Thursday, August 8, 2013

From SeaFoam To Art

The object at the top of this post is only two inches long, but despite its small size, it has nicely sculpted features. My paternal grandfather gave it to me when I was young, and so I have treasured it for at least fifty years.

What the picture above shows is a detail from a cigarette holder made from the material known as Meerschaum. Both, cigarette holders and pipes were carved from meerschaum.

Meerschaum is a substance composed of hydrous magnesium silicate; it is a mineral of the soapstone family. The substance has been known, down through the decades since the 1650s, variously as seafoam, sepiolite, White Goddess, and Venus of the Sea.

At one time it was thought that meerschaum consisted of petrified sea foam, hence the one name given to it because the word meerschaum is a German word meaning simply 'sea foam'. It was given that name because it was found to be floating on the Black Sea, pieces of it having been freed from the sea bottom to rise to the top because of its porosity.

Although it has been claimed that the name was assigned to the material as early as 1475, the first pipe to have been carved out of meerschaum is claimed to have been one made in the year 1652 by the French artist Louis Pierre Puget.
Another claim has been made by a Hungarian nobleman, Count Andrassy, who received a piece of meerschaum in the year 1723 from the sultan of Turkey, and who gave it to a cobbler at Pesth who carved pipes out of wood. What is known is that by the 1750s there was a great demand for the material and for pipes carved from it. Objects, such as pipes and cigarette holders made from meerschaum were expensive, and therefore a commodity purchased or commissioned by only the rich. Very often meerschaum pipes and cigarette holders were not purchased to be used for smoking, but rather simply for the sake of the artistic carving.

The meerschaum material was very well suited to being carved in fine detail. That made it possible for this tiny man to be so nicely carved.The fact that the mouthpiece is broken off never bothered me because I never intended to use it, anyways. I always considered it more of an artwork than a smoking tool.

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