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How your Meerschaum Pipe Came to Be

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Meerschaum smoking pipes are something few people ever give even a passing thought to yet they’re something virtually everyone is familiar with. Most notably by way of the unmistakable profile of Sherlock Holmes with his trademark calabash pipe and its meerschaum insert. Yes, meerschaum pipes are part of the cultural landscape but if you’ve just bought your first one or received one as a gift you may have a few questions about the pipe, the material and how it all comes together. We’re here to answer those questions. So sit back, light up a bowl and enjoy.

Meerschaum Mining

About Meerschaum

The word “meerschaum” is actually German and, roughly translated, means “sea” (meer) “foam” (schaum). Meerschaum is composed of the fossilized remains of microscopic sea creatures that died and came to rest on the seafloor during the Paleocene and Eocene periods as many as 50 million years ago. Over time those remains were compressed by successive layers of oceanic debris and finally pushed upward and exposed for harvesting by the unbelievable forces of plate tectonics that are so active in Asia Minor even today.

The meerschaum that you hold in your hand as well as most of the rest of the world’s meerschaum (“sepiolite” is it’s technical name) is harvested today from more than 4,000 mines spread out across the plains of Turkey. Meerschaum mining is an ancient craft and there are Turkish families that have been engaged in little else for centuries. Though the first meerschaum pipe dates back some 300 years ancient cultures in Asia Minor and the Middle East have used meerschaum for thousands of years to make incense burners.

Meerschaum Mine

Turning Sea Foam into Meerschaum Pipes

Now that you know a bit more about the material that meerschaum smoking pipes are made from let’s go through the steps involved in creating your meerschaum pipe.

  • Harvesting, washing and grading - As we already learned the meerschaum for your pipe came from mines sunk deep into the plains of Turkey. Once brought above ground it was washed thoroughly to remove centuries of dirt and grime and then graded based on its size, color, density and overall consistency. The manufacturer of your pipe then purchased the meerschaum from the mining company and had it shipped to the pipe workshop.
  • Splitting the blocks - Once the pipe maker received the meerschaum they split it into carefully determined smaller pieces from which they would carve their pipes, including yours. Splitting is always done by the most experienced artisans to ensure maximum quality. It’s possible that 3/4 of the block your pipe came from was eventually determined to be unsuitable and was discarded.
  • Carving the pipe - Once the artist chose the smaller block that would become your pipe they soaked it in water for up to half an hour to soften the material and make it more amenable to carving. Once properly softened it was then carved with patience, a steady hand and a keen eye for detail until the final form emerged.
  • Fitting the stem - Until the mid-20th century stems were commonly made of pure amber. However, because of the time, cost and hassle associated with securing enough high quality amber the switch was eventually made to amber-toned Lucite. So unless yours is a collector’s pipe it likely was fitted with a Lucite stem and then moved along for polishing and waxing.
  • Polishing and waxing - Once pieced together your meerschaum pipe was carefully polished using gentle, time-tested abrasives and then dipped in beeswax to create a lustrous finish.
  • Inspection - The last step in the production of your meerschaum pipe was the final inspection conducted by the manufacturer’s quality control experts. Not every pipe passes this final step so you can be sure that yours is a meerschaum pipe of distinction.

Meerschaum smoking pipes are one of a kind art objects with a rich history that are sure to provide you with many years or even decades of pleasurable service. They have long been one of our staple products and we have a vast array of meerschaum pipes available both through the Paykoc website and at our retail outlet on Logan Court in Denver. Stop by and have a look for yourself.


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