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Pipe production in Eskisehir.

Although the sculptured Meerschaum pipe is most commonly associated with Germany, the best raw meerschaum in the world is mined in Turkey. Chris Hellier examines the past and future of this traditional industry.

In the poorly lit workshop belonging to Maden Sahin, a Turk in his mid-fifties, skilled craftsmen were completing the latest order from Germany for meerschaum pipes. "We produce between 7,000-10,000 pipes a year," explained Sahin, a former schoolteacher who set up business as a pipe maker in the early 1960s.

Working from his traditional timber-framed house in the old quarter of Eskisehir, an unattractive, dusty town 220 kilometres west of Ankara, Sahin runs one of about two dozen pipe-making workshops in the area. There used to be a lot more but as demand for hand crafted pipes has dropped many have been forced to close.

An even harder task is mining the pipes' principal raw material, meerschaum. In Eskisehir's surrounding villages miners dig large chunks of the mineral from shafts 50 to 100 metres below the surface. It is the finest quality meerschaum in the world and much sought after by pipe makers abroad. Lesser quality meerschaum is mined in Tanzania, while further deposits are found in Greece, Morocco, Spain and the United States.

A porous silicate of magnesia, meerschaum is formed from the shells and bones of prehistoric sea creatures. Its name is derived from a German word meaning "sea foam", since small blocks of meerschaum were often seen floating in the Black Sea. And, since German businessmen dominated the industry during the late 18th and 19th centuries, their word for the substance became the universally accepted one.

In Eskisehir pipe making has a long, if checkered, history. Turks were probably making pipe bowls from meerschaum in the mid-1600s but the industry passed to Europe following the introduction of the mineral to craftsmen in Budapest. In the early 18th century a Hungarian diplomat to Turkey, Count Andrassy, took two blocks of meerschaum back to Hungary where he commissioned a local cobbler and skilled carver to make a pair of pipes.

Before long the special qualities of meerschaum for pipe making, including the attractive way in which its colour changes as the pipe is smoked, were recognised and more meerschaum was imported from Turkey. A significant industry subsequently developed as upper class smokers throughout Europe started to collect the pure white pipes. The majority were originally carved in Vienna, but pipe makers in Germany, France, England and Hungary also switched to this new material.

Turkey continued to supply the raw material to European workshops but produced no pipes of its own. Years later, however, overturning a centuries old tradition, Turkey suddenly banned the export of meerschaum in 1957, hoping to develop a pipe-carving industry of its own. However, in many ways Turkey had already missed the boat, since pipes made of briar dominated the industry from around 1900.

Despite the importance of briar, pipe making flourished in Eskisehir although the quality of the carving rarely reached the level of the well-established workshops of Europe. Much of today's production remains poorly crafted and is often aimed at the novelty tourist market rather than the discriminating pipe smoker.

The output of Maden Sahin's workshop is varied in both quality and design. Cheaper pipes are carved from poorer quality meerschaum, which is easy to find and comes in relatively big blocks. However, the best pipes, often destined for retail outlets in Europe, demand the best materials which pushes up both the price and labour time.

Pipes vary from the traditional to elaborate, often kitschy, designs based on Ottoman themes. Since the mid-18th century ornate pipes have been an important part of the pipe-makers' output. These were rarely meant to be smoked but rather displayed in glass cabinets in upper class drawing rooms as objets d'art. Carvers based their pipes on mythical or historical figures often portraying classical themes.

As the number of pipe smokers in Europe and America continues to decline (and few Turks have ever smoked meerschaum pipes) the future of Eskisehir's pipe-carving industry does not look bright. The municipality, however, has taken measures to retain the town's importance as a pipe-making and meerschaum-carving centre by opening a School for Meershaum Handicrafts.

Carvers such as Sahin have diversified their output, producing ornamental carvings of animals, chess pieces, and cheap meerschaum jewellery, including bracelets, necklaces and earrings. A meerschaum festival has also been launched by the local authority where artists from Turkey and abroad are invited to experiment with meerschaum as a raw material for contemporary sculpture.
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Title Annotation:Mosaic; meerschaum pipes made in Eskisehir, Turkey
Author:Hellier, Chris
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Words:759
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