Twenty Years of Pipe Artistry
by Jim Lawson
Meerschaum is frequently overlooked amidst the sea of briar pipes offered to smoke shop retailers. The sheer number of traditional briar manufacturers, combined with their total briar output, accounts for much of their dominance in the market. But, certain misperceptions - often conveyed by pipe writers - have also influenced the purchasing decisions of both retailers and consumers. To understand the current meerschaum pipe scene, one must understand the origin of the pipes themselves. SMS Meerschaums, which is celebrating its 20th year in business as an importer and distributor of quality meerschaum pipes, helps with some expert insight.
The Meerschaum Mines
The world's finest block meerschaum is in the Republic of Turkey, outside of Eskisehir, a city - or "tiny village" according to one imprecise pipe book - of more than 400,000 inhabitants, located between Istanbul and Ankara. The meerschaum mines are located in a vast plain which, to this writer, resembles a bombing range. The land is pocked with mounds of upturned red earth - marking the sites of former mines. As evidence of the hard scrabble existence of impoverished nearby residents, many of the yards have been dug up in a fruitless attempt to locate meerschaum blocks or "stones" that could be sold to middlemen or directly to carvers themselves who travel to this locale.
The actual mines are located on government property; mineral rights are leased to mine operators. Few mines are operable today since most of the local youths prefer less arduous and precarious employment and have migrated to the cities. The mine we visited was located a couple hundred meters from the operators' home. Access to the mine is by means of a cast-iron bucket raised and lowered by a makeshift electric winch, linked to the house by a small-gauge electrical wire, hundreds of feet long, and lying on the ground. One simply places a foot in the bucket and a hand grips the cable; the free hand and leg are used to keep from bouncing into the sides of the more than 100-meter-deep hand-dug shaft.
A person is enveloped in utter darkness during the solo descent into the mine. After several minutes, the bucket comes to rest on the mine's floor. The miners are hacking at the walls of the mine with picks and shovels, their work illuminated by lanterns. When enough of the raw blocks are extracted, they're dispatched to the surface by the bucketful.
The blocks are taken to the house to be cleaned and trimmed into saleable form. The elderly gentleman, trimming the blocks while seated on the living room floor, says that this is the only job he has had for more than 50 years. His gnarled, arthritic hands expertly shape the blocks with a hatchet; the blocks are then tossed into a pile, to be grouped and sorted.
Samil Sermet, president of SMS and native of Eskisehir, confirmed what we were told by the Turkish carvers themselves: the most frustrating part of the business is the purchasing of the blocks from the mine owners (or middlemen). The problem lies in the fact that some of these blocks have been "creatively" shaped, meaning that the choicest blocks often have voids or flaws that have been deliberately concealed - the meerschaum at this stage is quite soft and malleable. Large blocks, needed to carve more valuable pipes, will later be found to be suitable only for inexpensive and smallish pipes, once the deception is uncovered. Nearly all Turkish carvers have faced this dilemma; they are at the mercy of the relatively few mine owners. The carvers' only solution is to cherry-pick the blocks they buy - usually at twice the price.
The Sermets note that SMS meerschaum pipes have undergone considerable improvements over the past 10-15 years. Specifically, the stems have improved - gone are the hideous (and chunky) yellow stems of years past. Higher grade pipes have handcut Lucite stems; lips and buttons are designed to be more comfortable in the smoker's mouth. Better stem fittings, introduced a couple of years ago, are now employed; the male ends of the fittings are now countersunk (tapered) to guide an inserted pipe cleaner. The air holes in these fittings are now slightly larger today as well.
Beth, company president and wife of Samil, notes that the waxing of the pipes has gotten much better in recent years. Carvers, for one, are now more generous with the wax than before. Actually two types of wax are employed during production, paraffin and unrefined beeswax. The meerschaum block is dipped in paraffin, in the early stages of carving, to stabilize the material. This is necessary since meerschaum, a claylike material of hydrous magnesium silicate, is frequently dipped in water during carving to keep it soft. If unwaxed meerschaum were left in water for an extended period, it would actually dissolve.
The nearly finished pipe is later dipped in Turkish beeswax. Most carvers bleach the beeswax - with hydrogen peroxide, not Clorox - so that it matches the whiteness of the meerschaum itself. If a new meerschaum pipe has a yellowish tint to it, chances are it has been dipped in unbleached beeswax.
Samil (pronounced Shaw-mill) states, "When we started [20 years ago], it was difficult to find meerschaum pipes with fitted cases for less than $45 retail. Today we have pipes with fitted cases that retail for $19."
Another improvement that Samil and Beth strongly emphasized was that the quality of the carvings has gotten much better over the years. Some aficionados sniff that meerschaum pipes carved by Turks are second-rate, as compared, say, to the Austrian carvings of a century ago. A number of Turkish carvers today have had formal art training - in sculpture, anatomy, and the like. The art of meerschaum pipe carving in Turkey is not that old, and Austrian meerschaum carvers did not develop their deserved reputation overnight. Since the exportation of raw Turkish block meerschaum is now prohibited by law, it falls upon native Turks to carry on the tradition of their former Austrian counterparts in this medium. Among the carvers proudly employed by SMS Meerschaums are Salim Sener, Sadik Yanik (who is continuing his now-retired father's work), brothers Mustafa & Huseyin Sekircioglu who produce many of SMS's classic shapes, and brothers Sevket & Kudret Gezer, themselves second-generation carvers.
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