Meerschaum Pipe Characteristics

Meerschaum pipes are tobacco pipes made from hydrated magnesium silicate, also known as sepiolite. Sufficiently soaked raw meerschaum takes on a softness that allows pipe makers to shape the mineral readily into both classical and freehand shapes and even carve elaborate figural and floral motifs into the stummel. Modern meerschaum pipes tend be quite large by design, often accommodating a great amount of intricate detail-work put into carved finish, while among older meerschaums it's not unusual to find figures rendered in very small scale — some of the smallest of these older "pipes" were actually made as cheroot holders.

Unlike briar and other common hardwoods, meerschaum pipes are practically burn-out-proof (though too much heat can crack one, particularly if there is a hidden flaw in the mineral) and require no initial break-in period to deliver the best possible smoke. When further discussing characteristics, however, it's important to remember that there are generally three types of meerschaum used in pipe making: Turkish block, African block, and composite meerschaum.

Types of Meerschaum Pipes

Turkish block meerschaum is the most well-known variety used in meerschaum pipe making, prized for its porous, pure-smoking qualities and often extremely light weight. The deposits for this particular type are almost exclusively found around the the city of Eskisehir in central Turkey. Due to the mineral's porous nature, Turkish block meerschaum pipes also possess a natural wicking ability, absorbing tars and impurities in the smoke — which is said to yield a purer flavor profile. As a meerschaum pipe absorbs these impurities over time, it will begin to develop a patina, slowly darkening and developing a warmer color from handling and enjoyment.

African block meerschaum, mainly found in parts of Tanzania, is similar to its Turkish sibling. There are a few noticeable differences, though. African block tends to be denser and less porous by nature. As such, African meerschaum tends to take much longer to darken and patina (pipes of this material were often stained or otherwise given a darker finish by their makers) and also results in a slightly heavier weight on average. Both types of natural meerschaum can make a very good pipe, but unfortunately today there is no longer ready supply of the African variety.

Composite meerschaum is the last variety used in pipe making and is considered to produce pipes of a lower quality than that of African or Turkish block. Rather than carving a classical shape or a freehand from a solid mineral block, composite meerschaum pipes are produced from meerschaum dust that's mixed with a plastic or emulsifying agent before being pressed into its intended shape (similar to particle board or bonded stone). As such, this variety is not porous and will not color. Furthermore, it also doesn't filter out the impurities in the smoke. This type of meerschaum is most commonly used for tobacco chambers or caps on gourd Calabash pipes and meerschaum-lined briar pipes.

Meerschaum Pipe History

Meerschaum pipes have been an integral facet of pipe smoking for centuries now. It's even been suggested that the mineral's use in tobacco smoking dates all the way back to the Ottoman empire c. 1600 — though this timeline is largely under debate, as scholars have only found records of pipes crafted from meerschaum dating as far back as 1723.

Before the advent of the briar pipe in the mid-19th century, meerschaum pipes were a common alternative to the classic clay pipe, albeit far more luxurious. During this time, Germany and Austria held the market and were the main producers of high-quality, block meerschaum pipes. This all changed in the 1970s, however, when the Turkish government placed an export ban on raw block meerschaum in order to cultivate a local industry and market for meerschaum pipe production. Since then, Turkish block meerschaum pipes have been produced almost exclusively in Turkey. This shift brought many very talented meerschaum carvers, like Ismet Bekler, to wider recognition — particularly in the U.S. and European markets.

Compared to briar and other hardwood pipes, meerschaum pipes are still regarded as a luxury item today. This is due to their unique, pure-smoking qualities and sheer individuality. Whether it's a minimalist Billiard in a smooth wax polish or an intricately carved figural piece, most makers and workshops offer a range of options to suit smokers' tastes.

Want to try a meerschaum pipe for yourself? Check out some of the offerings we have on the site:

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