If you’ve ever seen a torcedor roll a cigar, you will certainly appreciate the exacting artistry of Ismail Celebi (pronounced Selabe, accent on the first syllable). This young man from Turkey was at the pipe show in St. Charles, Illinois all weekend carving some of the most intricate heads, shapes, and abstract forms in meerschaum that you just had to witness to appreciate his skill level.
Ismail, who has been carving for most of his life, would take a block of the meerschaum, the mineral, hydrous magnesium silicate, often called sepiolite, which occurs in white, claylike masses, and turn it into an heirloom that will, if taken care of properly, last for generations.
“The first recorded use of meerschaum for making pipes was around 1723 and quickly became prized as the perfect material for providing a cool, dry, flavorful smoke. (It is) the porous nature of meerschaum (that) draws moisture and tobacco tar into the stone. Meerschaum became a premium substitute for the clay pipes of the day and remains prized to this day, though since the mid-1800s briar pipes have become the most common pipes for smoking.” (Wiki)
As pictures speak a thousand words, it was more than fascinating to watch Ismail take what looks like a chunk of chalk, and turn it into a masterpiece. And he can accomplish this in just a few hours. Of course, more intricate shapes, portraits, and figures will take much longer, but as he deftly works with just three tools and forms the likes of a pirate, a rose, a golf ball, lace, and even a few risqué figurines to spice up anyone’s collection, you still are amazed as to how he does it.
Briefly, the mineral is soaked in water until saturated, and then taken out of the water and is ready to carve. There are no dots to follow, or fine pencil lines drawn on the block. The shapes and forms he carves are embedded in his head and then channeled into his hands as he studies the raw shape in front of him and decides what would be the best for a particular piece.
Then after the final piece is where Ismail wants it to be, he will dry it. In Turkey, it takes about an hour in the sun. Then he goes over it with fine sandpaper and the final touch is beeswax which is applied when fully dried and polished to a mirror-like finish. This glossy look is not affected when the pipe is smoked.
This is not going to be a tutorial on the art of carving meerschaum, but if you have the chance to see a collection of meerschaum pipes, take the time to appreciate the work that goes into one of these pipes and perhaps you will look upon the glistening white pipe as one would a well-made cigar – with awe, respect and inspiration.