Protopipe is a Swiss Army knife for weed pipes

If you invented what became known as the Swiss Army knife potpipe, it was a virtually indestructible, highly designed 4-ounce brass called the Protopipe, with over 1.5 million units in Stoner for generations. To sell. The way to your door. (As you know, the whole thing is “building a better mousetrap.”) So why did you get to the doorstep of a dusty industrial park right next to a major drug in Willits, California? Was it just me?

I trekked to about 4,900 towns three hours north of San Francisco. This is actually a pilgrimage, but for two reasons.

1. I felt the need to wave a man behind this virtually perfect pot pipe, which is my go-to tool for almost the entire life of consuming cannabis. 2. I needed an answer.

Who knows about Protopipe and its creator, Phil Jargenson, in the origin story and 51-year-old business (almost unprecedented in modern cannabis space) made in the crucible of this country’s counterculture. Are there few?

The Protopipe, invented in 1970 (and called Contrivance), has changed little since 1976.

(Angela Lau)

The history of owning one of the best potpipes I’ve ever made is now lost to the smoking gods, but it’s definitely in the early mid-1980s of my smoking career. bottom. And I probably came across this glittering treasure in the Emerald City of Oz, a waterbed and head shop in Burlington, Vermont. Famous for its bright green façade and pair of winged monkeys sitting on the roof. Since then, I have owned a pipe.

Proto Pipe isn’t a pipe like a smoking gadget, it’s a palm-sized tool, and it’s somehow a futuristic, old-fashioned worker’s tool. The brass, hand-drilled bowl has a permanent five-hole screen and a rotating, closed teardrop-shaped lid that sniffs the lit bowl and keeps its contents safe. The 2-inch brass tube serves two purposes. The open end is the mouth of a hidden pod that holds a bowl of five herbs, and the closed end is tampering with the bowl. A notch on the edge of the pod allows it to be twisted into the side of the bowl and held in place by thin poker.

Poker also plays multiple roles. The carbide tip can be used to clean the permanent screen and push the resin trap out of the bottom of the bowl for deep cleaning. The other end is designed to clean the pipe stem.

Its functionality has earned a decent reputation as a Swiss Army knife with a protopipe as a tool, but in many ways it is also a Levi’s Strauss of cannabis. This is a legacy brand that has its roots in the early years of the awakening of American cannabis in the 1970s and has a genuine connection. This is unusual for only a few others in the universe today, such as Stoner Comedian Chee & Chung (1971) and High Times Magazine (1974). The difference is that comedy duos and pot publications are familiar to today’s cannabis community and beyond, but protopipes are clearly not. I think this is confusing.

To be more precise found I was confused until I trekked to Willitz and sat down with Jergenson and his brother Richard (company historian and archivist) at the Cannabis Museum and Archives of the latter.

My September visit was the culmination of a search for repeated answers for almost four years. My curiosity was first inspired when I visited the internet in 2017 to find out where to buy it as a gift. A quick search did not find the company website. Amazon’s check may have passed the actual transaction, but due to the lack of the interlocking letter P logo (inspired by the Rolls-Royce logo) engraved on the lid of the rotating bowl, a few imitations Brought a pipe.

However, as Aladdin rubbed the magic lamp and turned the cool brass many times by hand, he realized that the pipe itself might have a clue. I removed the poker and rotated the storage pod to pull it away from the side of the bowl. Inside the brass engraved indentation was the mailing address of Willitz’s PO Box. It was one of those thoughtful design prosperity that I must have seen a hundred times and never thought of.

Disassembled brass smoking pipe

Proto Pipe features a storage pod clockwise from the bottom left, a brass bowl with a permanent screen, a removable resin trap, and a carbide tip when you’re not holding each part of the pipe firmly. Includes steel poker. It can be used for cleaning the screen, extruding the tar trap, and cleaning the mouthpiece.

(Angela Lau)

That additional piece of information helped me find the phone number. Someone picked up the phone after it looked like an eternal number of rings. After a brief conversation, I hung up with confidence in the fact that the brand is still a going concern. I was also confused by the fact that in the 20th century of the 21st century, I had to mail a check to Willitz (really!) And wait patiently (about 10 weeks) for it to be mailed. ..

At the time, I shrugged it and thought it was a real old-fashioned way of doing business, or, more ironically, a calculated, aged hippie branding play. A year later, I went searching again and wanted to include Protopipe in the Times Holiday Season Cannabis Gift Guide, but it was empty. Intriguing — make it mysterious — I scrutinized Interweb every six months or so for signs that my beloved pipe brand had found a ramp to the Information Superhighway. Finally, last November, I struck a paid stain. Fifty years after its official launch, ProtoPipe had an official website.

I immediately clicked the contact button. By the day after Thanksgiving, I had a conversation with Richard Jergenson, which lasted for most of the nine months and culminated in my visit this fall. What Jergensons told me was a story more ups and downs than MC Escher’s stairs. The short version looks like this:

Immediately after being introduced to marijuana in Denver in 1968, Phil Jergenson came up with the idea. “Maybe my Eureka moment was a ski lift trying to light a pipe made of cardboard and the lid of an old film can. [as] “Bowl,” he said. “And I realized I didn’t have the tools you needed. At that time I decided to design a pipe.” He said that most of the pipes at that time were carved in wood or stone. Explained that the metal lamp parts were screwed on. When the Space Race was in full swing and James Bond was in the cinema, Jergenson envisioned something more like a gadget with removable poker, a place to store weeds, and a permanent screen. Easy to clean.

The self-taught mechanic began tinkering, and after about a year and a half of repetition, he got Contrivance, the predecessor of today’s Protopipe, and decided to move to San Francisco. “The Whole Earth Catalog has just come out. I just read it. [about] “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” Ken Kesey, and I thought California was ready, “he said around 1970.

“I followed him in 1971 and helped him realize Pipe’s dream,” said Richard Jergenson. “San Francisco was the epicenter of the growing youth movement. To me, cannabis seemed like the glue that helped organize the movement.”

From the beginning, the pipe dream seemed to be in danger of getting off the tube forever. There were scale-up challenges, daytime work to do, and knockoffs for sabotage. In June 1972, the brothers made a bet that changed everything. They raised $ 120 and placed a 2-inch x 1-row ad in the then-five-year-old San Francisco-based magazine Rolling Stone. A few months later, Phil Jergenson wasn’t working on a carpentry gig in Southern California when he received a call informing him that his PO Box was packed with orders. Within a year, sales were strong enough that Phil and Richard felt they could focus on their pipe dreams. The brand was born.

More ads in counterculture magazines, artwork by underground comic artist Larry Todd (best known for his Dr. Atomic character), and the presence of retail stores in record shops and waterbed stores. Thanks to that, the brand prospered. In 1976, the design was slightly tweaked and renamed to avoid turning from a business partner to a competitor (someone broke the word “prototype pipe”).

Two men holding a brass smoking pipe

Phil Jergenson, the inventor of the protopipe on the left, has a protorocket. His brother Richard Jergenson, the company’s archivist and cannabis historian, has a classic version of the pipe in the pop-up at the Emerald City Cannabis Museum in Willits, California.

(Adam Tschorn / Los Angeles Times)

Almost as soon as I discovered Protopipes on the other side of the country in the mid-1980s, Jargensons discovered that the world around them was changing. Phil was convinced that his cell phone was being tapped as the Reagan-era war on drugs began in earnest. They decided to temporarily leave their pipe dreams to someone else. In 1987, they sold their business to a friend with the agreement that if cannabis became legal at the federal level, they would have the opportunity to buy it back.

While the new owner (the same person he spoke on the phone in 2017) continued to build the Protopipe for the next 30 years, Jergensons said it was about it. In the early days of the Internet era, early successful brands, backed by counterculture magazines and a solid presence on the 1970s World Wide Web, couldn’t be found anywhere during the proliferation of imitations. bottom.

When the pendulum of public opinion turned around in favor of cannabis in California and elsewhere, Jergensons wanted to play a role in the future of Protopipe again, but their relationship with their former friends was 2015. That’s worse in the year, Phil decided to launch a competing product called the Mendo Pipe (because it was renamed Proto Rocket). Then, in 2018, Jargensons happened to regain control of the Protopipe brand 30 years after handing over the Protopipe brand. They quickly set out to rebuild from scratch on one machine at a time.

Even now, more than three years later, it is still in rebuild mode. The Willitz plant produces as much as 200 pipes a day, but ranges from 15 to 30 pipes. “Our goal is to make it 100,” Phil said.

Another goal is to help people looking for ProtoPipe online find the real thing. To that end, Phil relied on his 27-year-old daughter, Rona Jargenson, to build a website and e-commerce platform ( “She put together a great shopping site,” Phil said. “We’re now mostly retailing from exclusive wholesale,” said Phil, who sold $ 179,000 worth of pipes last year for $ 89.95 each. He was bullish in 2021 when I visited in September. “We are up at least 50%,” he said. “We could even double that this year.”

With more than half a century of history in rearview mirrors, I asked my brothers what the Protopipe business would look like in the next 50 years.

“The first 50 years were pretty turbulent vehicles,” said Richard Jergenson. “So I don’t know what the future will look like.”

I also do not pretend to be able to clearly sanctify the future. But I know one thing. Even if the Jergensons decide to close the factory tomorrow, 2071 is still full of protopipes, each not only a smoking ship, but also a sacred object, a smooth brass guard, a 3-inch forever 1970. A machine for a long time set in the year.

Protopipe is a Swiss Army knife for weed pipes

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