In the 5th century, two brothers, Romain and Lupicin, who were both monks, founded a monastery where the Bienne and the Tacon meet. The monastic community grew around Condat Abbey (“condat” meaning “confluence” in Celtic) and with it, its reputation throughout medieval Europe. In the 12th century, the body of a Chief Abbot which had disappeared some five centuries earlier was discovered almost perfectly intact. The Abbey took his name, Saint-Claude, and became a place of pilgrimage which shaped activity across the valley.
The production of a large quantity of religious objects made of boxwood and horn began including prayer beads, rosaries and holy water fonts which were highly sought after by the pilgrims. Wood-turning skills were developed, which then began to be used for purposes other than making religious items. These included games, wooden toys and in particular, pipes. Roughing, grating, repairing, assembly, filling, polishing and more… it took fifteen very precise, technical processes to make a wooden cube or a pipe.
In the eighteenth century, artisans were making pipe stems from wood or horn. From about 1856 onwards, the activity became industrialised, especially as briar began to be imported from the south of France. Factories specifically dedicated to making pipes did not appear until the late 19th century. By 1925, up to 6,000 pipe makers were living in Saint-Claude and the surrounding area (almost half of the total population!). In 1906, pipe-maker Arsène Gros, even founded a workers’ cooperative called “La Pipe”, whose story is told today at the Maison du Peuple. However, bought by their customers and then dethroned by the advent of the cigarette, the factories closed one by one. By 1958, no more than 1,000 pipe makers remained. The decline accelerated. Due to anti-smoking campaigns and increased competition, Saint-Claude now has no more than half a dozen manufacturers. But its reputation and expertise continue to distinguish it as the World Pipe Capital. The august brotherhood of master-pipe makers and the museum of pipes and diamonds are indeed a testament to this title.