Meerschaum tobacco pipes are exquisitely carved examples of the pipe maker's art and are highly valuable and collectable. When new, a meerschaum will be creamy white or bone coloured. As the pipe is used, it acts as a natural filter for nicotine, and changes colour from yellow to amber to a deep leathery brown. Meerschaums were carved with elaborate scenes, faces, figures, animals and natural motifs. They were collected and prized by the wealthiest Europeans. The popularity of cigarettes after World War I brought about the demise of the European meerschaum industry.
Meerschaum is a rare mineral found mainly in Eskisehir, Turkey, although there are some small deposits in Greece, France and Spain. Deposits of this soft, porous material also have been found in Pennsylvania, Utah and South Carolina. It is universally accepted among experts that the purest quality meerschaum comes from Turkey. During the 18th and 19th centuries, at the height of its popularity, the centre of meerschaum pipe production was Vienna, Austria.
The meerschaum pipe-making art began in the late 1600s, although the exact date is unknown. There are many stories about where and when the first meerschaum pipe was made, and everyone from a Hungarian count to the king of Poland to a French artist is given credit, but no one knows the exact origins with certainty. In the 1970s, the Turkish government banned the export of raw meerschaum to stimulate this local industry. Today, all meerschaum pipes are made in Turkey.
Vintage and antique meerschaum pipes range in size from small-bowl smoking pipes to massive, ornate pipes that were intended for prominent display. These display pipes, often carved with allegorical images or figural representations of myths and Bible stories, could sometimes be several feet in length.
The longer a pipe has been smoked and the more colour the mineral has acquired the greater its value. Many old and elaborately carved pipes are in museum collections all over the world. If you think that you have an old and valuable specimen, you should speak with an antiques appraiser who specialises in pipes and smoking accessories. Antique pipes often can be found in the £65 to £260 range, however, the more ornate the pipe the more you can expect to pay. Large display pipes or pipes with good, rich colour can fetch several thousand dollars at auction.
Meerschaum pipes must be handled with care, as the material is soft and can easily be chipped or broken. If you plan to use your pipe for smoking, you must clean it regularly to maintain the smooth, rich quality that makes these pipes so highly sought. Clean the bowl and stem regularly with pipe cleaners to eliminate any build-up of ash or dottle (unburned tobacco). Especially when your pipe is new, make sure that your hands are clean when using it. The meerschaum is coated with beeswax to aid in the colouring process, and any dirt on your hands will transfer to the surface of the pipe. A reputable tobacconist who deals in pipes can give you detailed instruction on how to clean and maintain your pipe for years of enjoyment.
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