As someone who grew up wading in the murky currents of Southeastern Virginia’s Atlantic shores, I was programmed very early on to equate the name, SYN, with the pinnacle of quality in the world of functional glass art. The West Coast had their Snodgrass and JBD and Europe had their ROOR. But out on the East Coast, the land all but forgotten by the counter-cultural tastemakers of the day, we were unrepentantly fixated on the iniquitous renderings of North Carolina’s best kept secret.
SYN, as a brand, is said to have been born somewhere near the Outer Banks of North Carolina around 2002, but the exact dates are shrouded in ambiguity. Original founder and glassblowing legend, Fat Mike, had spent the preceding decade slinging his wares on the road, setting up shop anywhere and everywhere he could. As with most of the early pioneers of his ilk, he most often found himself on the fabled lots of the jam band culture. But having left home at the age of 15, Mike didn’t take to the torch immediately.
“We did a lot of grilled cheeses and stuff,” he told me in a conversation we had back in 2013. “That was when I first left home and was getting into that whole culture . . . you know tie-dyes, all kinds of different stuff, jewelry, just the whole vibe.”
Eventually, Mike would get into the glass game, which at the time, was still a very new industry that largely operated under the radar, thanks to prohibitionist tendencies of the era. “1990, I started selling glass,” he recalled. “In ‘93, I started blowing glass. ‘92 or ‘93.” Consider that: ‘92 or ‘93. Only five or six years after Snodgrass attended his first Dead show; only a year or two after Jerome Baker launched his own iconic career on the torch. The origin of SYN is about as OG as it gets in this industry.
Fast-forward back up to the early part of the new millennium, when Mike had finally taken his show off the road and established himself as a true force to be reckoned with. The SYN name was officially created and immediately became synonymous with quality. Though the brand could have easily competed on the national market, Mike wisely kept it regional to avoid attracting the attention of wrong people, a policy decision that was readily adopted when the company was absorbed by the immensely successful East Coast retail outlet, Island Dyes, back in 2008. Really, though, as purveyors in the same overly-persecuted industry, the store’s owners, Brian and Russell Lowe, had already been operating in a very similar fashion, a fact to which they attribute the impressive longevity of their business in an era of intense instability.
“We were exclusively regional,” Brian recalled. “We stayed away from doing business over the internet or crossing state lines. We stuck with customers we were familiar with and we could survive with.
“The beginning for us was weathering a storm,” he went on. “As far back as Pipe Dreams, we were predominantly just a head shop and like most guys, we had problems just getting pipes in. So, at that point we just . . . had to hang on. In the end, we did better than just hang on. We were able to grow through it. But we stayed small. We didn’t want to overly advertise ourselves, or get too big too fast, because we figured those were the guys that were gonna get nailed.”
As the policies of the nation gradually evolved, so too, did the policy of the company. Slowly, but strategically, the new owners of the SYN line spread the tentacles of their freshly acquired brand into one state after the other, quietly opening new accounts across the nation and solidifying their status as one of the premiere names in American glass. Today, what started nearly a decade and a half ago with one guy selling glass to a few stores in a remote corner of the Bible belt is now a major producer, with a facility that boasts 14 glassblowing stations and a reach that extends into 41 states, Canada, Puerto Rico and Amsterdam.
Don’t think for a minute, though, that the growth in sales and production has somehow compromised the quality. SYN is still putting out some of the best American glass on the market, faithfully adhering to the standards of their mythic founder, but also looking forward and continually pushing the lines of originality and innovation.
To Brian and Russell, what they are creating for you, what you are purchasing when you pick up a piece by SYN is “more than a pipe,” as Brian put it; it’s a timeless piece of art, functional, but still art. It’s something that “will be in your homes that you’ll be completely comfortable with . . . it’s not just smoking . . . It’s like a nice set of china. . .”
Unlike a set of china, though, a piece by SYN will boast a durability and functionality of proportions rarely paralleled. It might not be just for smoking, but the smoking experience is still at the heart of the magic of what they do.
“I bought a Double Fullsize Showerhead and wow!” wrote one reviewer from Suffolk, Virginia. “Best pipe I have ever bought and I have definitely paid more . . . these guys are the real deal,”
Indeed they are. Brian attributed this to the tangible passion they put into each and every step of their process. “There’s an element of customer service you have to offer people in order to make them want to buy from you,” he explained. “And that is, excitement in the product. It starts with us being excited and enthusiastic in what we do and then building that excitement around that product . . . It’s packaging that excitement and then when you’re selling it, whether you sell it out of your own store or you sell it at wholesale, if you bring that level of excitement, it’s going to be sold.” It takes more than just feelings, though. It requires a commitment to quality in every detail. “You can’t make the sales rep at the store counter look stupid by saying, ‘Oh, it’s a great product,’ when you’ve really just given them a piece of junk. You have to deliver, right? It’s executing every step.”