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Meerschaum Pipe Carving: Another Art Fading into History

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Cardboard box sat upon cardboard box in stacks that rose up from the floor to nearly the ceiling of a meerschaum pipe workshop in Eskisehir, Turkey. They had been sitting there for what may as well have been ages, the workshop was nearly devoid of artisans, and I was informed sadly that because of the downturn in European smoking habits the future of meerschaum pipe carving in Turkey was looking pretty bleak. Thousands of masterfully crafted, hand carved, top of the line tobacco pipes were etched with the faces of sultans, molded into flowers, or were otherwise sporting complex designs that were etched into their bowls and stems. These pipes were ready to ship out to be sold, but there was nobody to ship them to — so they just sat idle in the place where they were made, almost completely taking over the floorspace of what I was told was once a busy workshop.

What is meerschaum and what is so special about pipes made from it

meerschaum pipes

Meerschaum, which is German for “sea foam,” is called luletasi, aktas, or patal in Turkish, and is known as hydrous magnesium silicate to geologists. Whatever it is referred to, it is a soft, pale white sedimentary stone. The mineral is formed by the fossilized shells of sea creatures that descended to the ocean floor millions of years ago. Shifts in the earth’s crust pushed pockets of meerschaum above sea level where humans are able to mine it. Though also collected in West Africa and a couple of other places in the world, the meerschaum from the Eskisehir region of Turkey is the only place which provides a high enough caliber of this mineral to be readily carved. “Meerschaum from Eskisehir stays stable,” a carver later told me. Thus being, the entire meerschaum pipe industry arose, and is still based, in this small city in the southwest of the Anatolian Peninsula.

First carver

I set out to investigate the history of meerschaum pipe production, the mining and fabrication process, its artistic and aesthetic elements, and the future of this homegrown Turkish artisan industry. As I walked through the streets of Eskisehir, I inquired as to where I could find meerschaum pipes and the men who carved them. I was lead to the edge of the city to the top of a hill that ended up being the global epicenter of meerschaum pipe carving.

I saw a pipe insignia over a door and peered inside through a window. There I saw a lone craftsman working a block of white stone with a chisel. I’d found what I was looking for. There was no indication that the public was welcomed at this establishment, there was no store front, but the door was let ajar, and, after giving it a quick knock, I stepped inside. I had walked into a meerschaum pipe workshop for the first time.

Meerschaum pipes

The man inside turned around quickly and welcomed me. Over a desk and a fold out table were laid dozens of half finished pipes, electric table drills, and a thin layer of white dust covered everything. I tried to explain to the craftsman that I was researching meerschaum pipe production for an American magazine, but I was unsure if my English hit its intended mark. None the less, the craftsman obliged my curiosity and began bringing out cardboard boxes that were full of the finished and polished meerschaum pipes that he had carved himself. I held up each pipe individually, admiring the mastery of the carving as well as its utilitarian purposes: these were not just fancy ornaments, but were functional tobacco pipes.

I knew then that it was a good possibility that I may have previously gazed upon this man’s handicrafts in other far flung place on planet earth. All meerschaum pipes come from Eskisehir, and they are all crafted by men like the one who was standing before me.

I then asked the old carver if I could watch him produce a pipe. He showed me his tools instead, which consisted of a press drill for making the bowl and inside of the stem, and a large array of chisels and knives of various sizes.

A short history of meerschaum pipe production

For many years various artisans and carvers tried to make use of meerschaum, and a cottage industry of trinkets, figurines, and other rather inconsequential items eventually developed. Then, as legend has it, in 1723 Count Andrassy of Hungary was presented with two raw blocks of meerschaum during a diplomatic mission to the Ottoman Court in Turkey. Perhaps not knowing what else to do with them, an artisan named Karl Kowates carved them into tobacco pipes. This is said to have been the birth of the meerschaum pipe industry, but Turks have a different rendering of their native art and claim that they had been making, smoking, and exporting this type of tobacco pipe for a hundred years before Karl Kowates laid his hands to their fine meerschaum. There is evidence to back up the Turkish argument, as it has been reported that Europeans were acquiring Eskisehir meerschaum pipes via Germany prior to the date the Hungarian was said to have made his contribution to history. Whatever is the case, Kowates did make key innovations on how meerschaum pipes are made — such as coating them with bees wax — and more than likely helped ignite the demand for these pipes in Europe that has fueled the industry in Eskisehir to this day.

Cobble of raw meerschaum

Once meerschaum tobacco pipes became fashionable in Europe, raw blocks of the soft white stone were mined in Eskisehir and shipped to Germany, where local craftsmen carved the designs and shaped them into pipes. Eventually, the Turkish government sought to protect its native craftsmen and completely banned the export of raw meerschaum. From this point on — an edict that still stands to this day — only completely fabricated meerschaum products could be exported out of the country. This gave rise to not only an industry of miners but one of craftsmen as well in Eskisehir. The meerschaum pipe producing industry grew to employ hundreds of full time employees, and was one of the region’s most vibrant industries.

Meerschaum pipe designs

The designs on meerschaum pipes evolved and changed through the years, and now include just about anything that can be imagined. Although there certainly are popular designs for these pipes — such as sultan heads, flowers, and various animals — there is no formal canonization of what can or cannot be engraved on them. Throughout the industry’s history various “culture specific” images (such as geishas for Japanese customers) have found their way onto Eskisehir pipes with the intent of matching the designs to the preferences of the various countries they are exported to. Today, animals, people, a whole range of objects, and even pornographic scenes are carved out of meerschaum and transformed into tobacco pipes. When conducting the interviews for this article in Eskisehir a master carver even offered to make my face into a pipe.

Meerschaum pipe designs

The Meerschaum Museum of Eskisehir

Eskisehir, Turkey, is known worldwide for one thing: meerschaum pipes. I went to the Eskisehir Meershaum Museum to see the finest examples of this city’s famed art. There was neither an admissions gate nor door blocking my path, so, assuming that entry was free I walked right in. There was nobody around to give a ticket or to offer assistance, which was a deflating blow to my mission of collecting information on meerschaum pipe production, but I made way to look upon the some of the finest specimens of meerschaum pipes ever made anyway.

Wade Shepard at meerschaum museum

Some of the pipes in the showcases of the museum were as long as a man’s arm, carved from multiple blocks of the pale white stone, which made for better ornamental pieces of art than actual smoking devices, while others were prime specimens of smoking pipes. All the pipes in the museum were pinnacle examples of the artistry of the carvers who lived right in the city I was standing in. Though some pipes gained admission into the museum because of their well-broken in appearances: because of the porosity of meerschaum, smoking this kind of pipe for many years turns its white color a smooth brown as the tobacco juices are absorbed into the stone. This is the end goal of any meerschaum pipe smoker, as the pipe becomes a prized capsule of time.

It was my intention at the meerschaum museum not just to look at magnificent examples of pipes, but to find a contact who could facilitate my meeting with a master carver. I did not anticipated that I would be standing at ground zero for meerschaum pipe production completely alone. Though soon enough, a lead presented itself: a couple of Turkish men entered the museum and greeted me. They seemed official, as though they were the curators. I introduced myself as a journalist who was writing a story on meerschaum pipes. Though their English was not sufficient for deep communication, when one of the men exclaimed “Washington Post?” with a laugh, and I knew that they understood. I tried to find out where I could meet with some of the carvers who produced the museum pieces, and I was simply told “200 meters that way,” as the men pointed out the direction.

Meerschaum pipes

“I heard what you said to the man,” a young Turk approached me, “I can go with you to meet the carvers.”

He was around 20 years of age, had his long hair tied back in a ponytail and a large 35 mm camera hanging from his neck. He introduced himself as Tolgahan Yurtseven, and said that he was working on a photography project for a university class. He seemed to speak English well. I had commandeered myself a translator.

“Yes,” I responded with gusto, “my name is Wade Shepard, I’m a traveling journalist who came to Eskisehir to write a story on meerschaum pipes.”

“I could help you,” the young man offered again. “Come on,” he beckoned, “I will show you where they make the pipes.”

Atlihan

Atlihan is an artisan’s market just down the hill from the meerschaum museum on the outskirts of Eskisehir. As we walked through the gates, Tolgahan and I entered into a world that was all meerschaum pipes. The shops of carvers and salesmen lined both sides of the pedestrian walk ways, and the merchant artists stood in the doorways motioning for us to enter. We walked into one such shop, which was owned and ran by a master carver by the name of Burhan Yucel.

Burhan Yucel

The shop was lined from ceiling to floor with glass cases and shelves showing off prime specimens of meerschaum pipes. Hundreds of sultan heads, flowers, animals, and a myriad other designs were shaped into tobacco pipes and hung from every facet of the room. Though of a surprisingly similar quality to those in the museum these pieces were not only for gawking at, but were for sale.

Through Tolgahan, I introduced myself and stated my purpose. Yucel, who was probably around 70 years old, quickly ducked behind a glass case and produced a copy of a Russian magazine that had previously run a feature on him.

Burhan Yucel told me that he was originally from Russia but moved to Eskisehir. He had been carving tobacco pipes for 50 years, having learned the art from his uncle, who he told me lived to be 105 years old.

“I get old and don’t work anymore,” he spoke with a laugh. He now focuses on running his retail shop instead, selling pipes rather than making them.

I then asked Yucel if he could demonstrate how a meerschaum pipe is carved. He thought out my request for a moment, then told us to wait in his shop as he went out. He soon returned with another older man, who he introduced as Mehmet Uchak.

Uchak appeared to be older than Yucel, and I followed him as he made way to the rear of the shop. He dug through a couple of cardboard boxes, and produced a block of meerschaum in one hand and a carver’s knife — which looked like a razor blade at the end of a long, thin handle — in the other. Before getting into his carving demonstration, he passed the stone over to me to feel. I exclaimed words of surprised over how soft the stone was, it was more like a stiff piece of clay than a rock.

“That’s because it was soaked in water,” Mehmet explained.

The block of meerschaum that I was holding was not the telltale pure white of the finished pipes, but was a jaundice sort of yellow. I asked Uchak why this was, and he explained that when the stone dries it changes color.

Mehmet Uchak

Mehmet Uchak has been carving meerschaum since 1954. He smile as he told me this. He explained that his father was a farmer, and he was the first in his family to become a meerschaum carver. He told the story of how he’d quit school at an early age, but was still determined to be an artist. Meerschaum pipe carving seemed to have been a perfect fit.

He told me that he’s always worked in Eskisehir, and that he even made a living for three years carving geisha faces onto pipes in a Japanese factory that was once in the city.

I asked Mehmet how long it takes to learn the art, and he explained that it usually takes around three or four years. I then asked him if he had any favorite design, and he replied that he had no preferences, but then added that he use to like doing 3D faces, but had to refrain from this type of design after receiving cataract surgery.

Mehmet then put blade to stone, and demonstrated how meerschaum is carved.

How meerschaum pipes are made

When raw meerschaum is mined from the earth, it comes out in potato shaped cobbles. A craftsman can usually make two pipes from each cobble, depending on its quality, which usually sell for 25-50 Turkish Lira (US$14-28). Mehmet explained that the ways to determine a chuck of raw meerschaum’s quality is a trade secret, and from the way he smiled slyly it was clear that he was not going to reveal it. Rather, he told me that it is just done by feel, by experience.

Meerschaum pipe carving

Most of the pipes made in Eskisehir are bound for the exports market — the shops in the city, like the one I was in, serving various tourists with an interest in pipes or those who simply want to observe one of the region’s native arts.

The carvers generally work in an assembly line system, with each doing a certain task on a pipe before passing it along to the next craftsman in line. In this way, each pipe is carved by multiple individuals, but it is the finish carver — the one who does the fine design work at the last stages of production — who gets to put his name on the finished piece. An interesting part of meerschaum pipe production is that no pipe is complete without the master carver’s signature.

The first stage of meerschaum pipe production is to soak the cobbles to make them water logged and soft enough to carve. Once this is done, these raw cobbles are broken up into workable blocks. The next stage involves carving these blocks into “pipe shaped blanks.” Then holes are bored into the bowl part of the pipe, as well as the stem with a drill. This essentially produces a pipe shaped piece of meerschaum which can then be passed on to a master carver for the finishing design work. When this is finished, the pipe is then placed in a vat of warm bees wax, which is soaked up by the porous meerschaum. The pipe is then removed and set out to dry. The final step is inserting a plastic stem and placing the pipe into a matching case.

As Memet explained all of this to me he was busy at work, shaping a pipe out of a raw cobble of meerschaum. His blade cut through the stone as though it were butter, each controlled movement of his hand removing a slab of the white rock. Meerschaum shrapnel soon covered his lap and the floor of the showroom.

Memet then passed the block of meerschaum and his blade over to me. From watching this master carver at work, it seemed as if the basic task of cutting this stone did not take much strength, but as I applied the blade to the cobble, I hit a brick wall: I could not get the blade to even dig into it, let alone cut out any pieces. I ended up just scrapping the surface of the cobble a few times, being reminded keenly of when I once unsuccessfully tried to carve sandalwood with craftsmen in Rajasthan, and soon gave up, passing the stone and the blade back to the master. Mehmet laughed, and resumed carving.

The magic of meerschaum

As Memet continued his demonstration of various carving techniques, he spoke of the other benefits of meerschaum.

“The stone is like a sponge,” he said, “it takes in everything. It can absorb the soul.”

The room was silent for a moment as the point of philosophy was allowed to resonate.

Meerschaum carving tools

Memet then continued explaining the various other attributes of meerschaum. He said that dust from mining or carving the stone does not have an adverse effect on a person’s lungs, stating that a recent survey was done of the respiratory systems of the region’s miners, and none showed any sign of their work causing any health problems. He then explained that, because of its absorbent qualities, meerschaum can be ground up into a paste and used as a stain remover.

“For example, if you have a ketchup spot, it can remove it.”

But the mineral can be used for far more than absorbing stains, as it has been used industrially to help clean up oil spills.

For the smoker, meerschaum also has special benefit. The old carver spoke bluntly that meerschaum can remove the harmful chemicals from tobacco, absorbing them into its porous cavities. “Many foreigners use meerschaum pipes because they remove the dangerous chemicals from tobacco,” Memet stated.

Another dying art

Burhan Yucel’s meerschaum pipe company once employed 100 – 150 people full time, but they now only need around 30 workers as they adjust to the drop in global demand for their product. I went to Burhan’s workshop the following day and met his son who now runs it. I saw thousands of finished pipes in dozens of cardboard boxes, but not one carver at work. I was told that rampant smoking bans in Europe were hampering their sales, and that the carvers in Eskisehir once worked from morning until night but these long hours are no longer necessary. There also use to be more mines in the region and far more people working in them, but now the work is grinding down to a slow idle.

I asked Memet if his sons are carvers, and he sort of laughed at the ridiculousness of my question, saying that his sons are lazy, are more worried about money, and really don’t have any interest in meerschaum pipes or in carving them. In the old days, Mehmet told me, nobody in the meerschaum pipe industry was worried about money. “There was always enough money coming in,” he stated. But now, they are worried, and there is not enough money in making meerschaum pipes for it to be a sought after choice for Eskeshir’s younger generations.

Memet himself no longer carves, he momentarily came out of retirement to do the demonstration for me. “Recently a friend said, ‘come in, we can start again,'” Mehmet spoke, but this was 3 or 4 years ago and this revival, apparently, did not take place.

Burhan Yucel showing article about him in a Russian magazine

It was clear that I was looking upon yet another dying art in Eskisehir. The old meerschaum carvers are retiring, some are dying, and the youth of Eskisehir do not seem to be standing in line to take their place. In this world of department stores, computerization, and corporate ladders, and the lure of the fruits of the new consumer culture in Turkey, slow and and steady arts such as hand carving meerschaum are falling into the background and may soon fade into history.

Upon concluding my interviews I shook hands with Mehmet and Burcel, and made to leave the shop. Before my departure Mehmet handed me two pieces of raw meerschaum.

“You can carve your own pipe.”

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Filed under: Art and Music, Articles, Disappearing Traditions, Turkey

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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