Meerschaum, also known as curlstone, is a unique mineral mined in the Anatolian province of Eskişehir. Local artisans hand carve the stone into collectibles, most notably tobacco pipes, world renowned for quality and taste.
By Mergim Özdamar
Stones have been an important tool in developing civilizations, whether it be striking stones together to create fire or using stone carvings to pass history and culture down to later generations.
Anatolia is no exception. Home to a unique history and diverse cultures, ancient Anatolian geography is well known for its natural resources, one of which is the unique mineral called meerschaum, mined from Eskişehir in central Anatolia. Unlike other cultural heritages such as İznik tiles, Turkish delight, or Turkish carpets, meerschaum remains rather unknown, even among Turks.
Meerschaum, the name of which is derived from the German word for sea foam, is known as lületaşı in Turkish, translated literally to “curlstone.” While Eastern Europe leads in the production of meerschaum, Turkey sources around 70% of the world’s raw precious sepiolite stone. Today, the mineral is not allowed to be traded in its rawest form outside Turkey, which has prompted many generations of carvers to be based locally.
The very first reference to the mineral dates back to 1173 when an Arab traveller Al-Harabi visited Eskişehir, mentioning meerschaum in his travel book. Even so, it was not until Turfan Texts were translated into Uighur Turkish from Sanskrit during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Turfan, a city on the Silk Road in China, that we learned how or for what purpose meerschaum was used. The texts revealed information that formulas for medicines were prepared on thinly ground meerschaum.
Flash forward to modern-day Turkey, one can say meerschaum has become a local handicraft of Eskişehir. Known as “white gold” by the locals, when meerschaum is mined it is wet and soft, similar to clay, making it easier to carve. The soft structure enables artisans to create pipes, jewellery, and various other ornaments.
The use of meerschaum
According to Fehmi Yavuz, a meerschaum expert based in Eskişehir, the mineral can be used for many purposes. “Meerschaum is used for pipes, mouthpieces, jewellery, pins, saxophones, hookahs, rosaries, stain removal, electric machines, and motor vehicles,” he told The Guide Istanbul.
Meerschaum is most widely known for its use in pipe making, where specialists carve and polish the stone to create intricate and collectable tobacco pipes. It is also considered one of the best materials for pipe creation and is widely sought after by smokers who say the materials adds flavor to the tobacco and by collectors who appreciate the beauty and stories behind the carvings.
“These pipes are like natural filters,” Yavuz explained, “Very light, and their porous nature gives you the smoothest and truest taste of the tobacco.”
Meerschaum has special features that differ from traditional wood pipes used in Europe, said Yavuz. “Meerschaum pipes give you a cooler and more dry smoke, which results in a more flavourful aroma,” he explained. “The material absorbs moisture much better than wood and thus makes the smoke smoother.”
Unlike wood, meerschaum pipes change color over time and regular use, becoming yellow or golden, which many collectors find to be beautiful, Yavuz continued.
Not only do meerschaum pipes enhance the smoking experience, but their designs are among the rarest and most striking. Each piece is the embodiment of centuries of history and culture. “Each carver will have special designs with different meanings behind each. There are different shapes, as well as carvings of faces, objects, and abstract patterns.” The pieces are hand carved, allowing clients to request designs and meanings.
Meerschaum pipes, while relatively unknown, are an important part of Turkey’s cultural and artistic offerings. The hand-carved pieces tell a story and and allow both collectors and smokers alike a new way to appreciate history.
Where to get it
Head to Eskişehir for the largest selection of high-quality goods. Atlıhan Bazaar in Eskişehir’s historic district of Odunpazarı offers fine pieces, as well as Odunpazarı’s Handicraft Center in the Kurşunlu Complex, the Çukur Bazaar in Eskişehir’s city center, and the Tradesmen Palace on İki Eylül Street. The finest ornaments and antiques are also on display inside the Eskişehir Meerschaum Museum of Odunpazarı.