The Bong Show

The glass glows dull red, like a campfire ember, above the gas torch. The young artist, sitting on a stool in front of a wooden bench with a metal top, works with confident, quick motions, creating a tube by fusing white glass sticks together around a one-inch-thick cylinder of graphite.

James Lynch, 27, has an average build, short, light-brown hair and a goatee. He's wearing Birkenstocks, a black T-shirt, shorts, and sporty-looking didymium shades that mute the searing orange and blue light of the torch. He soon moves on to a spherical glass shape, holding it over the flame by pencil-thin rods of glass, his fingers inches away from potential third-degree burns. Gloves wouldn't allow him the kind of control he needs.

"My hands are always a little bit red and cooked by the end of the day," he says.

One of the rods is hollow, and, at times, Lynch sends a puff of air through it to the sphere, expanding and shaping it. His workspace is filled with rods of raw glass, forceps, large tweezers, an old butter knife, rubber tubes, and other equipment.

Glass is a strange and beautiful substance, and glass blowing is an ancient process, fascinating to watch. Glass is what scientists call an amorphous solid, meaning the molecules that constitute it aren't stacked into neat, crystalline structures — they're just sort of frozen in place. The idea of windows flowing as some sort of liquid is just an urban myth, but misconceptions about glass only add to its mystique. The way glass can be teased into any form and then become solid, clearer than ice, is like sorcery.

Aside from its beauty, glass has special properties sought by most buyers of Lynch's products. It doesn't melt or give off toxic fumes under the flame of a Bic lighter, and it's relatively easy to clean.

Lynch has a home studio in Chandler, but today, he's doing contract work in a store called It's All Goodz in Tempe, working behind a window that allows customers to watch him blow glass. Lynch describes himself as a budding artist, saying nearly half his income last year came from sales of glass seascapes at the Tempe Festival of the Arts and other venues. He's also a senior instructor in the craft at the Mesa Arts Center.

What's paid the bulk of the bills over the years, though, has been his custom glass pipes and bongs — products that most people would call dope paraphernalia.

The first time he saw someone making glass pipes, he was 17. He says he knew right then he had found his calling. He paid the glass blower to teach him the basics, and then worked for a company in Colorado for a year before becoming self-employed, founding I Blew It Glassworks, a name his mother came up with in an attempt to embarrass him. It's not making him rich, but he does what he loves and it pays the bills. Paraphernalia helped him buy a home and helps support his wife and 4-year-old son.

"I thought, at one point, 'By the time my kid gets old enough to ask what I do for a living, I'd be done making pipes,'" Lynch says.

Now, he no longer worries about it.

"I can't say what other people do with them," he says of his handmade smoking accessories. "It's nothing I'm really ashamed of."

It would be hard to argue, however, that the attraction behind the window at It's All Goodz is wholesome family entertainment. The glass creations made and sold at head shops like this represent lawlessness, rebellion, and sin to a significant portion of society. To many people over 30 — even those who may tolerate the pot-smoking of others or may toke a little themselves — head shops still carry an aura of embarrassing seediness.

Lynch opens the kiln on the workbench and removes one of his latest masterpieces, a finished product that needed a crack repaired before it could be sold. The piece features a detailed white glass skull resting in a skeletal hand, with one cylindrical, hollow "bone" rising from the back.

It's a comely little bong, about a foot tall. To the uninitiated, its most astonishing feature is probably its price. Mark Sayegh, the shop's high-energy owner, says it will retail for $420.

As in 420, the international code for marijuana that refers to both the time on the clock and April 20. Legends vary on how 420 became a symbol for a great time and date to get high, but in this case, it represents a sales trend.

For growing numbers of marijuana users these days, upscale pot paraphernalia is where it's at.

Lynch's glass skull and claw — while it may seem absurdly expensive to aging hippies who remember when a lid of grass went for $30 — is nowhere near the priciest bong in Sayegh's shop. That one, a curvaceous multisection bubbler named The Neutron Bomb, is priced at $2,500.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.