to acquire one of the new high-grade blasts in a System is one big attraction, the other being the fact that there are a few shapes in the Dark Smooth appearing with vulcanite stems—the XL5s (pictured in the banner), the 11s and the 9s.
I thought at first that these were newly-designed stems, but I jumped the gun there. “We actually had some vulcanite remaining,” says Glen, “for the larger shapes. We will continue to use those until they’re gone, but eventually we would love for all the De Luxe systems to go back to vulcanite.” The only other large Systems which we might conceivably see with these mouthpieces are the 11FB “Flat Bottom” and the B42 / Darwin.
The first 48 pipes in the two new finishes were released through SPC on Wednesday, April 22nd. When I checked on Saturday morning, 2 were left. So I’d say it’s been well-received. I’m sure another batch will hit their website soon, followed by other etailers in the near future. I should add, by way of conclusion, that I’ve been smoking XL5s seen in the banner daily since its arrival last week. The reservoir, I’m delighted to report, looks very much like the three-part drilling of classic System pipes and operates perfectly. I still love the new bowl coating, although don’t be alarmed when you see it flake up a bit on the first two or three smokes as the gum arabic is consumed. There was also no tearaway in the air hole. And I don’t know whether it was by accident or design, but this particular pipe has what I consider the “Perfect Bend,” a variation on the “Rainbow Bend” described in the book, but a bit more drawn upward. Fantastic clenching shelf, I hasten to add.
It looks like the System is indeed “getting a lot of love” this year, as one Peterson spokesperson said not long ago.
Thanks to Josh Burgess & Glen Whelan at Peterson
Thanks also to SPC for select photos;
smooth 9s & 11s photos courtesy Harrison and Simmonds
*I’d like to add that there has never been a rusticated De Luxe that I know of, and from holding one of the Rosslare Rusticateds last year, I’d say that’s a pity, as the angular, gnarly rustication technique on those is a wonder to hold and something I’d love to add to my System rotation, in black or any other stain the company would care to release.