NEW YORK -- Dry martinis, thick steaks and fat cigars are proving that everything old can be cool again.
Next up, that symbol of thoughtful repose, the pipe.
Sales of pipes rose about 25 percent last year as men scouring smoke shops for the ultimate cigar are seeking a fresh thrill in briar, corncob and meerschaum.
"They're not going to choose cigarettes; that's not their style. They're not going to choose snuff; that's not neat enough. They're looking for something elegant," said Richard Carleton Hacker, author of "The Ultimate Pipe Book."
The fresh interest may not restore pipes to their former glory of the 1940s, when one in five American men puffed on one regularly.
Yet, it's given the clubby world a chance to bask in the glamorous glow of premium cigars, whose renewed popularity -- sales jumped a third in 1995 and another 50 percent in 1996 -- has spawned magazines, smoke clubs and cigar shops.
"The pipe doesn't have that same sensation; it's a different experience altogether," said John Salomon, 33, a graduate student in Oxford, Miss., who began smoking a pipe recently.
That's good news for companies such as Brown & Williamson PLC, which makes Sir Walter Raleigh pipe tobacco; UST Inc., the maker of Dr. Grabow pipes; and Consolidated Cigar Holdings Inc., which also produces pipe tobacco.
Nikos Levin, owner of NML Pipes Direct, a West Palm Beach, Fla.-based pipe dealer and mail-order business, said his business jumped 30 percent in the past year.
"The majority of my new customers are people who just started to smoke cigars a few years ago," he said.
No one's really sure how many Americans smoke pipes. Hacker, the author, estimates that it's somewhere between 1 million and 5 million.
That would still be down from 1984's 10 million.
What's more, while more people are picking up pipes, they're only occasional smokers.
While year-end figures are not yet available, pipe tobacco consumption was expected to drop to 7.5 million pounds last year from 7.9 million in 1995 and 12.6 million in 1990, said Pipe Tobacco Council President Norman Sharpe.
Still, there's no question that interest is picking up.
Alfred Dunhill Ltd.'s eight U.S. stores are posting double-digit sales gains, said Marc Perez, a buyer for the chain owned by Britain's Vendome Luxury Group PLC.
The pipe also is gaining fashion points.
Dunhill, the most recognized maker of pipes, recently sponsored a pipe teach-in at a trendy Manhattan cocktail bar.
The 50 attendees ranged from 50-something executives to a fashion designer in her 20s.
"A pipe has always exuded a kind of romance, a mystique," said Larry Sherman, director of retail operations at Nat Sherman, a New York tobacconist and wholesaler.
Yet, some new cigar-cum-pipe smokers will confess to worrying about an image problem.
"Pipe smokers have a reputation as tweedy college professors -- ponderous, thoughtful," said Mark Grossich, owner of Bar and Books, the host of the Dunhill teach-in. "Not a lot of people these days want to be perceived as ponderous."
Pipe smoking has many of the same characteristics as cigar smoking: It requires the interest of a collector, a taste for the unusual and money -- quality pipes start at $75 -- and time.
Time aplenty, in fact. Hacker expects only a fifth of beginners to stick with the habit, largely because pipes require great care and practice to bring out the desired taste.
"Cigarettes are like watching television and cigars are like going to the movies. Pipes are like reading a book. It involves commitment," said Richard Newcombe, president of the Creators Syndicate news service.
"You just can't go into a drugstore, buy a pipe and expect to learn how to do it."
Pub Date: 1/01/97