Meerschaum pipes – Transforming tobacco pipes into pieces of art

Milica Sterjova
Meerschaum tobacco pipe, Paris, France, 1850-1915. Author: Wellcome Images. CC BY 4.0

A large number of Native American peoples had pipe-smoking traditions as parts of their cultures long before the Europeans arrived from across the ocean. Some Native Americans smoked pipes for ceremonial purposes while others smoked tobacco socially. In the 16th century, tobacco, a native plant to South America, was introduced to Europe.

Pipe-smoking is the oldest traditional form of tobacco consumption that we know of. Pipes are made in a variety of forms, styles, and different materials. They vary from very simple machine-made models to highly valuable handcrafted pipes manufactured by skillful artisans, which can be very expensive and collectible items. Pipe smoking is nowhere near as popular as it was years ago and pipe handcrafting is a dying art today.

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Carved meerschaum pipe, made in the United States, 1890. Author: Pijpenkabinet, Amsterdam. CC BY-SA 3.0

The mineral meerschaum (also known as sepiolite) is mainly found in Eskisehir, Turkey. Eskisehir is known for its pure, high-quality mineral and its unique characteristics which allow it to be easily carved into elegant and detailed decorative shapes. The term “meerschaum” means “sea foam” in German. The word refers to the mineral’s white color, its unusually low density and light weight, and the fact that it was often found floating in the Black Sea.

Carved meerschaum estate tobacco pipe, Author: Joe Haupt. CC BY-SA 2.0

The meerschaum pipes are remarkable examples of craftsmanship. Their exact origin is uncertain. According to The Nonist, the most probable and widely accepted version is that the Hungarian nobleman Count Andrassy received a block of meerschaum from the Sultan when he traveled to Turkey on an official assignment in 1723.

Carved meerschaum pipe, Vienna, Austria, 1871-1890. Author: Wellcome Images. CC BY 4.0

Upon returning home, the Count gave the mineral to a shoemaker who made pipes in his free time. Another story traces the pipes’ origin to Austria. When Turks attempted to invade Vienna they brought with them a variety of items, including pipes, made from a white mineral believed to have been meerschaum. A third story says that the first sepiolite pipe was carved by French sculptor Pierre Puget in 1652.

An unused pipe. Author: DvYang. CC BY-SA 2.0

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In the 18th century, meerschaum pipes gained popularity and slowly replaced the clay pipes used at the time. In the 1820s, with the introduction of the briar pipes, clay and to some extent meerschaum pipes fell out of fashion.

Set of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson meerschaum tobacco pipes. Author: Joe Haupt. CC BY-SA 2.0

A unique combination of a meerschaum bowl and a briar pipe was made, allowing a unique experience for the smoker that provided the best qualities of the two materials.

Meerschaum tobacco pipe, Paris, France, 1850-1915. Author: Wellcome Images. CC BY 4.0

By the end of the century, smoking an ornately carved meerschaum pipe was a status symbol, because unlike the more affordable and widely-available clay pipes, meerschaum pipes were only accessible to the wealthy.

Meerschaum pipe with case, the bowl carved with figures of Frederick (Emperor of Germany 1888) and his Consort, 1880-1890, Austria or England. Author: Wellcome Images. CC BY 4.0

At the height of their popularity, the pipes were made in several European countries, including Germany, Austria, Turkey, and Hungary. The carved pipes, representing historical figures, deities, knights, and noblemen, were made up until the 1920s.

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Meerschaum pipe with amber mouth. Birmingham, sterling silver trim – late 19th century. Tangerineduel. CC BY-SA 4.0

Not only were they pieces of art, but meerschaum as a material apparently offered a superior smoking experience very much appreciated by connoisseurs. Meerschaum pipes, unlike briar pipes, did not impart any of their own flavors to the tobacco.

Tobacco pipe carved with the head of a young woman, Europe, 1810. Author: Wellcome Images. CC BY 4.0

The mineral keeps its white color only if the pipe isn’t being used. Meerschaum is a very absorbent mineral that soaks up elements of the tobacco, causing it to change color once used. The bowl of the pipe gradually becomes golden brown. Pipes with this color instead of the natural white are highly appreciated by collectors. The color can also be achieved if the pipe is polished with beeswax.

Antique carved meerschaum tobacco pipe in original case; measures approximately 4 inches across. Author: Joe Haupt. CC BY 2.0

In the 1970s, Turkey banned the export of meerschaum blocks in an attempt to develop their own local meerschaum industry. This led to the appearance of new pipe carvers in the country, but a drastic decline in the number of manufacturers across Europe. Contemporary pipes are still carved, although they are not as elaborate as they once were.