Julius Vesz, Pipesmith

(Patron magazine)
By Marni Andrews

In downtown Toronto, just off the main lobby of the venerable Royal York Hotel, lies a traditional pipe shop. Its proprietor is Julius Vesz, 66, whom many claim makes the best pipes in the world. Mr. Vesz was born in a small town in Hungary, southwest of Budapest. His grandfather was pipesmith to many aristocrats of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Before emigrating to Canada in 1957, he spent some time in the Soviet military, tracking U.S. spy planes. As a reward for voicing his opinion with the Communists, he was once thrown into jail. He arrived in Canada with empty pockets, unable to speak English, and has built an internationally renowned business, which is one of the last of its kind. He has received numerous awards, including “Best Pipemaker in the World.”

We spoke in his workshop, a dark and cozy cloister fortified arm to arm with high-backed wooden chairs, plush velvet draperies and paintings. We were interrupted by three gentlemen from Holland, who stopped by to pay their respects. One was buying his sixth pipe from Mr. Vesz.

How did you get started as a pipesmith?

Three years after I came to Canada, I was a draftsman making $125 a week, very good money then. There were a lot of pipe smokers with British pipes, and they were sent to England for repairs. I set up a little bench in my furnace room and bought some equipment and started copying what I had seen my grandfather do. (My grandfather made pipes, but he died when I was nine.) The first ones were not very good! But I fixed them so that they were smokable. In a few hours of work, I was making more money than I was as a draftsman. That gave me the incentive to stay with it. My big break was when I met Alfred Dunhill in Simpson’s, where they had a humidor. He used to come once a year to meet customers. I introduced myself in what little English I had and told him I was doing pipe repairs. I went to see the manager for the distributor in Canada. He gave me some pipes to try me out, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

You use only dead-root briar for your pipes. Why?

The definition of dead-root briar is that nature has to cure the wood. The plant dies and it sits in the ground for over a hundred years. It’s almost petrified. There is no more briar. It’s all gone. Twenty years ago [the price] was going up 20% a year and they were running out of it. Whenever I saved a couple of thousand dollars, I bought wood. All of the wood today is green. It might look the same, but it’s not the same density, so the pipe doesn’t smoke sweet; it smokes wet. If you take a root out of the ground today and leave it in your garage for two hundred years, it’s still green briar. Nature has to do the job.

What is an average price for one of your pipes?

A standard one turned on a lathe is $80 and up. For a hand-cut (freehand) pipe, $300 and up. And they’ll smoke better than an $800 green briar pipe.

Who are your customers?

It’s word of mouth. I get a lot of publicity. For the last few years, I’ve been making my living from Americans. When I ship 20 or 30 hand-cut pipes overnight to the U.S., they’re often sold within two days.

Do you smoke?

I have smoked a pipe since I was seventeen. My father allowed me to smoke on the weekends. Now, I may smoke 10 a day, but if I’m really busy I don’t smoke at all because it breaks my concentration.

What do you think about anti-smoking legislation?

The government has legislated and priced tobacco to the point where I am working for them. They’re using me as a tax collector. I have to charge $140 for a pound of tobacco, and the same tobacco in Buffalo is $18.95. I lived under the Nazis and Communists in Hungary and some of the politicians here frighten me. They just do it in a more civilized way. I see smokers standing outside buildings in their shirtsleeves like a bunch of outcasts. It comes to a point where you say, “Why don’t you just ban this?” I passionately love this country but my business has dwindled to almost nothing in the last few years since all this legislation has come in. I’d give it up but a lot of people rely on me. Europeans take the regulations about smoking as an insult to their intelligence. Here they have smokers on the run because nobody’s fighting back.

You’ve made pipes for some very famous people.

Zero Mostel, Jack Lemmon, Danny Kaye, Mickey Rooney, Anwar Sadat, Ralph Richardson, President Ford, Prime Minister Wilson, Bing Crosby. Bing called me two weeks before he died. He liked the long pipes to keep the smoke away from his face. I gave Mickey Rooney his first pipe in 1964. He couldn’t afford to pay me because he was paying so much alimony! Zero Mostel became a good friend. He called me “the Rembrandt of Pipemaking.” When he was in Toronto, he was in here every day drinking cognac at 4 pm. Most movie stars project a totally different image on stage, but many of them have their noses up high. They expect you to give them something because of who they are.

How many pipes do you make in a year?

I don’t know. Maybe a few hundred, but I’m doing more and more individual work. I’m limited physically; I can only make so many. It’s a very slow process with more than 100 hand operations in each pipe. When I make a pipe, I do things that the customer will never notice; I make it like it’s for myself.

Tell me about your life philosophy?

I’m a perfectionist. I’m still perfecting. We all need to keep learning. The man who thinks he is too smart is no good. I’m happy and content with my life. Some people have said to me, “You’re not a human being if you don’t go on holiday five or six times a year,” but this is my world in here. It’s my home away from home. I never ever thought I’d have such a good life as this.

What motivates you?

I’m a fighter. When you’ve gone through tough times, your current problems don’t seem as tough as the problems you’ve gone through. During the war, my mother couldn’t give me a piece of bread, and I would see tears coming out of her eyes because of that. It lives vividly in your mind. But that gives you the encouragement to try to go on and build a better life. Those born here have unbelievable opportunities, today more than ever, but they don’t want to do it. You have to work. You can’t give up. Once you believe in what you’re doing, you have to stay with it until you succeed, even if it takes a lifetime.

When will you retire?

I’ve been married for 43 years, but I don’t know how it would be if I was with my wife every day all day. I’d really miss the human contact of the shop, but people would hunt me down and beg me to make pipes, and I would do it. People are begging me not to close my store. I’ve worked in windowless foxholes all my life, so once I get out of here, I’ll buy a house in the Caledon Hills, see the sun rise and set, and make pipes for the U.S. market.