While browsing wood for an armoire I’m having made, I uncovered from the back of the warehouse a narrow slab of real gaboon ebony. It was almost jet, with a resinous dusting, and an obvious density far greater than the surrounding walnut and maple. The carpenter with me spoke dreamily of what a lovely lintel or bar shelf it would make, but I couldn’t shake another idea: split and turned, it would have made a magnificent umbrella stick.
Thoughts like this perfectly demonstrate how slippery the slope is once the cloistered little world of custom and vintage umbrellas has been discovered. I have held sterling silver handles no lighter than seven pounds, and pre-war ivory pommels yellowed to the color of country butter. Ash, olive, chestnut, blackthorn, whangee and malacca—all these and more have been made into umbrellas. Hidden swords are no longer popular, but secret flasks, pop-out pens and compasses can be found easily. I understand real silk canopies provide the sweetest chorus in a downpour, but standard nylon is for me just as magical (and far more waterproof).
These materials can be a joy for the collector, but if an edited and practical umbrella wardrobe is the goal, only one design element needs real consideration: the stick. An umbrella with a shaft that has been affixed to its handle is not a bad thing; it may never break and may even be necessary when dealing with exotic materials like whangee. But a continuous, solid hardwood stick provides a rigidity, beauty and confidence that is hard to do without out once experienced.
I prefer pairs of things to the all-purpose, but if one quality umbrella must suffice, it should probably be a slim stick with a black canopy. Mine is a scorched and polished maple, and the shaft itself has been turned to a slimmer shape than standard, permitting the frame to roll tightly. The result is sturdy, conservative, lightweight and elegant. This is the iconic black brollie carried by a certain generation of Londoners, emulated in television and cinema and symbolic of a bygone civility.
A second umbrella might employ a few more daring choices. Ash makes a strong, country-inspired stick, particularly when the bark has been retained for the crook. Mine has an especially mottled appearance, with patches of olive, bronze and green; perhaps it inspired the deep, racing green canopy. For those that give thought to coordination, an umbrella like this might be reserved for those rainy occasions when the day's clothes reflect a similarly earthy palette.
Finally there is the sporting category, where more fun still may be had. Golfers carry umbrellas for passing squalls; they are big and often brightly colored. I’m not a golfer so my version, while still larger than the other two, is not oversized. The solid oak stick has heft and only tapers slightly, and the canopy—navy with lilac pinstripes—broadcasts its use in more leisurely pursuits, like walking the dogs and amateur field sports. It’s well-made but not precious or delicate.
Unsurprisingly, resources are limited. London’s James Smith and Co. has a deep inventory of sticks, all of which can be cut to order, and a few canopy colors and sizes. Swaine Adeney Brigg makes a very fine umbrella, some with sterling accents. Italian makers exist too; their offerings are perhaps less refined, but choices in canopies and handle trimmings are excellent—perfect for a sporting umbrella. For the truly obsessed, sourcing one’s own materials—like ebony—is possible, but hardly seems necessary considering the existing choices. There are only so many rainy days, after all.