Striking heads are the first thing to meet the eye when we look at these meerschaum chess pieces. Meerschaum is a special mineral that was once thought to have come from the sea. It was believed to be sea foam that, in a distant past, had spattered off the waves and become petrified.

The J.M. Glotzbach Collection contains a chess set of black and white meerschaum chess pieces. Mr Glotzbach, after whom the collection is named, often bought chess games as a souvenir on his travels. However, he bought this set from a bookstore in The Hague. Its origin is unclear and Mr Glotzbach had written down “Asia Minor?” on a photo of this game. He could have been right, since Turkey has been a true meerschaum production paradise ever since the nineteenth century.

Prehistoric mineral

Prehistoric man already used this mineral, which we call meerschaum or sea foam in Western Europe, to make statuettes. Archaeologists have found them as burial gifts. We do not know what name they gave the mineral, but meerschaum is probably an altered form of the word ‘mercan’, which means coral in Turkish. Because of its white and porous appearance it does resemble foam, which makes the acceptance of the history of sea foam and the subsequent modification of the Turkish word quite plausible.

But why does it come from a Turkish word? This would be because meerschaum is mainly found in Turkey. The mineral is quite rare and there are only a few locations in the world where it can be found. For centuries, most of the meerschaum came from the mines at Eskisehir, on the Turkish coast between Istanbul and Ankara. Mines with narrow corridors and shafts have been preserved in this region. The mineral had to be excavated dozens of metres below ground.

Pipe makers

Meerschaum pipe, haunting scene, around 1870

From Turkey, meerschaum found its way to Western Europe. In the nineteenth century, export increased exponentially in the form of pipe bowls. With the arrival of tobacco from South America and the rise of smoking from the seventeenth century onwards, people were looking for materials to put their tobacco in. Meerschaum turned out to be extremely suitable for this purpose. The porous rock absorbs moisture, which enables you to smoke the tobacco nice and dry. Also, because meerschaum is so light, it´s easy to work with.

The manipulation of meerschaum is a special craft, which is still practiced in Eskisehir. The mineral is placed in water, which it absorbs the same way a sponge does. It then becomes softer – it looks a bit like a bar of soap – and you shape it by cutting into it. When the object is cut into the right form, it is cooked with wax in an oven, in order to harden it and to make it shine.

This process was preceded by pipe turning. Meerschaum is a fragile material and the pipe makers, who were highly regarded because of their skills, handled it very carefully. On a lathe, they carefully drilled the holes of the pipe bowl and the start of the stem in the meerschaum. The pieces of mineral were not large enough to make the entire stem with, and they were also too fragile. When the pipe bowl had its final shape, the pipe cutters were able to finish decorating it.


Striking Indian head? Meerschaum chess set from the J.M. Glotzbach Collection, nr 50

The handmade pipe bowls were in great demand among the European elite. Trade centres in meerschaum pipes and workshops were soon established in Europe for processing meerschaum to local pipe fashion and for copying this scarce material. Vienna and Budapest in particular became major production centres in the nineteenth century.

There are countless ways to recreate meerschaum and one of the methods of preparation has been preserved and named: Viennese resident Johann Wagner pressed meerschaum waste grit together with oil and turpentine under high pressure, a process that turned it into ‘pâté de Wagner’ or Viennese meerschaum. This meerschaum paste could be cut and processed after drying. The finished product can hardly be distinguished from authentic meerschaum until you light up your pipe. This is because the paste is a lot less porous, which means it´s not really possible to have a dry smoke.

Imitation meerschaum became hugely popular in Vienna. In the mid-nineteenth century there were several small craft businesses with around twelve employees in the city, while 25 years later actual factories were built that employed dozens of artisans. In total, around 200 Viennese pipe makers and cutters made a ton of meerschaum pipes per year.

After the First World War there was a decline in the pipe making business. The cigarette industry was booming at the expense of the pipe and, in addition, smooth wooden pipes replaced the expensive and often showy meerschaum models. In Turkey, which banned the export of unprocessed meerschaum in 1961, people continue to extract the mineral from the mines of Eskisehir to this day. In addition to pipes, mainly small trinkets and souvenirs are made for the ever-increasing flow of tourists. Chances are that the meerschaum chess set has its origin here.

By Marjolein Overmeer