Meerschaums have been popular for far longer than briar pipes and maintain an enthusiastic following. Briar wasn't introduced as an accepted and durable material for pipes until the late 1800s, after all, and previous to that meerschaum was king. It's a remarkably neutral material, and many profess that it is an accurate medium for tasting pure tobacco unmodified by the flavor characteristics of briar. Add to that the intricate, artisanal carving that so many meerschaums reflect, and you have yourself quite a pipe.
From the beginning, the coloring of meerschaums from smoking has been an important consideration. While virgin meerschaum is a beautiful material, the warm reds and mahoganies that slowly envelop a meerschaum over years of smoking have been admired by pipe smokers for centuries. A well-colored meerschaum is a thing of remarkable beauty, and enthusiasts have gone to great trouble to promote these deep and soothing tones for their pipes.
There are stories of wealthy men a hundred or more years ago who hired people to smoke their meerschaums for them around the clock to promote coloring. Some keep their meerschaums in gallon jars into which they blow tobacco smoke, so that the surface of the pipe absorbs color. Some fill their bowls with wet tobacco and let them sit, absorbing color from the mixture, though there is little evidence that this strategy works efficiently (though if you know better, I'd enjoy hearing from you).
American pipe carving legend Mike Butera mentioned in an article in Pipes and tobaccos magazine (vol. 7, no. 1) that different tobaccos initially generate different coloration in meerschaums, with Latakia and aromatics promoting more in the purple wavelength, while Virginias and Burleys yield more golden tones. Any tobacco, though, will eventually produce a pipe of rich burgundy, if smoked long enough.
Unevenly colored meerschaum pipes
One thing most of us have heard about is pressed meerschaum, for which chips of meerschaum, also known as sepiolite, are crushed and refashioned as blocks by a bonding material. It is used mainly for meerschaum tampers and other accessories, such as for some meerschaum caps on Calabash pipes, and only the cheapest pipes are at risk of being pressed (we do not sell pressed meerschaum pipes at Smokingpipes, new or estate, if you were wondering). Pressed meerschaum will not color, no matter how much you smoke it. Block meerschaum is best for pipes, with the even consistency of the material better able to absorb color, as well as smoking much better and cooler than its pressed replica.
Even block meerschaums don't color evenly, at least at first. Sepiolite is a relatively rare type of clay, and as a natural product, contains variations in density and porosity throughout, resulting in uneven absorption of color. Most often, the shanks of meerschaums color first and darkest, perhaps because that is where the moisture and tobacco residue collect during combustion. However, different pipes will simply color differently.
The archives here at Smokingpipes provide images of the estate meerschaums we've sold, and their coloring is rarely even, except for pipes that have clearly been smoked for many years. Most of our estates reflect only minimal coloring, sometimes with the shank darker, sometimes with the beard of a Sultan carving darkening first, or the nose. They do seem to color from the bottom up, however. Perhaps we see few well-colored estates because owners do not give them up.
I smoke primarily briars, but I do enjoy a couple of meerschaums and have worked at coloring them. I'm down to only two now, having broken my best-colored piece on the driveway a few years back. I have smoked the others around 15-20 times year for the past 15 years, and am seeing results. I smoke one of them normally and it has picked up some fair color, mainly at the heel. The other I smoke exclusively with a coloring bowl, and I've had pretty good results so far. Here's a photo, with the rusticated Butera coloring bowl that I've used since I started smoking this pipe.
Michael Butera Coloring Bowl
Coloring bowls have been around for a very long time. The George Zorn Tobacconist catalog of 1892 lists them in briar or meerschaum, with briar bowls costing $1.50 per dozen, imitation meerschaum for $2.00 a dozen, and genuine meerschaum bowls assessed at the dizzying sum of $6.00 a dozen. They are far more expensive now, but in fairness, skilled wage earners were lucky to be paid $2 a day in the 1890s, so they were expensive then, too.
The Zorn catalog specifies that coloring bowls work best when a piece of blotting paper is placed in the heel of the bowl to absorb and distribute the collateral moisture of combustion. I've not tried that, because I suspect it will cause the heel and shank to color faster than the bowl, but I like the results of the coloring bowl without such a method. I don't believe it's any faster, but the evenness of color, when compared to pipes smoked normally, is indisputable. I hope that by the time I retire it will be darker and richer, but I'll need to smoke it more regularly.
If you're a meerschaum enthusiast, you know the pain and the triumph of coloring a meerschaum. If you've not tried a coloring bowl, and you're on a quest for more even color tones on your cherished pipes, I recommend them. They're weird to smoke at first, with that bowl towering above the pipe, and you have to find the right pipe rest to accommodate such an apparatus, but the results are worthwhile.
Smokingpipes used to carry Butera coloring bowls, but they are no longer manufactured. We have just started carrying IMP coloring bowls, however, if you have an interest in deep, evenly colored meerschaums. Even without one, though, everyone owes themselves at least one meerschaum to enjoy and watch evolve over the years as a reflection of your commitment to the beautification of smoking instruments.