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World Cannabis Week: The World's Greatest Glass Pipe Artists Gathered at the Galleria Glass Exhibition

Thanks to legalisation in some US states, high-end pipes now sell for thousands of dollars.
2014 april 20, 6:00am

Glass by Salt. All photos by Davis James

The glass pipe game has been experiencing a renaissance in America that has made its top artists more money than ever. At the Galleria Glass Exhibition, an event at World Cannabis Week in Denver, Colorado major glass artists showcased their insane-looking pipes, unloading them to stores and collectors from all over the country. In only the last few years, prices have shot up from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars, and the craft has gotten better. Several factors have converged to form this vortex of cash and glass. The kids who used to buy their glass at festival lots have become grown-ups with enough disposable income to drop more on glass, and the tools of the trade have improved, allowing pieces to become more intricate. The atmosphere of the entire USA has eased to weed, and at its core, the glass renaissance has been another phenomenon of the legalisation movement.

Glass by Robert Mickelsen

“The root of all the money is the cannabis revolution going on in this country right now,” said Robert Mickelsen, a 63-year-old traditional glass artist who recently turned to the pipe field. Although Mickelsen has acted as a mentor to many heavy-hitters in the pipe community, he was initially against calling pipes an artform. In the glass documentary Degenerate Art, he disparaged his disciples for applying their skills to pipes, but he came around after Salt and Kevin Ivey, two glass blowers from Austin, Texas, prodded him. “He had been telling us to quit pushing in bowls, saying that we would never be taken seriously for making pipes,” said Salt, one of the curators of the Galleria Glass Exhibition. “And then there was this evolution – the pipes became more and more artistic, and minds began to change, and the existing arts-and-craft market took a shit after the 90s.” No one was buying glass sculptures anymore, and Mickelsen was struggling. Traditional glass artists were looking for new avenues to sell their work, so many started making pipes even though they didn’t smoke or have any particular interest in cannabis. Salt and Ivey coaxed Mickelsen into making a smokable piece, and Salt proved that it was a lucrative field by buying Mickelsen’s first pipe in cash for $1,500 (£900). “It’s probably worth more than five grand now, but I’m never selling it,” Salt said. “That’s Mickelsen’s first pipe.”

Glass by Bandhu Dunham

Bandhu Dunham, another glass artist from the old school, embraced pipe-making more quickly. Standing next to his showcases at the Galleria Glass Exhibition, he told me, “In the last couple of years, [pipe-making] has become so significant, artistically and culturally, that I wanted to get involved.” In light of traditional glass sculpture's declining popularity, Dunham sees pipes as an avenue to save the artform. “People in the conventional glass market are concerned that the collectors are dying off,” he said. “Younger buyers are not necessarily replacing the people who would buy sculptural things. The dilemma is How do we get young people involved in collecting? The answer is right here.”

Glass by Snic

The improving national perception of pot has helped legitimise glass pipes as collectible art, but there has been a specific force within the pot community that has been the driving force behind high-end glass: dabbing. The majority of pipes being sold for thousands of dollars are dabbing pipes used to vaporize cannabis extracts like BHO. Snic, an artist well known for his metal-infused glass works, told me, “The concentrate market is a higher-end market than what we’ve seen before, so it’s pushing up the prices as well as the craft.” Concentrates are still an expensive niche in the cannabis market, and the connoisseurs can justify spending large amounts of cash on beautiful vaping devices. Regular flower pipes don’t sell for as much, and even the old school guys who don’t dab are mostly making dabbing pipes. (Bandhu smokes occasionally and rarely dabs, but Mickelsen stopped smoking weed a few years ago.) “I’ve dabbled in everything – cocaine, acid, whatever,” Mickelsen said, “but weed was the one thing I couldn’t keep myself away from, so I had to stop.”

Despite his personal preference, weed has given Mickelsen’s art new life, alongside his former students, who have been dedicated to the craft of pipe-making since long before it was a lucrative field. Where glass sculpture has failed, pipes have picked up the slack. Mickelsen is ecstatic about the result.

“I am having the time of my life. I'm having a ball. I’m making money,” he said. “I'm a better glass blower than I was only two years before because I'm mixing with these kids who are so fabulously talented. I learn new stuff every day. I'm reborn in this industry, and I couldn't be happier.”

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