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35.6151°N, 87.0353°W
Columbia, TN, USA

There is ancient thread mentioned on the Rosetta Stone and thought to have been found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs. It’s called byssus and it's woven into the finest fabric known to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Treated with lemon juice and spices, the silken cloth glowed with a golden glint in sunlight. Unlike traditional silk harvested from silkworms, byssus has an unorthodox origin: it is the solidified saliva of the Pinna nobilis clam that lives in the turquoise waters off the Mediterranean island of Sardinia. And there is thought to be only one person left who can harvest and spin this precious thread into gleaming cloth.

Say “exctinction” and most people think animals. The last Galapagos tortoise living out its life in solitude. The dodo. The mastodon. The dinosaurs.

But there are other extinctions that happen every day, when the last of one’s kind dies off. The last speaker of a language. The last person who can repair antique mechanism – a clock, a piece of furniture, a piano. As our world careens further into the digital realm, it’s the arts and crafts that are dying off. But if you look hard enough you’ll find people who are keeping those antique traditions alive as they build with their hands, shaping rough wood and metal and clay into works of functional art.

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“There’s maybe four shops left in the country where craftsmen are making briar pipes,” says Pete Prevost, owner of Briarworks Pipe Co.

In an old warehouse in Columbia, Tennessee – a stone’s throw from their original location up the highway in Nashville – the artisans of Briarworks are hard at work shaping knotty pieces of briar wood into exquisitely crafted smoking pipes.

“Briarwood is good for pipes because it’s naturally resistant to fire,” says Pete, one of his hand-crafted pipes perched between his lips. While we talk, he takes it out occasionally, sometimes tamps down the tobacco and relights it. The earthy, herbal smell hangs sweetly in the high ceiling of the warehouse. It’s the smell of great uncles, of solving mysteries on the foggy streets of London, or captaining a ship through a trecherous strait. While it’s romantic, the pipe in Pete’s hand is no prop or gimmick. It’s the natural extension of a person dedicated to his craft.

Pete can talk fluently about the process, about what makes a good pipe, and about the rough materials they choose.

“The majority of pipes made today are briar,” he says, examining bins of rough, knotty briarwood next to burlap sacks. “Briar comes from the roots of a tree that grows in the Mediterranean. It’s the part of the tree that absorbs water from the ground, and so it also absorbs the moisture that happens during combustion.”

It’s also especially conducive to carving.

“Long ago people would have used knives,” he says. “We use grinders and sanders to shape our pipes.”

Pete introduces Sam, one his team of craftsmen working on the pipes. We watch as Sam attaches a gritty, circular plate to a grinder. Mounted a knee-height, the grinder is perfectly placed so Sam can work the rough briar burl, pressing it into the spinning circular plate. Sawdust sprays off the briar wood and is immediately sucked up by a vacuum dust collector.

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“You start with a rough idea of the shape in your head,” says Pete as we watch Sam work. “You work it, bit by bit, and eventually you start to see your idea coming out of the wood.”

It only takes a few minutes before what had been a gnarled piece of wood suddenly has the rough outline of a pipe bowl.

“Once we have the rough shape, we start switching down in grain,” Pete explains as Sam changes out the circular grinding plate for a less gritty option. “Eventually we get down to where we're just buffing it smooth."

After carving, the team stains the pipes to bring out the natural woodgrain. The process is a fascinating look at an ancient tradition. The resulting pipes are a beauty to behold – partly due to the natural beauty of the stained wood, but also because it's no simple process. There is an art, a feeling, and an intangible spirit to the work that goes on in the Briarworks shop as they keep a tradition alive.

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