The Briar and the Meerschaum: -King and Queen of Pipes

The briar justly may be called the king of pipes. It has displaced almost every other kind of pipe from the smoker’s shelf. And rightly so, for briarwood is ideal pipe material—hard, tough and fire-resistant. Moreover, the briar pipe gives a cool, sweet, mellow smoke for many years.

Similarly, the lovely white meerschaum may be called the queen of pipes. It is delicate, beautiful, and when carefully handled yields a gentle, sweet smoke.


The meerschaum pipe made its debut in the tobacco world about 100 years before the discovery of the briar burl. Until the meer­schaum came into use, clay pipes were the average man’s smoke. According to an old story, it was pure chance that led to the utilization of meerschaum for pipe bowls. It seems that in the year 1720 there lived in Budapest, Hungary, a shoemaker named Karl Kovacs, who was also a talented carver. One day a member of Budapest society, Count Andrassy, brought Kovacs two white lumps of a strange mineral which the Count had found while traveling in the Near East. The Count wondered if the cobbler could carve some artistic design out of the material, as yet un­named. Kovacs examined the white lumps carefully, and it struck him that the light, porous mineral would be ideal for a pipe bowl.

Being a heavy smoker, the Count readily agreed to the suggestion.

Kovacs fashioned each lump into the shape of a bowl, gave one to the Count, and kept the other one for himself. After giving his bowl a trial smoke, Kovacs noticed that some parts of the white mineral had turned a golden brown. The brown spots were the prints of his fingers, which had been coated with cobbler’s wax. In a burst of inspiration, he waxed the rest of the bowl, and watched with satisfaction as the golden color spread evenly over the entire surface. Soon both Kovacs and Count Andrassy had the pleasure of smoking lovely, golden-brown meerschaum pipes.

The demand for Kovacs’s pipes quickly grew, and the shoemak­er had less and less time left for his cobbling. It was commonly said that Kovacs literally carved gold out of meerschaum with his tools. His maiden pipe, created for Count Andrassy, was awarded a place of honor in the pipe collection of the National Museum in Budapest.

For a century, from 1750 to 1850, hand-carved meerschaum pipes were too costly for the average pipe smoker. Only the wealthy could afford to purchase a block of meerschaum and engage some famous artist to carve the pipe. The pipes were fitted with pure amber stems, and were quite properly regarded as true works of art.

As meerschaum pipe carving became a profitable business, determined efforts were made to uncover new deposits of the mineral. Finally, a meerschaum pipe boom began, lasting up to the end of the Nineteenth Century. During this period, numerous Austrian factories, employing hundreds of carvers, turned out thousands upon thousands of handsomely shaped meerschaum pipes.

Although meerschaum may be found in many parts of the world, the highest grade, perhaps the only “true,” meerschaum comes from Asia Minor, and almost entirely from Turkey. Since the mineral is quite soft and easily shaped, meerschaum has been a popular carving substance in Turkey for many centuries. Beads and other art objects cut from meerschaum can be found in Turk­ish museums, an indication that the white substance has been known and employed for a long time. But the use of meerschaum for pipes had to await the discovery of tobacco and the introduc­tion of the mineral into Europe.

The term “meerschaum” is composed of two German words, meer, meaning “sea,” and schaum, meaning “foam.” The white, porous mineral is so light that when dry it will float on water. The story is that a piece of the material once actually was observed floating on the waves and, since it resembled real sea foam, was dubbed “meerschaum.”

Meerschaum also has a more scientific chemical name, hydrous magnesium silicate, with its usual formula being the rather for­midable H4Mg2Si3O10. The geologic origin of the mineral remains a mystery. One theory states that meerschaum consists at least in part of prehistoric sea shells, remnants decomposed and fused into meerschaum over millions of years.

When meerschaum deposits lie near the surface of the ground, they can be uncovered with an ordinary miner’s pick. If the de­posits are more deeply buried, they are dug from open pits and galleries about twenty-five feet in depth. In Turkey, where meer­schaum has been mined for almost a thousand years, more than 20,000 pits have already been exhausted and abandoned.

When the meerschaum “stones,” as they are called, are re­moved from the ground in their natural state, they are covered with clay of a brownish-gray color. Fortunately, such a stone is much heavier than the finished meerschaum block which eventu­ally will give birth to a pipe.

Workmen then clean the meerschaum, using special knives to remove both the clay and damaged portions. At this point the stones appear as white, uneven lumps, marked with grooves and clefts. They are rough-sanded and shaped-into blocks. The form varies with each individual block, for none of the precious mater­ial is wasted if it can possibly be saved.

Next comes one of the most important steps—the drying proc­ess. Since the mineral is normally quite damp when dug from the ground, its moisture must be removed. This is achieved by drying it in low-temperature ovens for several weeks. An inspector then examines each block for flaws or irregularities. After the inspector’s knife eliminates the weak spots, a large block may be cut into two or three smaller blocks. Each block is then sanded once more and buffed to a high polish.

The meerschaum is now ready to be graded. Experts with many years of experience classify the stones according to size, weight, color, homogeneity, texture, shape, and other qualities. There are in all five main categories of meerschaum, and twelve qualities to be checked in each group, making a grand total of sixty different grades!

These main categories bear the exotic Turkish names of Sira-mali, Birmbirlik, Pamuklu, Daneli, and Ortodokme. These cor­respond, respectively, to the Viennese classifications of Lager, Grosse Baumwolle, Kleine Baumwolle, Polierte Kasten, and Geputz.

After classification, the meerschaum blocks are shipped to all parts of the world for the next step. Meerschaum pipes are not usually carved in Turkey. More often the blocks are fashioned into pipes by Old World craftsmen. In their heyday, meerschaum pipe factories jealously guarded their trade secrets. After the meerschaum blocks were received at the factory, they were grad­ed according to quality, with the best pieces going to the most skillful carvers.

If the meerschaum had become hardened by exposure to air, it was softened by soaking it in water for half an hour. The pipe then went to a “rougher” who carved its rough outlines. A second artisan shaved off the rough edges, drilled the bowl and shank, and made any final cuts required. The pipe then was passed into the hands of a master craftsman, who carved an appropriate design.

Some carvers liked to work on the meerschaum only while it was soft. This meant soaking the pipe in water every so often to prevent it from drying out. A thorough waxing completed the job, and the pipe was ready for the market.

Today, the manufacture of meerschaum pipes remains essen­tially the same as a hundred years ago. After carving, the pipes are placed in a drying room for about fifteen hours.

The pipes are then ready for the delicate job of polishing. Spe­cial substances such as dried bull-rushes (a kind of grass) are used as the polishing medium, since the soft and porous meer­schaum surface cannot stand even the finest jeweler’s abrasives. The tedious polishing process is carried out partly by machine and partly by hand, and takes several days.

To help the smoker more speedily bring out the rich yellow color found in long-smoked meerschaum pipes, the new pipes are soaked in boiling beeswax. The wax seals the porous mineral, will retain the yellow color of the tobacco juices, and gives the pipe an attractive glossy finish.

At this point, the pipe is finished, but not yet ready for the customer. A special case or box must be furnished for each pipe for its protection.

In the past, the stems of all meerschaum pipes were made of that rich golden-yellow substance, amber. Today, when an amber pipe stem costs about five dollars per inch, other materials are used. The stems still are yellow in color, however, since this tint has long been associated with meerschaum pipes.

Meerschaums, renowned for their cool, mellow smoke, remain very popular today. But the beautiful hand-carved examples have all but disappeared into the hands of collectors and museums. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully when break­ing in a meerschaum pipe. As the pipe is smoked, its color will turn slowly from pure white to rich, creamy golden-yellow; con­tinued smoking will eventually turn it to a beautiful autumn brown. At this point, the meerschaum reaches its full ripe quality and flavor. The smoker can then reap his due reward for the care required during the long breaking-in period.

Properly handled, a meerschaum will last many years and give its owner innumerable hours of enjoyable smoking. It actually improves with age, and the longer it is smoked, the sweeter and mellower it becomes. The smoker who owns a meerschaum pipe is always proud of it, and no man who does not have at least one genuine meerschaum in his possession can be called a true lover of pipes.

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