Classic GBD Virgin Apple
30th October, 2000
I've reviewed a few modern pipes, all currently available, all in the over (or well over) $100 category. They're all nice pipes, but certainly great pipes can be had for much less, especially on the "estate" or used market. In fact, there are a great many vintage pipes that represent a true value for the cost conscious, or just for those who, like I, have a love of the classics. I'm not talking old Dunhills and Charatans. The virtue of these pipes is well known, oft discussed, and, as any opinion, somewhat controversial.
Today's pipe is an older GBD Virgin apple, shape #334. This is a small bowled apple, a bit squat, with a chubby shank and a hand-cut tapered stem. I'm often asked how one can tell a stem is hand-cut, and it's not easy to describe what to look for, but in this case, the words "HAND-CUT" stamped on the shank end of the stem are a dead give away. I acquired this pipe at the Chicago show for, I think, $45 in excellent condition. Quite a bargain for a pipe of this quality. Read on!
The shape is gorgeous. I've always liked apples anyway, but there's something about the robustness of this little pipe that really makes it appealing to me - the apple of my eye. I have the same shape in a New Era as well, as part of a cased set along with a beautiful Lovat. The grain on this example is very tight, and nearly razor straight. It's not perfectly centered, but some would assert that neither am I, so who am I to complain. The wood, however, is very tight and flaw free. The bowl is about a Dunhill group 3 size.
What strikes me about GBD pipes, and what has led me to collect them, is the beauty of their cut, and some of the details that other mass market producers of the day either ignored or were uninterested in. In fact, in their prime, GBD and Comoy, to my eye, cut the most beautiful standard shapes of any of the major makers. This isn't to say that there aren't some real clunkers out there, but for a billiard, apple, prince, bent billiard, canadian, lovat, liverpool, etc., it's tough to find a more perfect example than these two once great marque's interpretations. And, they are certainly different from one another, but each beautiful.
The details? I'll get to that...
The inspiration for this particular review hit me the other day. I was smoking Renaissance in a GBD Virgin canadian, and was struck with the fantastic smoke the pipe was providing. Every nuance of the tobacco was well articulated, and there was a richness, a roundness that is only found in a really well broken in pipe. The pipe and the tobacco seemed made for each other. But, was this just serendipity? Or, was this a trend? After all, every pipe is a little different. Could I reproduce, or even approach this experience with another pipe from the same maker?
I selected a few GBDs in several grades from my collection - all of which had been dedicated to Latakia mixtures from the time I got them. New Era, Prehistoric, Virgin, Speciale and Mandarin were chosen, the last two being French made pieces. Though each pipe had its own character, of course, there was a certain consistency between all of them, and each provided a great smoke. This reaffirmed the whole reason I started collecting GBDs in the first place! I'm not going to say that every GBD is a great pipe. That's certainly not been my experience. But, of the older pieces I've managed to acquire over the past few years, very few have been disappointing, and a fair percentage of them have been really, really wonderful pipes. And, not one of them has cost me over $75. Most were considerably less expensive. [Since writing this review, I admit I've had to raise my price ceiling a bit. GBDs have become more collectible, and as such, can rise well above the $75 mark. I've also put a page up showcasing my collection, if you'd like to see some nice examples. -glp]
So, this little apple became the subject of greater scrutiny. It's not the best of the bunch, but is instead quite representative, and whatever I say about this pipe applies to the others in the "test group."
The drilling is exquisite. The draught hole is perfectly centered, and meets the bottom of the bowl at precisely the correct height. The mortise is nicely cut, and everything is reasonably concentric. It's not smooth in there, not given those finishing touches, though the mortise is countersunk, albeit a bit sloppily. Overall, the bowl is machined competently. The finish is very good, with no apparent sanding marks. Of course, being about 30-40 years old, the pipe could have been buffed a few times, and even handling might account for some of the smoothness in the finish.
Turning attention to the stem, a couple of interesting things are noticed. First, the tenon is rounded at the end, rather than square cut. My suspicion is that this was done for easier location and insertion. Coupled with the countersunk mortise, the stem seems to just find its own way home when reassembling the pipe. A nice touch, but hardly a real "feature." What *is* a feature, though, is the fillet around the junction of the tenon and the stem. This is a weak point in stems, and a little extra strength here is well considered. Perhaps this is why the mortise was countersunk... Again, everything is reasonably concentric, with only about .005 of run out.
The flaws in the stem design are probably minor. The stem is drilled straight through, with a stem where the "flared" smoke exit is done in the button. I've written about tapered airways, and really do believe in their efficacy for providing a superior smoke. Also, the tenon doesn't go all the way to the end of the mortise, leaving about a 2mm gap where moisture *can* accumulate. I say "can" as it doesn't really seem to happen...
The button is elegant, somewhat convex at the end, rather than the more common concave of straight shape, and the mouthpiece quite comfortable. In this example, the silver GBD rondelle is perfectly placed. The taper of the stem is graceful, and very well proportioned to the bowl. Sometimes, it seems like a stem is an afterthought, but not in this pipe, or any of the others in the "test group." This goes back to my statement of how well these older GBD pipes were cut. There's an artistry even to, or perhaps especially to these classic shapes. After all, it's a lot easier to make a passable freehand than a passable billiard! In the first case, you can just say you meant to be ugly - in the second, no excuses can be accepted!
Now, how do these pipes smoke? One of my pet theories about old pipes is that the good ones survive, and the bad ones get tossed into the fireplace. This may or may not have any merit, but it could explain why so many vintage pipes smoke so well. Of course, it could be better wood, or better curing techniques, or just the fact that the things have been smoked for aeons that give them their special characteristics. And, of course, we've all had old pipes that were just as foul as they could be. Hell, it's only a theory, and it's worth what you paid for it...
But, this pipe is exquisite! The Canadian that started this whole "project" was a little better, a little smoother, a little richer, and certainly a little more intense in flavor, but this little apple is amazing. Part of the difference can be attributed to the shorter bowl. As you draw smoke from the ember down through the tobacco, the tobacco "colors" the flavor, adding some of the taste of the unburned leaf to the flavor of the smoke. The effect of this is not insignificant. Were this apple a little taller, I suspect it would be closer in taste to that Canadian. But, I'm talking about this apple...here, the flavors of the orientals in the blend really shine. The Latakia provides it's smoky, leathery quality in good balance, and without the sharpness that this leaf can deliver in a "new." The wonderful surprise is the way the Virginias in the blend are rendered. There is a wonderful dialogue between pipe and tobacco that is a pure delight to experience!
As much as I like the high-grade beauties that I've concentrated upon in prior reviews, there's a different sort of joy to be found in re-discovering these old gems. Whether or not one of the high-grades perform as well or better than this pipe once it's been smoked for 30-40 years, only time will tell.
One final detail remains. The top of many of these pipes is not flat, but chamfered beautifully, rounded inward toward the bowl to perfection. Sometimes, that flat top really breaks up the flow of a pipe, while this chamfering just seems to allow the rest of the elements of the shape to come together, and not compete with a stark, flat top. Some don't like this little design element. I do. A lot.
Artistry A+ - GBD made some superb classic shapes, and this is no exception. Anyone wanting to learn about the real classics would do well to study these pipes for a while. Particularly, this is true of the older pipes.
Finish A - It's hard to really evaluate the finish of old pipes, but I've got a couple of ancient and unsmoked GBDs, and they are very well finished. I have every reason to believe that this one was similarly well finished when it was new.
Engineering A - That's a good solid A. If the airway was tapered through the stem, and if the tenon fit to the bottom of the mortise, it would have gotten an A+. Still, the pipe smokes great, so I can't take off very many points...
Smoking Quality A/A+ - The A is for this pipe, the A+ for the Canadian that started this whole affair.
All in all, a great pipe at a stupid great price. It's not a super disco wonder pipe, with perfect, tight straight grain and nuclear powered automatic lighting devices, but it's a GREAT pipe, and one that I will be happy to smoke while motoring along this winter in my classic Volvo 122S.
Disclaimer: The comments herein apply ONLY to vintage GBDs. I firmly believe that the quality of this once great marque began to go directly to hell at some point in the late 70's; perhaps later, perhaps earlier. The modern pipes may be fine smokers, but a lot of the real beauty, the attention to detail, the cut, the finish, was sacrificed to produce pipes to a price point. Sad, but true. Even good olded stems are never as beautiful as good hand-cut stems, and you'll never find fills in the old "high end" GBDs, while I have seen plenty of putty in later versions. Pity...
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