An 1894 American book described a material, indeed an object still dear to smokers today, in the following terms: “Soft and light as a fleeting dream, creamy, delicate and sweet as the complexion of young maidenhood." A pipe to be admired, handled with care, and rediscovered each time it is taken out of its own case. It is a pipe capable of arousing an array of clear-cut sensations, a tidal wave of emotions.
It is known as “sea-foam”. But is it really foam? In fact, its porous nature recalls the froth that forms when waves break on the shore. So, could this be used in a solid form for a different, unique smoke? Not really. Neither does it have the consistency of foam, for were the pipe to be thrown into the sea, it would eventually sink. It is likely that the origin of the name can be traced back to a Turkish word then translated into German – “meerschaum”, then into English and other European languages – “sea-foam”, “écume de mer”, “schiuma di mare”. Finally, it was thanks to the fruit of imagination, a touch of magic and something exotic, and shrewd marketing ploys (in pre-marketing days) that consolidated this unusual combination of substance and name.
It was a mineralogist in 1847, Ernst Friedrich Glocker, who coined the word “sepiolite”, as the mineral was vaguely similar to cuttlefish bone in appearance, but there is no connection, nor indeed is there any connection to the thousands of shells deposited in remote times at the bottom of the sea. The sea-foam is simply a mineral, the result of complex physical transformations that occurred long ago. To be more precise, sea-foam is a hydrous magnesium silicate, similar to soapstone or the reddish “pipestone” from which the Native Americans have been carving their pipes until today. It can be found in different parts of the world, but the most prized form that is more closely connected to the history of pipe-making is located in Anatolia, near the Turkish city of Eskisehir. The clumps of sepiolite are found in underground deposits at a high altitude and are extracted by creating horizontal shafts at the bottom of a series of pits. The irregular-shaped blocks of sepiolite are no bigger than a fist, except for some cases when they can reach thirty centimetres in diameter. Their colour may range from white, yellowish to grey or reddish, and their texture and quality also varies. From these blocks the best pieces are chosen and cleaned of impurities, trimmed of their outer crusts and prepared for their final transformation into special objects.
The object we have in hand is a pipe, made of sea-foam. The first thing we notice is its lightness, due to its porous texture. Its colour is light, when the pipe is brand new, but as it is smoked the colour changes. The smoke is dry, as the porous material absorbs moisture. The taste is especially pure, free from any interference because the substance is incombustible, much more so than briar. As for its aspect, many modern pipes have a linear design, but the material is easy to carve into elaborate designs and high relief. For all these reasons a Meerschaum pipe is often owned by a smoker, thus keeping alive a tradition that migrated from East to West, cultivated for over three hundred years by generations of enthusiasts.
In Anatolia two thousand years ago there was no tobacco or pipes, yet sea-foam blocks were already being mined, being easy to transform into necklaces and small objects. Pipes appeared later in the fifteenth century when tobacco arrived in the West on trading vessels. It was in that period that in the Ottoman Empire, alongside water pipes appeared a smoking device called chibouk: a clay bowl, a mouthpiece in amber and in the middle a long stem in wood. At a certain point someone must have tried to make bowls out of sea-foam and thus discovered how malleable and light the material was, perfect for pipes. From Anatolia Meerschaum pipes quickly spread to the Balkans, and from there on select Greek and Jewish trading vessels to far flung posts in an Empire that stretched to Austria and surrounding countries. Not only were the pipes transported on merchant ships, but also during battles, as in 1683 when amongst the things left behind on the battlefield when the Turks retreated after the siege of Vienna were Meerschaum pipes. In the late seventeenth century the pipes were already used in quite a few European countries, although almost exclusively by the upper classes, who were curious to try a new, surprising experience.
Bowls carved in the shape of Turkish heads, with simple high relief decorations reached Vienna, Budapest and some areas in Germany. After being finished off they were sold to buyers who were delighted with their smoking qualities and exotic aspects. However, the craftsmen were not satisfied, as they wanted to exploit the material to the full, and so imported the raw sea-foam directly. Thus, they were able to offer objects that were far more complex that suited local tastes. It is a difficult process to try to piece together the various phases of expansion, but we do know that by the mid-eighteenth century Anatolia was supplying the raw material and in the Austro-Hungarian and German regions the individual craftsmen had been replaced by small workshops.
Thus, a new type of material had reached areas that were already familiar with pipes. In Central Europe, so close to the Orient, classic pipes made out of single blocks of white clay or other earthenware materials were in use. While porcelain bowls started to circulate successfully, wooden versions were also very much appreciated. Like the chibouk, wooden and porcelain pipes were long-stemmed, but there were some differences. While the chibouk stem was relatively straight, the Central European models featured a mouthpiece that was almost horizontal or slightly inclined, which was then connected to a stem that inclined sharply downwards to the insertion of the bowl. These pipes, which seen in profile recall the shape of a saxophone, are typical of the whole Austro-Hungarian and German area and developed into a wide variety of styles connected to local use and production. The new material adapted to the shapes of the pipes, made to suit smokers’ tastes and displaying the craftsman’s expertise, but at the same time the nature of the material, which facilitated decoration and artistic expression, in turn influenced the product’s aspect.
The introduction of these pipes was long and gradual. This was because producers had to overcome the diffidence and habits of smokers. However, whoever tried these pipes for the first time was soon won over by these light-weight pipes with a cool, dry smoke, and by their extraordinary variety of finely carved decorations and colour that the wax-treated surface acquired over time. The craftsmen and factories from Budapest, Vienna, Ruhla, Lemgo and other centers of production began to make themselves visible at trade fairs. Moreover, imported raw material, production and demand steadily rose each year, despite the fact that these were luxury items, and from 1830 increased sharply, reaching a boom in sales twenty years later. Finally, Meerschaum pipes were fully established following their successful reception at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851.
In the 1820s following the defeat of Napoleon the Austro-Hungarian capital was flourishing and in aristocratic circles aesthetically pleasing luxury objects were sought after. It was a rare moment for Meerschaum pipes, the best samples of sea-foam being transformed into exceptionally fine pipes by the best craftsmen. Intricately carved low-relief heads or figures were manufactured, such as beautiful women, famous characters, and various scenes. After being treated with bees wax they were mounted with silver lids, and the mouthpiece was carved out of the most precious amber. These became authentic cult objects, designed for a discerning clientele, which included buyers outside aristocratic circles. Indeed, they were exported everywhere, and potential buyers came to Vienna solely for the purchase of these marvelous items. It is said that the visual arts at that time were not thriving in Vienna, and that the most remunerative work for a sculptor was to be found in carving Meerschaum pipes. It is true that many names that would eventually become famous in the art world were established through the carving of this soft, porous mass. It is undoubtedly true that between 1820 and 1850 the pipes that left the best workshops in Vienna were the finest examples of Meerschaum pipes. They were objects to be smoked, but more often than not were proudly displayed in cabinets, or else collected or given away as precious gifts. The Viennese manufacturers also produced other Meerschaum pipes, which were just as fine but intended for prosperous smokers. For those less well-off there were imitations.
It is said that these imitations were produced in the workshops in Ruhla, which was a German centre dedicated to a more industrial output than Vienna. Simply put, sea-foam shavings and leftovers were ground up and bound together with glue and other ingredients. Then the final mass was pressed into moulds. The result was a substance that looked just like real meerschaum, and was almost impossible to distinguish once it was carved. However, the problems began when these items were smoked, as they were not nearly as porous as real Meerschaum pipes, but heavier and the smoke was less dry. The gradual colour change was not impressive either. Yet, these pipes made of “paste” were hugely popular thanks to their low cost and those who produced these types of pipes succeeded in earning more money than the producers of authentic Meerschaum pipes. The paradoxical nature of this business is that the pipes were often called “Viennese pipes”.
Contemporary documents record that in 1850 around eight hundred boxes of raw meerschaum were sold. By 1870 over ten thousand were being sold, at the same price. The pipes were on everyone’s – and between everyone’s – lips. Not only the well-off, but also wider sections of the population wished to own and display this object. However, this resulted in a drop in the quality of the pipes, at least in some of the models that were produced.
The product’s expansion was also geographical, as it spread west to Great Britain and then on to the USA, thus innovative shapes were experimented on the basis of the preference and tastes of the new places of manufacture and retailing. For example, the type of “saxophone”-shaped pipe lost ground in favour of objects inspired by the new briarwood models. No longer a magnificent bowl fitted onto a stem and mouthpiece, but pipes that were conceived of as a whole right from the beginning. Unfortunately, Vienna started losing ground in production (it would pick up again at the end of the century with the manufacture of carved cigar holders) and Paris was soon famous for its finely crafted pipes. However, the demand for Meerschaum was soon to decrease.
A crisis occurred in the early 1900s, due to a combination of factors: the volume of raw material decreased, prices doubled in a few years, leading to hoarding, numerous manufacturers experienced a downturn and the WWI further contributed to the plummeting of production. Other factors that brought about the decline of these types of pipes were the rapid spread of briar, the confusion between authentic and imitation meerschaum, the rise of the popularity of cigars and cigarettes, and in general the collective change of habits and needs linked to the aftermath of the Great War. Few were left to uphold the tradition, and even they had problems in 1961 when the Turkish government decided to export only finished pipes and no longer the raw material. Thus, some searched for the material elsewhere (but the quality was inferior) and others sought out the local producers that Turkey had decided to privilege. Although in vastly reduced form, the glorious meerschaum tradition survived, to the advantage of those who refuse to give up this unrivalled kind of sensation.
Yet, the “maiden” or “white goddess” requires care in return for her favours. Of course, here we are dealing with authentic Meerschaum pipes, not imitations deriving from scraps. It is quite difficult to distinguish between the real and the false because lately a method has been found to produce blocks of porous, light “paste”, and the only way to ascertain authenticity is to take the pipe to an expert.
Meerschaum pipes need to be handled with care, but without exaggerating. Besides, the modern smoker is more interested in the quality of the smoke than the perfection of the pipe’s colour, although this is certainly one of its qualities. Bear in mind that Meerschaum is intrinsically fragile, and so, for example, it should not be placed on a cold surface immediately after being smoked. The cleaning instruments should be handled delicately, so as not to risk “digging” into the material. The pipe should be held with clean hands, so as not to leave any stains, but it is not necessary to wear gloves as some smokers do. Be careful not to ruin the wax surface when the pipe is hot, and wait until the pipe has thoroughly cooled down before putting it back into its case.
It is well-known that meerschaum, being a neutral substance, does not interfere with the taste of the tobacco, so that our favourite blend may fully enjoyed. Indeed, those who create new blends as a profession use only these kinds of pipes. However, the material is porous and absorbs the tobacco moisture while the pipe is being smoked. This is the reason why the wax-treated surface gradually changes colour. This means that if another type of tobacco is used, its taste will partially blend with the taste of the previous type of tobacco. The professional creators of tobacco blends have solved this problem by using a new pipe each time they change tobacco. For normal smokers who wish to smoke without having to change pipes, the solution is to keep to the same tobacco for that pipe. A good excuse to build up a fine Meerschaum collection.
The pipes shown in this article are part of the Al Pascià collection