The Fab Egg is an intricate bong that sends clouds of weed vapor through a dizzying array of percolators all contained in one egg-shaped chamber. In 2012, Scott Deppe and Jake Colito made their first one and sold it for $1,200. The product captivated the high-end bong market immediately, and the price tag has increased with each new incarnation. In 2016, during an auction in the basement of Seattle's El Gaucho steak house, an astounding thing happened: A version of the bong sold for more than $100,000.
The meteoric rise of Deppe and Colito's handblown pipes—which sell under their Bellingham company's name, Mothership—would be hard to imagine 14 years ago, when items like the Fab Egg were being confiscated by the federal government. What has changed in such a short period of time to turn bong makers into millionaires instead of federal convicts?
Several things at once. In a sense, it's no surprise, given that we live in a part of the world with legal weed, an artistic tradition of high-end glassblowing, and a healthy population of rich people. Plus, across the country, shadowy cannabis cash was an inevitable result of a black-market drug turning into a legal one. This is not the story of one bong. Mothership's $100,000 Fab Egg was actually the second six-figure pipe sold by the company. Hundreds of bongs in the $10,000 range, made by dozens of different artists, have sold in the past five years. That has created a booming economy for glass artists, who are heavily concentrated in Washington State.
At first glance, the whole thing seems so ridiculous—$100,000 for a bong? Even $1,000 seems like a crazy amount to spend on a piece of drug paraphernalia. But look past the stigma surrounding pot, and this industry is like any other American craft movement. Just like fine textiles, pottery, or furniture, functional glass is made by studio artists executing their skills at an astonishing degree of craftsmanship. If a Gustav Stickley sideboard can sell for $300,000, a Peter Voulkos ceramic pot can sell for $100,000, and a Dale Chihuly sculpture can sell for millions of dollars, what's so strange about the best glassblowers in the world getting six figures for something you can smoke pot out of?
While you ponder that question, the answer is already being broadcast on Instagram accounts around the world. Even though people who have the kind of cash to spend $100,000 on bongs are not, in my experience, the kind of people who want to talk to journalists (maybe it has something to do with that shadowy-cannabis-cash situation), I was able to ask the person who bought the $100,000 piece at El Gaucho some questions through Instagram. The collector, whose Instagram handle is Uncleerrrl, said that buying the Mothership piece gained him immediate attention.
"[I] went from a couple hundred followers to 10k overnight," Uncleerrrl said via private message. He is now up to more than 20,000 followers and frequently posts pictures or videos of the $100,000 bong being used around the world.
The majority of the highest-end pieces out there are sold through private messages on Instagram or anonymous message services like Kik or Snapchat. But even without going through private business channels like Instagram, you could drop $30,000 right now on any number of glass websites.
These staggering quantities of cash have started to attract traditional glass artists—who have spent their careers creating sculptures and vases for corporate lobbies—to the bong market. With bongs appreciating at astronomical rates, going from $1,000 to $80,000 in less than half a decade, many people in the industry think functional glass art may be riding a price bubble that is bound to collapse. But the march of weed legalization is also spreading stoner acceptance among the ultrarich. California just recently legalized cannabis, and soon Los Angeles will have recreational weed stores. It wouldn't be surprising if New York City had legal weed within a decade. Does that mean pricey bongs will start to populate mantels in Beverly Hills and the Upper East Side? Who knows.
Either way, welcome to the era of the $100,000 bong—you're already living in it.
On a gray day, I drive up to Bellingham to see Mothership's 15,000-square-foot production facility. Colito and Deppe are both busy working on their own glass pieces, manipulating colorful materials in front of a blowtorch's flame, and checking the work being produced by their 48 employees. After exchanging pleasantries over a fat joint in the Mothership break room, Colito takes me on a tour. We pass through a maze of rooms where young people in hoodies work at lines of glassblowing stations. At the end of their warehouse is a room where each piece is carefully packaged and shipped. We walk past a row of six-foot-tall safes and make our way to an identical safe that's set apart from the rest on its own side of the room.
Inside this safe is the company's elite line of glass, the pieces that start around $10,000. This elite glass is distinct from their more basic line of water pipes, which are made by the shop's employees out of clear glass and retail for $500 to $5,000. The relatively cheaper clear pipes are still highly sought after—if you want one, you will likely have to camp outside a head shop before one of their release drops—but each clear piece is replicated hundreds of times by the shop's flame workers. On the other hand, each piece of colorful elite glass is unique and never replicated. Mothership has made about 150 pieces in this elite line, they say, and every one of them has either maintained or increased in value.
"If you look at all of our pieces, they've all gone up in value," Deppe says. "We're not overproducing stuff. And for all of the elite and color pieces, we are making only one. We've sold pieces for $1,000 back when we started, and now they've resold for $80,000."
Colito reaches into the safe and pulls out an ornate wooden box engraved with sacred geometry and inlaid with semiprecious stones. He carefully pulls the lid back along its wooden hinge to reveal a bong that looks like a replica of a convenience-store soda cup. A yellow-and-white-striped glass straw exits the top and functions as the mouthpiece, while the bowl sits on a stem sticking out from the side of the clear glass cup. Swirls of color ring the clear glass, and a ring of small marbles, each handcrafted with breathtaking detail, line the bottom of the cup. The marbles sit inside the cup's interior, where they'll mix with water and weed vapor as the piece is used. This is a collaborative piece between Mothership and a team of Japanese glassblowers led by Junichi Kojima. Most of the world's extremely expensive bongs are the work of two or more famous artists.
Colito takes the cup out and holds it up to the light, and he tells me that it has already sold for more than $100,000. He even seems surprised by that price tag.
"It's crazy, man. We are super grateful for all of this," Colito says. "It's gone beyond my dreams; it just blows my mind."
He carefully puts the piece back in its box and returns it to the safe. Then he pulls out a similarly ornate wooden box and pulls back the lid, but that's as far as he will go.
"I don't even want to get fingerprints on this one," Colito tells me.
Tucked securely in the black foam of the box sits what may be the most talked about bong ever made. It's another collaboration with the Japanese artists, who have used their pointillistic technique to create Grateful Dead–themed marbles, inlaying dancing bears and skulls into orbs that are attached to the inside and outside of the piece. The Dead's iconic 11-point lightning bolts are also attached to the outside, and the entire piece is so perfectly assembled that it's easy to forget that it was made by human hands out of melted glass. Colito wouldn't tell me the bong's asking price, but more than a dozen people interviewed said the 10-inch-tall piece has been priced at more than $200,000. Most people watching the market think it will sell.
Just a reminder: This would have been unheard of 14 years ago.
Back then, bong makers were being locked up during Operation Pipe Dreams, a George W. Bush administration raid that targeted hundreds of homes and businesses across the country. More than 50 people were charged with federal crimes, including Tommy Chong, who was convicted of conspiracy to distribute drug paraphernalia and sentenced to nine months in federal prison. A lot has changed since then. Recreational weed is legal in eight states, and medical weed is allowed in almost 30. Even with a new presidential administration opposed to pot legalization, the country is a much friendlier place for stoners than it used to be.
Of course, it's a lot easier to stomach spending $10,000 on a bong if you are reasonably sure that a cop isn't going to confiscate it. And weed legalization didn't just make it easier to carry paraphernalia, it also generated a lot of cash for some cannabis entrepreneurs. Most of Washington's legal weed businesses can deposit money in banks, but that banking access is severely limited outside of our state. The medical cannabis industry in states like California and Arizona, which has very limited access to traditional banking, has put hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash into the pockets of individual people. Without a bank to use, those entrepreneurs are looking for places to invest their dough, and a portion of that cash has likely made it into this glass market.
Plus, the liberalization of weed laws has allowed stoners in the upper echelons of our society to come out of the woodwork. Anyone who has spent time with America's ultrarich knows they like drugs just like the plebeians. Now that weed is being normalized, they can publicly affirm their coolness with extremely expensive bongs.
"Glass is one of those things that is on a cultural timeline, and it's becoming socially acceptable to be proud of a $25,000 pipe on display in your house the same way you would be proud of a $25,000 painting," said Duke Sigulinski, an art broker. Sigulinski owns Masterlink Art Consulting and claims to have sold almost $1,000,000 in functional glass art.
Uncleerrrl, who bought the $100,000 piece, said he wanted to buy the pipe specifically because he is a fan of Sagan, a Bellingham artist who collaborated on the space-themed piece with Mothership's Scott Deppe.
In Uncleerrrl's exact words to me through Instagram: "I went after the ms sagan cuz I had two sagan pieces already." Uncleerrrl hit up Sagan and "told him I wanted it and I got the invite to the show three days before the show and I mobbed out and made my dream come true." After that, Uncleerrrl "was getting hit [up left] and right to come through all over the country just to see" it.
In addition to being a marketplace, Instagram functions as a venue to show off. Almost every glass artist conducts some portion of their sales directly through the social-media website, allowing them a free way to post images of bongs for sale and to connect with buyers.
Glass-pipe making is naturally a dispersed and underground industry, with small studios set up in backyard sheds and ignored warehouses across the country. Even in a place like Washington, where well-known bong makers are scattered throughout the state in cities and suburbs, there was no hub for high-end bong making until in 2012, when Nathan Aweida opened 7 Point Studios in a warehouse on Dearborn Street in Seattle.
"When I got up here, I realized most of the artists knew each other, but there wasn't any kind of active community," said Aweida, who blows glass under the name Nate Dizzle.
Aweida's studios became a nexus for high-end bongs and the artists who make them. Some of the most influential and expensive pieces in the world have been worked on at 7 Point Studios. Mothership's famous green-skull water pipe, which you can see on the cover of this magazine and which sold for $100,000, was conceived at 7 Point Studios.
Aweida made a name for himself within the industry when he came up with his signature Swiss Perc design in 2007. The design, which Aweida recently won a trademark for, is a disk-shaped tube with multiple holes punched completely through, making the glass look like a piece of Swiss cheese. Each hole in the water pipe functions as a percolator, breaking up the smoke and making the hit smoother.
Aweida's Swiss Percs have become highly collectible, and the design's function has had a huge influence on the industry, most clearly in that $100,000 Fab Egg.
"The Fab Egg is essentially a 3-D version of the Swiss Perc," Colito said. "I remember Scott [Deppe] told Nate [Aweida], you should do a 3-D version, and he never did it, so we did."
In addition to offering a space for glass artists to make pipes freely—most institutions with glassblowing studios, like Pratt Fine Arts Center, still don't allow people to make pipes in their facilities—7 Point offered a school dedicated to glass-pipe making. Aweida called it the Boro School, its name inspired by borosilicate, the type of glass that most contemporary glass pipes are made out of. Borosilicate is able to withstand repeated heat changes without breaking, which makes it a natural material for cannabis pipes and scientific lab equipment. It's also the same material that Pyrex is made out of.
Bob Snodgrass is the artist widely credited with making the first borosilicate smoking pipes. Snodgrass starting working with glass in Ohio in the 1970s and then traveled around the country blowing glass pipes in a mobile studio set up in a bus and often touring with the Grateful Dead. In 1990, Snodgrass settled in Eugene, Oregon, where he started attracting apprentices and laying the groundwork for the Northwest to be the center of glass-pipe making.
"I think it all grew out of Bob's location," said David Willis, an internationally collected glass sculpture artist who apprenticed with Snodgrass. "I think if Bob had set up in Ohio, then there would be a huge hub in Ohio, because he had the knowledge and that's where it started. In this case, Eugene happens to be pretty close to Seattle, which has been a mecca for glass for 30 or 40 years, so the proximity of the two is really nice."
Snodgrass invented many of the foundational techniques of pipe making. The Northwest does not have an exclusive claim on the current high-end pipe market—Philadelphia, Denver, and Southern California have very active scenes—but Snodgrass's inventive spirit has lingered here. Many of the biggest innovations in pipe making, like color-changing pipes and the use of meticulously crafted marbles, came from him.
And there are other functional-glass inventions that originated in Washington State and immediately got copied by the entire pipe industry. For instance, Kevin McCulley, who used to work for an hourly wage at Mothership, went on to revolutionize the dab sector of the market with a piece that could vaporize concentrates far more efficiently than anything before. It looks a bit like a golf club, with a bucket at the end of a hollow tube. He named it the Quave Club Banger.
These days, the vast majority of concentrated cannabis dabs are vaporized on Quave Club Bangers or their knockoffs, and, just like the word "Kleenex" is to tissues, the word "banger" is now synonymous with any piece used for dabbing. McCulley left Mothership in 2013 and set up shop at 7 Point Studios to manufacture his banger. After two years, his operation had too many employees to stay in Aweida's warehouse, so McCulley moved into his own space in Seattle's Sodo neighborhood. The 29-year-old's production facility, Quave CB, has nearly 30 full-time employees. McCulley's banger manufacturing company is now a million-dollar business and his bongs are some of the most expensive in the world, frequently selling for more than $40,000. Some collaborative pieces—made by McCulley and his partners in the glass-art world—reach the $100,000 mark.
Before McCulley left Mothership, he developed another industry standard with Deppe, called the Klein Recycler. The Klein, which sends smoke vapor and water into tubes that exit and reenter the bong, has since become copied by bong makers across the world.
And after McCulley moved to his first studio at 7 Point, he became a mentor to two other young glass artists who have since become big names in the industry. Patrick Lee and Norman Griswold, who go by PurpSkurp710 and Stormin Norman, went from learning the basics of glass at Aweida's Boro School to selling bongs for more than $40,000. Lee, who is 23 years old, moved to Seattle from Vancouver, BC, in 2014, and immediately rented out a glassblowing station in 7 Point Studios. Lee said watching McCulley work on a set of pieces for a Quave show was an invaluable experience.
Lee told me that McCulley "pretty much spent the entire time working on one solo show, and we got to learn the fundamentals by watching him. That's where I'd say I learned all of my fundamentals of glassblowing."
Lee's signature bong design, called the Skurper, has gotten so popular that people around the world clamor for the chance to spend thousands of dollars on them and Chinese manufacturers have started copying him.
Danny White is using a blowtorch to connect the head of a snarling glass dog to its glass body, which will eventually become a water pipe. He makes a slight misstep and has to rearrange his hands. The whole process looks goofy and dangerous, with a blaring blowtorch in front of his face, so I ask how often he burns himself. The quick-witted White responds, "Only on payday." His studio mate, Brent Rogers, corrects him, "That only applies to soft glass."
That glass-artist joke within a joke makes a lot more sense when you realize what Rogers and White are in the middle of doing. After years of working in the traditional glass industry, which rewards iconic names like Chihuly with big paychecks but pays little to the glassblowers behind the scenes, the two are attempting to make the switch into pipe making.
Rogers and White have set up a pipe-making studio in an old fish refrigerator at Seattle's Fisherman's Terminal. They are, in effect, trying not to get burned on payday anymore.
In switching from sculptures to bongs, the two are not only changing the function of their art but also the material they work with. They come from Chihuly's world of "soft glass," which is fundamentally different from the borosilicate glass that pipes are made out of. Borosilicate must be heated to much higher temperatures to melt, hence its nickname "hard glass." That means it is better for making tightly sealed and complex joints—like Mothership's Fab Egg—and it needs to be heated with the direct flame of a blowtorch. Chihuly's soft glass uses the indirect heat of room-sized kilns.
Rogers and White nonchalantly talk about the switch from soft glass to borosilicate. They recognize that they are learning new techniques, but they don't see themselves as breaking a cultural divide between the two art forms. That's a perspective shared by many soft-glass artists but not by most pipe makers, who after years of working in the shadows feel like they've been largely shut out of the traditional glass world.
As Deppe explained it to me up in Bellingham: "We've been shunned. We've had people who worked at our shop try to get their nonfunctional art in shows, and the galleries said, 'No, you worked for that bong shop.'"
Aweida said he's always seen the soft-glass world carry a stigma against pipe makers. "We've been treated as the redheaded stepchild of the traditional glass artists, but I notice that slowly starting to change," he said.
Borosilicate has been kept as an underground art form both because it's used for smoking weed and because of the relatively low cost of setting up a borosilicate studio. Because all you need is a blowtorch, oxygen, propane, and a tabletop kiln to work with borosilicate, an artist can set up a studio in a shed with as little as $1,000. A soft-glass studio, on the other hand, can easily cost $100,000 to set up, thanks to pricey furnaces and plumbing needs. And running a soft-glass studio for just an hour is extremely expensive.
Lydia Boss, exhibition assistant at Pilchuck Glass School, said that low start-up costs for working with borosilicate have allowed the pipe-making industry to flourish underground, outside of places like Pilchuck. "If you have a torch at your house, you can blow glass all day and all night. You can excel and innovate things at a faster rate because you are just a slave to the torch," Boss said. "Whereas in soft glass, it's so expensive. You can't rent the studio every day of the week unless you have tons of money."
Boss is one of the people helping to bridge the gap between soft and hard glass. She said pipes have probably been made after-hours at Pilchuck since its inception in 1971, but it wasn't until last year that the school officially started offering classes in making functional glass. In September 2016, Boss helped organize a show dedicated to pipes at Pilchuck's Pioneer Square exhibition space.
David Willis, who apprenticed with Snodgrass and went on to study at Pilchuck, now works in both soft and hard glass. His sculptures are internationally collected, and he said he does not see a large difference between the two types of glass.
"The difference between boro and soft glass is kind of insignificant. At the center of it is the material, glass, and how you get it to do what you want it to do. It has certain things that it wants to do, but when we as makers want to realize an idea, you have to work around the material to make that happen," Willis said.
White, the pipe maker who set up shop in Fisherman's Terminal, said he still gets the same rush from working on hard glass as he did from soft glass, and he plans to continue pursuing both glass types. He said one of his biggest interests in making functional glass was to sell to customers that were closer to his age.
"It's like 60-plus[-year-olds] all day when you look at the market for soft glass. We naturally gravitate toward boro because it's a more youthful market," White said.
He said he hopes the high-end bong market will sustain itself, but he is as aware as anyone of the bubble possibility. "Is it the work that makes it expensive or is it the collector that makes it expensive? I guess that's to be determined."