What Is Meerschaum?
An Entry in Uniclectica's Miscellanea Files
Meerschaum is a hydrous magnesium silicate; its technical name is sepiolite. It is found in veins or naturally occuring lumps in Turkey and neighboring countries. It has been used extensively for pipe bowls and is highly prized because it carves easily, holds wonderful detail, and, when smoked over a long period of time, takes on a glass-like surface and deep plum-red colour.
On the down side, it is very soft, chips and cracks easily, and is highly absorbent -- the oils and acids left by fingerprints can easily mar forever 40 years of careful smoking. Traditionally the stem, usually made of carved amber, is attatched to the bowl with a bone screw. It is quite usual to find an old pipe that will no longer 'screw up' as both the meerschuam and amber wear out by the repeated twisting. This does not generally affect value, provided the pipe and stem are otherwise in good condition.
Some meerschaum pipes were designed for smoking cigars (especially made for same and generally 2" - 3" long) rather than a normal bowl of tobacco. They were often favoured by women. Pipes of this type are highly collected; clean, finely carved examples sell for sizable prices. The Victoria and Albert has a large collection with several carved by eminent Victorian sculptors. As with most things, it's the quality that counts.
Because of the demand and the relative scarcity of high grade material, many pipe bowls were made from a composite of meerschaum chips & powder and thin glue. This was mixed to a slurry, cast into rough shapes, and dried. It was then carved out and sold as "Genuine Meerschaum" which, strictly speaking, it was. In many cases, with age and colouring, it is difficult to tell the difference, so it's generally the cut of the pipe that seperates the ordinary from the outstanding.
Written by, and posted with the permission of, Wm. Voss.