The Curious purchase habits of the Collector

The Curious purchase habits of the Collector

As a collector, my general pipe buying habit can be summarized as follows. I see a pipe I like, I know I want to have it and I go about the process of making it mine. Sometimes though, the pipe that I want is not available. Someone else was able to snag it before I got my hands on it. In such a case I am forced to do the next best thing and that is to have the pipe commissioned for me. The words: “Please make me this!” as I point to the picture of the pipe, roll quite easily off my tongue.

After the pipe is ordered, the waiting for pipe to arrive stage is truly wonderful. My expectation slowly starts to rise as I am about to get my new pipe. There seem to be no questions and the outlook certain. I will not have to deal with the possibility that I will not enjoy the pipe. How could I? I already saw a picture of the pipe I want. All of the unknown and mysterious elements have vanished. I conveyed the picture, dimensions, finish and stain to the carver. Everything is assured and there is no doubt in my mind, the pipe that will soon be in my hands will be exactly as I presumed.

When the pipe finally arrives, more often than not, I have in fact received the satisfaction of my expectation being met 100%. Other times though, while a rare occurrence it was not even close. It seems that I placed my expectations so high, that the slightest deviation from my imagination, produces an unimaginable amount of pipe buyer sorrow for me.

I think my words and general request to the maker were absolutely clear. What was not clear however was the far too high expectation I placed inside myself, on the final replicated result. There is clearly some type of disconnect regarding my expectations and reality. I actually expect that the carver can execute the pipe I saw in the picture to an extremely high and perfect degree. I have on my own set the bar so high, only because my joyful anticipation allows me to ignore the realities of the situation.

Each new pipe, no matter how hard the carver tries to make it similar to another previously made pipe, will always be different. The briar will be different which eliminates the exact type of grain pattern that I saw in the original pipe. The carvers hands moved in a slightly different manner making this or that line ever so slightly different. Slowly but surely, those individual and unique factors mount and the pipe I was expecting, can suddenly become a new beast all its own. Not a completely new beast but enough of one that the differences allows me to experience displeasure because of the improper expectations I placed on the situation from the outset.

Funny enough, what ‘should’ eliminate that type of ‘pipe sorrow’ situation is the different type of purchase where I see a new pipe posted on some retailer’s website. It is again a rare occurrence but it still happens and the same type of misappropriated expectation can still occur. Even though I am able to peruse the retailers site extensively, review the video and pictures provided for that pipe countless times, check out the dimensions and generally pour over every single detail available on that pipe (and by doing this I am presumably eliminating all of the unknown factors associated with the pipe commission scenario), I can still feel disappointment when the retailer’s pipe finally arrives.

I found it hard to believe that 1/3rd of Jim Cooke’s commissions are returned to him. Perhaps some of the reasons fall outside this ‘perfect shape expectation’ range and as Jim said: “Some wives may have caught wind of the purchase and found it to be too costly and thus the pipe was returned” More often than not however, I expect that the pipe quite simply did not meet the collector’s expectations in one way or another.

I think two main things are at play in these moments. One is related to the commission purchase and I briefly touched upon it already in that we develop this clearly defined realm of expectation regarding all the pipe’s details and if our realm is defined with extremely small to non-existent margins for deviation, any slight and naturally expected difference, is met with a very high amount of displeasure. So this is the self-inflicted misappropriation of what we should expect from these types of scenarios.

The other situation related to buying an existing, already made pipe with limited mystery associated with it, from a retailer and then returning it, has to do with some type of disconnect between what our eyes see and generally enjoy & our inability to bridge the gap between that visual enjoyment and the pipe actually sitting in our mouths. The pipe looks nice and looks great but when that pipe is suddenly placed into action, something is a miss.

Other factors impacting these situations have to do with a form of peer pressure. We see our fellow pipe enthusiasts going ga-ga over some shape and that shape’s popularity starts to rise and slowly our personal idea of what we think we need to be a part of (the ‘in’ shape) starts to creep it’s way into our thoughts and it feels like the thought to have this ‘in’ shape is our own. When that pipe arrives though, we are faced with the opportunity to truly evaluate our previous thought, imagined to be our own and we see that in fact it was not.

I am also mildly appalled at the idea that a collector like me can commission a pipe and then return it to the carver. Based on the collector’s request, the carver puts his or her blood, sweat and tears into their work and upon completion, because of my misaligned expectation, I can tell him: “It’s no good! And here, take it back and give me my money.” It’s stunning to me that this occurs so often. I would like to blame the collector for any misappropriated forms of expectation and nobody else. Collectors should be the ones understanding what it is we are doing when we are ordering a pipe from someone. Seeing the act of the ‘return’ flourish so much, it is apparent that we do not value what goes into this exchange process.

The same goes with the retailer. I have returned 3 pipes out of 50 or so, over the course of my collecting habit. I do take advantage of the ability to do this. I would however really like to learn more about all of these misappropriated expectations that I apply to the situation to turn the number of pipes that I return into 0. When we are not being responsible collector’s and taking advantage of someone’s return policy, something is a miss.

By the way, none of the above applies to the 30% of customers that return Jim Cooke pipes. Please continue to do so because it allows me to get a crack at one of those blasted beauties!




Copyright © 2011. All rights reserved.


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  1. TreverT - September 15, 2011

    This, in a nutshell, is why I don’t take commission orders for “A pipe just like X” unless I know the buyer well and feel he understands the realities of dealing with briar in a handmade object, because too often the fellow will expect to get an exact Xerox copy of the original and it simply isn’t possible. And it is true – Far more commissioned orders fall through than straight website sales. This is why I am generally not enthusiastic about them, because I can either pick out a block and make a pipe that I want to, and it will almost certainly sell when posted to the site, or I can try to satisfy a specific order and face the reality that it will be extra work and there’s only a 50/50 chance it will sell in the end. It’s a difficult situation.

  2. Scott Stultz - September 15, 2011

    David, I’m going to air what is likely to be an unpopular opinion, but in this case I can do it because I’m not a pipe maker, nor do I ever expect to be – I’m a collector like you. I think that it ought to be standard and gentlemanly practice for those who commission pipes and return them for any reason other than clear defects to forfeit a small but significant percentage of the price of the pipe. The cost of unrealistic expectations should be borne by the fickle purchaser, not by the supplier. I have a few pipes that did not meet my expectations, I realized that it was my fault, and I just got used to them. And like many collectors, I’m not a guy who can comfortably afford expensive mistakes. I’ll cut myself off here before I launch into a rant about attitudes and behavior that I see as something other than what’s appropriate for responsible, mature adults.

  3. David M. - September 16, 2011

    I definitely have several pipe-makers whom I adore because of this very reason. We know each-other now and one maker in particular, knows my tastes very well and we have hit the mark on each pipe. There must be a way to get the average collector in that same group or at least closer.
    Your relationship with your special clients and my relationship with my special carvers – what goes on there is not some magic miracle. And there is also no rocket science involved. We need to scour those examples and pick out the traits and elements that are part of the process and bring them to light so more can learn. Simply discussing the no Xerox policy accompanied with an explanation, before any money and additional ideas are exchanged, should at least minimize the issue somewhat.
    You (and I mean we, all of us in general) at least gotta try. Or not. Nobody has to do anything.

    I would like to be the first person to attack your unpopular opinion, if I may.
    Just kidding.

    I have never returned a pipe that I commissioned, even when I had issues with it. As long as the dimensions, stain and stem-color were as ordered, I have swallowed whatever I asked for. It’s tough to get your head around the issue that I bear as much responsibility as the other party however I am forcing it onto myself.

    It seems that both you and I do not subscribe to the idea that we should feel comfortable to return a pipe, which is great. Because now we know that there is at least two of us out there in the whole pipe buying world. Now we should go out and tell the pipe-makers about our little club and I bet you we get to the front of the line on any waiting list they have!

    As for your recommendation though, I agree. It would at least be a starting point to force the general pipe collector to more accurately consider what it is they are doing. This simple fee that you discuss will spawn the type of thoughtful review & consideration that is needed in any case and no matter what, in order to maximize the satisfaction in the overall buying process for both collector and carver. Collectors want to be happy and carvers want a satisfied customer. This extra review should be part of the normal process. Sort of a win win.

    At the same time, pipe-makers should also work to make it absolutely clear to a customer that the picture they are asking them to make, will in final form, very likely, look different in this and that example area. Both parties bear some element of responsibility if we want to minimize this from occurring.

  4. Chris - September 16, 2011

    I purchase several commission pipes per year and with great results and here’s why: I am not a pipe maker so I don’t micromanage the process. I simply tell the pipe maker the weight I’m looking for( under 2oz.) and the bowl width and an open draft. I prefer blasted pipes so I usually ask for a blast. That’s pretty much it. I then ask the pipe maker to have fun and go where the briar takes him. It almost every case, the pipe maker comments on the fun they had with the freedom to create and I get a pipe with what’s important to me.

  5. David M. - September 17, 2011

    Your a smart man Chris.
    If you can ‘let go’ of the process that much then you are a different breed of collector. Collectors like you enjoy give total freedom to the artist experience. That’s a great quality. I wish I was more accepting of total freedom like that. I unfortunately need to establish more rules around my pipes because I imagine I want them to look a certain way. I have thought about doing what you do but I guess I am too picky.

    Hey Scott – I think Chris is trying to muscle his way into our special group!

  6. Chris - September 17, 2011

    I should add that I view pipes, like many collectors, as functional art. Great pipe makers, like great painters have a noted style so it’s the “signature style” of a given pipe maker that attracts me rather than the specific shape. That is what I am seeking when requesting a commission. I have some shapes I love too, and there are lots of mass produced, high quality pipes (Dunhill, Castello, Ser Jacopo, etc) that fill that shape craving for me.

  7. David M. - September 18, 2011

    @ Chris
    There is something very strong with what you are saying. We should simply be asking the carver to ‘create’ for us, whatever they feel like creating, because ultimately yes, your right, we are asking for & craving for the unique style that the carver has shown us. It is that unique style which we are ultimately falling in love with.

    I guess the other way of doing it, asking a carver to create a specific shape with specific characteristics, is related to a lack of trust. We the collector (in this scenario) do not trust ourselves enough to take that leap of faith and just have the carver create the pipe for us with none of our direction or input. If you have that trust or lack of fear/concern, that is a very good quality to have.

    It’s a different mind-set that you have as well as a different planned approach.

    If your planned approach is to collect a carver’s unique way of expression, however they may choose to be expressing it, in this approach, the collectors ego and their personal desires & opinions are kind of getting left at the door. Additionally, in your scenario, the focus is on the artist and what he can do. As opposed to us telling the artist what he can do for us.

  8. Chris - September 18, 2011

    I guess what I am saying is that as a pure smoking instrument I do have things I require of the maker, but they relate more to function rather than form. I have never looked at it as a trust issue, however that is a good point.

  9. Richard Mervin - November 22, 2012


    I would suggest if you miss out on a particular pipe, that you let it go and just look for something else as there are so many high quality pipes being made now. I would be a bit harder on you for missed opportunities, if you had the pipe in you hand at a show and lost out, but over the web and on ebay it is hard even with the videos to get a true feel for a pipe. You might not want to smoke every pipe you buy, some may appeal to your eye, but aren’t practical to smoke. There is always tomorrow

    • David M. - March 11, 2013

      The best part of your comment for me Richard was your ending.
      “There is always tomorrow”.
      Sound words, very well said.

      I guess at that point the issue becomes – dealing with the ‘right now’ moment.
      And can we curb our insatiable initial impulses or not?

      Thanks for the comment.

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