Whenever someone decides to pick up pipe smoking as a hobby, they might ask themselves a series of important questions:
- Should I buy a cheap pipe, or an expensive one?
- New or estate?
- Cob? Briar? Meerschaum? Dubiously crafted Chinese composite pipe?
For example, after some initial research, I chose to buy a mid-priced briar estate pipe as my first. Simple, Easy. Once this is settled, the pipe-smoker-to-be might then consider where should my first pipe come from?
For me, that too was easy. England. My first pipe must come from England.
Why though? I’m not exactly sure, if I’m honest. I think maybe there is an association I’ve developed between the country of England, and the act of pipe smoking. Is it because of Sherlock Holmes? Or just the stereotypical image of a tweed-jacketed old Englishman reading and smoking a pipe in his cozy study? Maybe I just associate the English with high quality luxury items (Rolls Royce, Bentley, Burberry)?
In any case, I absolutely had to have an English Pipe as my first. And so I bought one. This one, to be exact. My pre-1980 GBD New Era 867 Bent Billiard. ($80 from SmokingPipes.com)
I love the cross cut grain pattern and that dark walnut stain on this old, dense briar. It’s also feather-light and compact; useful as a hanger and/or pocket pipe. It smokes extremely well, although the bent shape is prone to gurgling if you’re a wet smoker (I’m in recovery). Further, the thin chamber walls get hot quickly, so a slow cadence is the preferred modus operandi here. These faults, I am confident, make the pipe a smart choice for the fledgling piper, as it will quickly teach you how to avoid charring your bowl, and how sour concentrated “pipe spit” tastes. Valuable lessons, to be sure.
Upon taking delivery, the condition of my first pipe was good-to-fair. Certainly in line with its description on SmokingPipes.com. The rim is darkened from years of enjoyment, and there are several dings around the rim and greater stummel.
I chose Dunhill Nightcap for my maiden smoke. An English style blend, for an English style pipe. Perfect. I was now a pipe smoker. I’m not sure if smoking made me feel like Sherlock Holmes or an old professor, but I can say that this is one fine English pipe. What a pleasure it is to hold, and behold, and to smoke.
In fact, I had to know more about it (why the hell did SmokingPipes.com mention it was “pre-1980”?), and so I ran to everyone’s favorite history book: the Internet.
A BRIEF HISTORY
GBD began as a French endeavor in the 1850s. Named after its founders, Ganneval, Bondier & Donninger (two Frenchmen and an Austrian, respectively), their initial offerings concerned only Meerschaum pipes. Within half a century briars became more popular, and the French company became an English one. During this time the company maintained two factories, one newer facility in London, and the original in France.
In 1931, GBD first offered the New Era line, which at the time was their top shelf model, selling for 12 1/2 Shilling. In the 1973 catalog, GBD touted the New Era:
“The beauty of this pipe’s perfect briar is accentuated by the richness of the ‘take-off’ dual finish.” 
New Eras are today a middle-of-the-road GBD pipe, relative to the company’s high grades. The following lists GBD lines by quality, and in descending order:
“Pedigree, Pedigree I, Pedigree II, Straight Grain, Prodigy, Bronze Velvet, Virgin, Varichrome, Prestige, Jubilee, New Era, Prehistoric, International, Universe, Speciale Standard, Ebony, Tapestry, New Standard, Granitan, Sauvage, Sierra, Penthouse, Legacy, Concorde.”  (emphasis added)
So what is the big deal about pre-1980 pipes? Well, in 1981 the entire company was purchased by Comoy’s of London, a move which many associate with a drop in overall quality. Whether the drop is actual or perceived…I’m really not sure. But retailers are certain to point out whether a pipe falls on the Comoy’s side, or the Pre-1980 side, of history.
So how can you tell which side your GBD is on? Just how old is your GBD?
Well, that is not so easy. There are a few reference points, however. Sometime after the Comoy’s merger, the GBD logo on the stem was changed from a silver or brass rondelle, to a painted one. As you can see in the picture above, the rondelle on my GBD is silver, indicating the pipe was made before 1980. Likewise, the linear “London England” stamping seen below was replaced by a round “Made in London England” stamp after the merger.
Because the New Era line was introduced in 1931, and because mine was made before the 1981 merger, we can confidently place the date of manufacture somewhere in that 50 year span.
I told you it wasn’t so easy.
I just love old pipes like my New Era. I think it’s neat to smoke a pipe that is as old, or older than I am. There’s a certain “cool factor” to an estate pipe, even if I’ll never know all the stories it has to tell.
Be sure to check out my Ennerdale tobacco review if you’re interested in hearing the latest saga in this old pipe’s history.
For more information about GBD’s and dating them, refer to the Pipedia entry.
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