A Meerschaum pipe is a smoking pipe made from the mineral sepiolite. Meerschaum (i// MEER-shawm or // MEER-shəm, German for foam of the sea) is sometimes found floating on the Black Sea and rather suggestive of sea-foam, hence the German origin of the name as well as the French name for the same substance, écume de mer.
The first recorded use of meerschaum for making pipes was around 1723 and quickly became prized as the perfect material for providing a cool, dry, flavorful smoke. The porous nature of meerschaum draws moisture and tobacco tar into the stone. Meerschaum became a premium substitute for the clay pipes of the day and remains prized to this day, though since the mid-1800s briar pipes have become the most common pipes for smoking.
The use of briar wood beginning in the early 1820s greatly reduced demand for clay pipes and to a lesser degree meerschaum pipes. The qualities of the meerschaum were combined with those of the briar wood pipes by lining a briar pipe with a meerschaum bowl. Some believe the meerschaum lined briar pipe gives the porosity and sweet smoking qualities of meerschaum along with the heat-absorbing qualities and durability of briar.
When smoked, meerschaum pipes gradually change color, and old meerschaums will turn incremental shades of yellow, orange, red, and amber from the base on up. When prepared for use as a pipe, the natural nodules are first scraped to remove the red earthy matrix, then dried, again scraped and polished with wax. The crudely shaped masses thus prepared are turned and carved, smoothed with glass-paper, heated in wax or stearine, and finally polished with bone-ash, etc.
Carved Turkish meerschaum products traditionally were made in manufacturing centers such as Vienna. Since the 1970s, though, Turkey has banned the exportation of meerschaum nodules, trying to set up a local meerschaum industry. The once famous manufacturers have therefore disappeared and European pipe producers turned to others sources for their pipes.
Another variation of the meerschaum pipe is the calabash pipe made iconic by William Gillette's stage portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. The calabash is a gourd similar to a squash, grown specifically for use in pipes. The shape is determined as the gourd grows by placing small blocks under the stem, forcing it into a gentle curve. The mature gourd is cut and dried, then fitted with a cork gasket to receive a meerschaum bowl. The finished pipe offers one of the coolest, driest smokes available.
In Somalia and Djibouti, meerschaum is used to make the dabqaad, a traditional incense burner. The mineral is mined in the district of El Buur, the latter of which serves as a center for quarrying. El Buur is also the place of origin of the local pipe-making industry.
Imitations are made in plaster of Paris and other preparations.
The soft, white, earthy mineral from Långbanshyttan, in Värmland, Sweden, known as aphrodite (Greek: sea foam), is closely related to meerschaum. It is a synonym for the smectite clay: stevensite.
- Referenced in Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Purloined Letter" and in Jan Neruda's short story "How Mr. Vorel Broke in His Meerschaum".
- The character of Hamm in Samuel Beckett's one-act play Endgame talks about calmly filling his meerschaum.
- An intricate meerschaum pipe is a major plot device in the film National Treasure.