|Meerschaum is a German word meaning literally, sea-foam, alluding to
the belief that it was the compressed whitecaps of waves, just as it is said in mythology
for the goddess of beauty - Aphrodite. Meerschaum is a
hydrated magnesium silicate. Magnesium doesn't make it strong and the hydrogen and oxygen
don't make it cool. It is the crystalline structure; the arrangement of the magnesium,
silicon, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms in a rigid crystalline structure that makes sepiolite
(the clay mineral that is identified by pipe smokers as meerschaum) so good for smoking.
The average size of the meerschaum blocks extracted from the clay is about the size of a
Meerschaum deposits of the highest quality are found only in one place in the world - in the small city of Eskişehir in central Turkey. And here the deposits are confined to an area of only 4 square miles.
Mined with hand tools, and by men trained in this singular family tradition, meerschaum is excavated at depths ranging from 10 to 150 meters. The miners wash the raw meerschaum lumps and sort them into 5 categories according to quality. Each of these 5 categories is further divided into 12 qualities according to size, color porosity and homogeneity of the mineral. It's dark, dirty dangerous work. There are no veins where large blocks can be cut. The larger the chunk, the higher its value.
Nearly 300 years ago, the first meerschaum pipe was carved by hand. And today, these unique pipes are still carved by hand. The carver, a craftsman of unique ability and long experience, examines each piece of meerschaum, calculating the lines of cleavage along which it should be split. A good carver can make up to 4 pipes a day. More elaborated pieces can take a week.
The split block-meerschaum is soaked in water for 15-30 minutes until the material achieves a cheese-like consistency. Working with the softened material, the carver determines the rough shape of the pipe before the bowl and draft hole are bored. Like all fine hand-crafted articles, no two meerschaums are alike. The carved meerschaum goes into a kiln at high temperature, a process that removes all moisture from the mineral. The shank is threaded and fitted with a stem. After meticulous polishing with the finest grade abrasives, the meerschaum is ready for waxing. Though there are many different wax formulas, beeswax alone yields the rich coloring associated with the finest meerschaums. Melted and then bleached, the beeswax is ready to receive the pipe itself. The subtle differences in color and tone among pipes are intentional, achieved by careful dipping of the pipes a specific number of times.
Block meerschaum was exported until 1979, when someone figured out that to export the material was to export the carving jobs as well. Now it's illegal to export block meerschaum.