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What is meerschaum?

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A fine light white clayey mineral that is a hydrous magnesium silicate found chiefly in Asia Minor and is used especially for tobacco pipes.

Meerschaum is a wonderful stone found only in the Eskisehir region of Turkey. Turkey has been exporting meerschaum for more than 300 years. Meerschaum , also called “white gold”, is finely honey-combed in appearance, very light in weight and somehow soft to the touch. It is usually white or, in tones of ivory.

Its soft texture allows for detailed carving. At the same time, the stone becomes very hard and durable after carving and drying. Due to these properties, meerschaum is a raw material very suitable for carving tobacco pipes and is also used for various industrial purposes.

There is a tragic tale about the discovery of meerschaum which involves a young man who sets off one hot summer day for a picnic in the mountains around Eskisehir. Sitting there in the sun and enjoying his picnic, the young man suddenly noted a mole which appeared to be playing with a small white ball. The young man got hold of this small ball to see what it was. He cut the ball open with his knife only to discover this was something that he had never seen before. Something in fact, that no one else had seen before either. Suddenly he heard a young girl’s voice which appeared to come from the soft white stone in his hand. Looking around, he saw a beautiful young maiden who vanished even while he was looking at her. He searched for her everywhere but could not find her. In his frantic search he himself fell into a deep hole in the ground and disappeared. A few days later people from the village who were looking for him found the hole in the ground. Down they went in search of the young man. They found him dead at the bottom of the hole in the ground. All around him they found more of the fabulous meerschaum stones.

In fact, there are few real details about the history of meerschaum. Historical records indicate that the stone was first found in 1650-1700 by a Hungarian traveller. When tobacco began to be widely used, meerschaum began to be mined and carved.

Turkish entrepreneurs participated in various fairs held in Europe in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Exhibiting fine articles made of meerschaum, they contributed to the promotion of the mineral abroad. Eskisehir and its environments become a centre for meerschaum miners and carvers, and the way from Europe to Eskisehir was known as the “Meerschaum Road”.

Mines for extracting meerschaum are called “Meerschaum quarries”. There are a number of such quarries situated 20 to 50 kilometers from Eskisehir. Sepetci, Kozlubel, Sogutcuk, Basoren and Sarisu are the biggest meerschaum mines presently being worked.

Meerschaum is not found in veins under the ground, but rather comes in pieces or segments. Pieces of meerschaum may weigh from 200 gr to 5-6 kg.

There are two basic methods used in meerschaum extraction: the spinning-wheel method, and the skip method.

In the spinning wheel method, meerschaum is extracted by hand using basic digging equipment. Shafts and tunnels are generally only 1.5 meters wide. In the skip method, mechanized equipment is used to enlarge the tunnel.

Meerschaum pieces vary according to their quality. This soft stone is both absorbant and easily worked and carved into intricate designs.

Meerschaum is most widely used in carving tobacco pipe bowls and stems. It has been used for aproximately 300 years in the manufacture of some of the most expensive pipes in the world, There are various kinds of tobacco pipes carved from meerschaum: some are plain, others are carved to form various figures; and there are still others with long stems that can reach up to 70 cm. Cigarette-holders made of meerschaum are as valuable as pipes from an aesthetic point of view.

As an absorbent, meerschaum is also used for producing filters, insulation and industrial filling materials. Meerschaum has become an indispensable auxiliary material in industry parallel with the progress made in technology.

Meerschaum products are mainly exported to foreign countries, including the US, Britain, Germany, France, Austria and Belgium. Meerschaum exports are controlled by the Chambers of Meerschaum Commerce...