Often in the process of writing a story, I find myself distracted (that’s an understatement), with research. In one story a character needed a pipe so I stuck a meerschaum in his hand and then I thought…what exactly is a meerschaum? Do I know? For sure?
Something I love about writing is all the learning that is produced. It’s like a byproduct of some manufacturing process, sludgy and polluting until I get it out of my system, broken down and biodegraded. That’s where you fine people come in…you’re part of the digestion.
How’s that for being indispensable?
Meerschaum pipes are gorgeous. While I enjoy the scent of pipe tobacco and find being confined in a small space with a pipe-smoking gentleman a tad overwhelming, should you find yourself in need of inspiration, seek out a tobacconist. These shops are found in most major metropolitan areas and have proven (in my opinion) to be a rich source of atmosphere and smoke.
When I was growing up, my dad had a meerschaum pipe. I don’t recall that he ever smoked it, but it looked a lot like the one in this picture and was exotic to me. In my mind, this was what a fancy ivory pipe looked like, but it turns out that meerschaum is a type of mineral. Huh. Who knew?
In the words of these experts:
Meerschaum is a very rare mineral, a kind of hard white clay. Light and porous structure of the pipe keeps the smoke cool and soft. The pipe itself is a natural filter which absorbs the nicotine. Because of this peculiarity, meerschaum pipes slowly change their colors to different tones of gold and dark brown. This adds an esthetic enjoyment to its great smoking pleasure. The longer a pipe is smoked the more valuable it becomes due to the color change. Today many old and rare meerschaums have found a permanent place in museums and private collections.
Now that’s some interesting detail to layer into a story!
These pipes have always been carved by hand and some date back over 300 years. Because of their small size and personal nature, many pipes became heirlooms, passed down through generations of owners, tucked away carefully in a drawer or displayed on a mantle. The sheer variety and numbers of antique pipes is mind-boggling.
If you visit sites like Antique Meerschaum Pipes and Collectors Weekly, you’ll get an inkling of the vast spectrum still out there. If for some reason that doesn’t impress you…check out the Antique Pipe Company – click the browse link and grab a tissue to stem the drool.
Many of the more elaborate pieces were intended to showcase, rather than to be used for daily smoking. Some were probably intentionally ostentatious to display the owner’s wealth and/or social status. Literally tens of thousands of meerschaum pipes shuffle through the antiques market on a regular basis – and more are being added to the ranks annually.
Called the Venus of the Sea, the White Goddess and White Gold, meerschaum is the aristocratic favorite of pipe smokers everywhere. There’s a lovely myth surrounding the idea that the material is hardened sea-foam, made from the whitecaps of waves, like the goddess Aphrodite.
How can you not like that?
The mineral is also called sepiolite (a.k.a. hydrous magnesium silicate), and has been found actually floating on the Black Sea. Floating! This might well have convinced me it was related to sea-foam and I’d totally have considered it a gift from the gods. Mine…my precious.
Meerschaums are available in simpler forms but I’m drawn to the complex carvings and the amazing detail. The finest mineral comes from Turkey and has long been considered the premiere material by pipe artisans everywhere.
Makers infuse each pipe with individual characteristics that convey personality and charisma. Some are worthy of display like any work of art. Here is a wonderful link showing information about the actual mining of meerschaum in Eskisehir.
If you’d like to learn more there are numerous publications on the art of pipe making. Several that I found particularly fascinating were the Complete Guide to Collecting Antique Pipes and Collecting Antique Meerschaum Pipes, as well as the Book of Pipes and Tobacco.
An image search for meerschaum pipes on Bing produces some amazing results, many of which link to wonderful articles and smokeshops with knowledgeable sales and collecting information. In case you’re thinking about it…
A special form-fitting case is created to hold each pipe. This helps to protect the intricate carving, as well as provide a clean storage location. They can be displayed for appreciation and special stands can easily be obtained for presentation, but they are meant to be smoked.
I know smoking is unwise, unhealthy, and isn’t politically correct these days…but I still like the beauty found in meerschaum pipes. The act of putting one in a character’s hand alters the setting and the perception of the reader (I suppose this depends on their level of knowledge), and slicks another layer of depth across the page. That linkage to temporal and spatial time adds an element that I value.
We’re quick to put our literary friends in terrible situations, perhaps we could balance that with a comforting and potentially deadly love for things unhealthy? What interesting tidbits have you stumbled across in the process of research? Have you ever graced a character with an action or habit that had unexpected results?