The History of Meerschaum Pipes

As a history lover, I actively seek out and absorb as much interesting information about the past as possible. Fortunately for me, that curiosity translates well into my current job and my interest in the pipesmoking hobby as a whole. That endless, enthusiastic drive for wisdom is a foundational pillar for Smokingpipes and helps inform our descriptions and enables pipesmokers around the world to gain knowledge about the craft, the makers, and the materials used. We have numerous resources at our disposal and experts within the field that can answer nearly any conceivable pipesmoking question. Well, at least most pipesmoking inquiries — we're still developing methods for smoking in the shower and programming tiny robots to pack bowls for us.

Meerschaum, or sepiolite as it's known by its mineral name, or Mg4Si6O15(OH)2·6H2O for those who prefer complex chemical formulas.

It was after doing some reading and reflecting that I became interested in learning more about the materials used to fashion pipes, more specifically, meerschaum. I admittedly had only a surface level knowledge about the pale white medium but wanted to know more about its history, the process of harvesting it, and how it's eventually carved into a smoking instrument. I became fascinated with learning about when meerschaum was introduced to the pipemaking world, how artisans carve the blocks into intricate pieces of functional art, and how it has endured as one of the oldest mediums in pipemaking. We've previously talked about the appealing characteristics of meerschaum pipes and the process of coloring them, and Chuck even described some of his favorite figural meers, but we've yet to deeply explore the medium and how it eventually becomes a pipe. I couldn't keep my findings to myself, so I decided to share them in this blog and hope you as a reader will take something away from it or perhaps find it educational from a pipesmoker's perspective.

Sepiolite

Sepiolite

Meerschaum, or sepiolite as it's known by its mineral name, or Mg4Si6O15(OH)2·6H2O for those who prefer complex chemical formulas, is a soft white clay mineral renowned for its flavor-neutral smoking properties, light weight, moisture absorbency, and high heat-resistance. Though its exact geologic origin remains unknown, one popular — though unfounded — theory suggests that meerschaum may be the product of the shells and bones of small prehistoric sea creatures, combined and compressed over millions of years. The name itself, "sepiolite," comes from the Greek word sepion, meaning "cuttlebone," due to the mineral's resemblance to the internal shell of the cuttlefish, and is attributed to mid-19th century German mineralogist Ernst Friedrich Glocker.

While it's primarily associated with Turkish pipemaking, the word "meerschaum" is comprised of the German words meer, meaning "sea," and schaum, meaning "foam." There are conflicting reports regarding who exactly named it meerschaum, but it's thought to have come from its visual similarity, including its light weight and high porosity, to actual sea foam.

Coloring Bowl by IMP Meerschaum

Coloring Bowl by IMP Meerschaum

Meerschaum's introduction as a pipemaking medium has been attributed an origination in Budapest, Hungary during the early 18th-century (1723 is the date most often referenced). The story goes that a Budapest noble named Count Andrassy, who served as an envoy to Turkey, brought two blocks of meerschaum back home with him. The Count gave the blocks to a cobbler and pipesmoker named Karl (various sources spell his last name as Kovacs or Kowates) and commissioned the shoemaker to carve the blocks into tobacco pipes. After Karl completed carving the pipes, Count Andrassy kept one and gave the other to the shoemaker as a form of payment for his services. Karl smoked his creation over several weeks while making shoes and made an important observation one day. After unintentionally getting some of his cobbler's beeswax on the pipe, Karl detected the wax greatly improved the meerschaum's ability to color, and he promptly covered the pipe in beeswax, watching the patina spread more evenly across the stummel's surface the more he smoked.

In the following century, meerschaum pipes grew in popularity among European pipesmokers and were in high demand. However, unlike the clay pipes which were widely available and inexpensive, meerschaum pipes were primarily reserved for the wealthy, as only they could afford to commission an artist to carve one. The meerschaum pipe gradually became a stylish accessory, with everyone trying to surpass one another, and most likely gave rise to the intricately carved figural pieces that are still loved by pipesmokers in the modern era. Impressively intricate and figural meerschaums were also viewed by some as art objects, many people simply buying meerschaum pipes to display in their cabinets and on their shelves. But for some who still wanted their pipes to take on color, the wealthy would hire people to smoke their meerschaums for hours or instructed the pipemaker to smoke the pipe for a few weeks before delivering it so that it would develop a patina.

While it's primarily associated with Turkish pipemaking, the word "meerschaum" is comprised of the German words meer, meaning "sea," and schaum, meaning "foam."

Turning meerschaum from a block into a pipe is a lengthy process, beginning with its initial harvesting. Meerschaum deposits have been discovered in various parts of the world such as France, Spain, Morocco, the Republic of South Africa, Greece, and even the United States, but for the most part, Turkey is the main source for the meerschaum used in modern pipemaking because of its purity, color and density. While some meerschaum deposits lie on the ground's surface, the majority are deeply buried and must be mined under dangerous conditions from pits and tunnels running hundreds of feet underground. Once brought to the surface, the meerschaum blocks are covered in clay but are thoroughly washed, with workers using special knives to remove the clay and any immediately evident flaws. When excavated, the meerschaum blocks are typically quite damp and must undergo a drying process to remove the moisture. This involves placing the blocks in low-temperature ovens for several weeks, or even in the sunlight, until the moisture has evaporated.

Once dry, the blocks are polished and waxed, allowing an expert grader to better determine the quality of each block while also removing any flaws, weak spots, or irregularities. During the grading process, the block's size, density, weight, color, and consistency are all taken into consideration before being shipped to the pipemaking workshop. After the blocks arrive at the factory, they are organized according to their grade and size based upon what style of pipe they're best suited for. To make carving the meerschaum blocks easier, they are soaked in water anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour, depending on size, softening them to the approximate consistency of hard cheese. But if left soaking for too long, the block will disintegrate into small pieces and become unusable.

The meerschaum pipe gradually became a stylish accessory, with everyone trying to surpass one another, and most likely gave rise to the intricately carved figural pieces that are still loved by pipesmokers in the modern era.

After the block softens, it goes to a carver who is responsible for its shaping until it roughly resembles the desired final shape, shaving and cutting off the extra mass. It's then usually passed on to another artisan who drills the smoke channel and tobacco chamber, trimming it down more precisely toward its final shape before being handed off to a master craftsman. Utilizing years of training and carefully honed precision, the master artisan will complete the pipe's shaping, carving the roughly shaped bowl and into its designated form and finish. It's a demanding process — one small mistake with the lathe or cutting knife can ruin the entire bowl or destroy the entire block. The completed stummels go on to be fitted with mouthpieces that are usually attached to the stummel via a threaded tenon, though some brands, such as IMP Meerschaum, opt for a configuration that's similar to the standard push-style tenon commonly found on briar pipes.

It's also noteworthy that the leftover meerschaum scraps and chips are saved, later to be crushed and repurposed as tampers or caps on Calabash pipes. They'll sometimes be sold to other manufacturers to be turned into pressed meerschaum pipes, the scraps mixed with a bonding material and pressed into blocks to harden. As a result, the pressed blocks will have a higher density and they will not patinate or absorb color like block meerschaum and are significantly cheaper. Pipes crafted from block meerschaum tend to smoke cooler than pressed meerschaum and will patinate with time and use. Even then, block meerschaum doesn't color evenly and will naturally vary from pipe to pipe, though coloring bowls can be utilized to promote even coloring across the meerschaum's surface.

The sheer detail and exacting process that goes into crafting a meerschaum pipe is impressive and is definitely deserving of more attention.

Once completed, the stummels are dried in low-temperature ovens for between six and 12 hours, depending on their moisture level. The drying process is a crucial step since it allows the meerschaum to harden, enabling the stummel to retain a high luster and absorb more of the beeswax coating that will be applied. The stummels are sanded with sharkskin to remove small scratches that developed through handling, and are polished with a type of dried grass, since any other buffing compound will damage the material. Afterward, the stummels are placed in boiling white beeswax for a few minutes and then set out to dry before eventually being polished with a soft cloth. And to protect the pipe, oftentimes a special fitted case will be crafted for the pipe before it is shipped out for sale.

Pipemaking in general is a demanding craft that takes endless hours of practice and constant refinement, with artisans devoting years to the development of their skills, And while briar is the most popular pipemaking medium currently used, meerschaum is a fascinating material that is sometimes overlooked. The sheer detail and exacting process that goes into crafting a meerschaum pipe is impressive and is definitely deserving of more attention. I was absolutely fascinated while researching the material and developed a deeper appreciation for meerschaums, especially for how artisans are able to express their creative vision on a block of mineral.

Do you own any meerschaum pipes or have you been curious about trying one? I'd love to hear what kind of meers our pipesmoking community owns or what everyone looks for when they purchase one!

Comments

    • Steven Goldberg on February 9, 2020
    • Love the article, very informative.

    • Smokey on February 9, 2020
    • My comments disappeared after submission and entering the security code correctly. They span 60 years of Meerschaum ownership.

    • Stephen Wilson on February 9, 2020
    • Interesting and informative article; thanks. I own two meerschaums. One is very large and very old. I bought it at an estate sale over 30 years ago and it was old then. I can smoke it for two hours and it never gets wet or hot. I also have a newer, smaller meer. It is good for about 45 minutes. It heats up quickly and I suspect, from your article, that it may be made of the pressed material. Thanks again!

    • Uncle Buccs on February 9, 2020
    • Really great writeup, Jeffrey! My first Meerschaum pipe was purchased during a sale in which it was believed IMP had ceased production, and SmokingPipes had received a random lot of pipes still floating around in the system. There were some really cool shapes, mostly non-figured.

    • Rick Miller on February 9, 2020
    • My experience with meerschaums has been expensive, blood pressure boosting, and totally unsatisfactory. The high point was flinging a Baki into the gentle flames of a fireplace. I'm just glad someone invented the more useful briar pipes and corncobs to replace meerschaums and clays.

    • Rob Blanks on February 9, 2020
    • I own six of these beauties. Two I actually purchased over in Turkey directly from a cutter. I am never surprised how great they smoke and have watched several YouTube videos concerning the making, smoking, and care of these awesome pipes. Thanks for the article it was very informative.

    • G K on February 9, 2020
    • Great to look at..a pain the the butt to smoke !

    • Tony on February 9, 2020
    • Thoroughly enjoyed the informative article. I own approx. 200 meerschaum pipes. When I acquire a new one I look for one I don't have. I have purchased duplicates in the past but I enjoy them all.

    • Brian Gleason on February 9, 2020
    • Excellent article. I enjoyed reading it thoroughly. Thank you for taking the time and researching the subject. Meerschum pipes are my absolute favorite. From the cool smoke to the beautiful designs.

    • Astrocomical on February 9, 2020
    • Yeah, you can hear my story.

      I recently bought a meerschaum lined pipe from you guys. I was very pleased with it. It smoked like I imagine, cool and a "maintained" dryness. Very similar to briar and you can smoke it over and over without getting sour like a briar. I usually let it rest an hour or several hours longer.

      But then recently (I only had it a couple of months) the meerschaum lining started coming out of the briar bowl and now it stick above it a little more than 2 mm above it. Several weeks before it was about 1 mm.

      Never abused the pipe. It got hot several times but that's kind of to be expected once in a while. I put a hold on buying another meerschaum lined pipe while I figure this out or contact the maker of the pipe - Rattray.

      And that's the story of my first meerschaum-lined adventure. I hate the way it looks now and that kind of effects my enjoyment. Looking to buy a full meerschaum maybe next time but they are expensive.

    • Attila Gombai on February 9, 2020
    • I loved to read this! Thank you! LOVED THAT!
      The cobbler name was Kovács. (means: blacksmith) Károly Kovács. So his name in english was: Karl Blacksmith. I think the story tellers spelled as Kowates because they didnt know how to spell the name correctly. But its Kovács as you wrote.
      Thanks for this again!

    • North of Bangor on February 9, 2020
    • I once read that it was formerly common practice for a city dandy to purchase a new meerschaum and loan it to a sailor going to sea. By this arrangement the sailor had a pipe to smoke during his months-long voyage and upon his return, the dandy received back a well-patinaed pipe. I have little doubt many a meerschaum was lost at sea. So early in my pipe-smoking life I did the same, only I was the sailor. Soon to depart on a six-plus month WestPac cruise with the U.S.Navy, I gathered some of my savings and purchased a Pioneer rusticated meerschaum from the former Tobaccos of Hawaii. During that cruise I faithfully smoked it as often as possible, running a variety of available tobaccos through its bowl. Upon return half a year later I compared my meerschaum to a photo I had taken prior, and sure enough it had turned a lovely shade of light golden yellow. This all occurred in 1981, and I still have that pipe in my rack today. A loyal friend, always ready for a bowl of Guide’s Blend on a quiet Maine evening.

    • Adam Valleau on February 9, 2020
    • Nice article! I've been smoking pipes for 41 years now. Sometime in the mid-eighties I discovered meerschaum and bought my first meershaum pipe. I currently have only three meers. Two were carved by H. Ege and the other by H. Cor. One of the Ege pipes is a large "tulip" I've had for several years. It's coloring up nicely. The other Ege is a medium sized billiard with lattice work. The Cor is a very large smooth bulldog with really thick walls. It is taking longer to color. Suffice it to say that I prefer less ornate, smoother pieces over the intricately carved pipes. These all smoke very well!

    • Smokey on February 9, 2020
    • About 60 years ago, as a 14 year old, I bought a beautiful calabash in Hot Springs, Arkansas after a successful day at the Horse races. I still have it. My first real pipe. It went unsmoked for a long time. My next was picked up in Malta by a neighbor and good friend while he was with the Navy. Subsequently I've acquired a number of meerschaums leaning heavily towards traditional shapes and styles. I spent my afternoon today puffing away with an almost new Pioneer Dublin with real amber stem. There are perhaps a dozen others. I prefer the more durable briars in my collection as they may be smoked and handled fearlessly. My favorites are a couple of African crude blocks with short churchwarden stems...plug ugly but good smokers. I don't worry about them like the others as they're pretty homely and not subject to further disfigurement. I've seen a few impressively carved meerschaums and am always awestruck by their carefully preserved beauty and wonderful coloration. Truthfully, all of mine smoke well and deliver the true taste of what's in the bowl. Oddly, it seems like all good pipe materials come from below ground, excepting Cobs and Cherry woods.

    • Bill Lander on February 9, 2020
    • You wrote that if the water content was too high then the Meershaum would fall apart and become useless.
      Since it is a type of clay I wonder why it couldn't be reduced to a fine grained, thick
      slurry just as are it's various relatives in the clay world? The next step would be to pour some of into a small, plaster ceramics mold and see how long it takes for enough moisture to be lost to the mold before, well, surely y'all can see where I'm headed? If Seipolite can be handled like this it seems there would be all types of uses in the industry for it. The market for calibrated blanks of varied sides and shapes alone would be large. Not all carvers out there carve pipes.
      I rambled a little here. Sorry but at the moment I'm kicked back with a favorite pipe with some State approved meds loaded, tamped and only partway smoked....rambling again...are there refreshments?
      Goodnite y'all i:m only using one finger on this touchpad and it's getting hard to correct all the mistakes.BBrunello

    • Eric on February 10, 2020
    • I own 6 meerschaums and love them all. Smoking one right now and as usual, it performs flawlessly. Far more durable than briars (which I love as well), I always reach for one when it is windy outside and I don’t want to risk burning out a briar. The price is great, too. I have yet to see a beautifully hand carved briar at the same low cost as even the most expensive, comparable meerschaums.

    • Cassie D on February 10, 2020
    • @Astrocomical I'm so sorry to hear that you've had some trouble with your meerschaum lined pipe. I am going to reach out to you via email so we can help resolve this for you.

    • Stan on February 10, 2020
    • Great work Jeff! I thought I knew everything about Meerschaum but you managed to find some facts that I wasn’t aware.

    • William G on February 10, 2020
    • An interesting subject, but somebody needs to clarify to you the difference between "wisdom" and "knowledge". Your misuse of the former word made me stop reading right there.

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